WHITE MOUNTAIN CHECKPOINT— Seventy-seven miles before the finish line, Dallas Seavey and his father Mitch rest their dog teams.

Dallas Seavey leads Iditarod out of White Mountain

The father-son battle between Mitch Seavey and Dallas Seavey was on again in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as dogs raced up the Bering Sea coastline and headed for the finish line in Nome.

Defending champion Dallas Seavey held a small lead Monday over his father, two-time champion Mitch Seavey, as the two arrived at the checkpoint in White Mountain, just 77 miles from the end of the trail in the world’s most famous long-distance sled dog. Brent Sass arrived third, about two hours behind the leader. Three-time runner-up Aliy Zirkle, 46, of Two Rivers, was fourth into White Mountain in what was shaping up again this year as a father-son battle between the Seaveys in the almost 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.

The Iditarod began March 5 in downtown Anchorage. Eighty-five teams began the race in one of the most competitive fields ever with four former champions competing. One of those, four-time champion Lance Mackey, scratched Monday in Galena, more than halfway through the race, citing personal health concerns. The 45-year-old Fairbanks musher has undergone cancer treatments that left him with a circulatory problem in his hands. During last year’s race, Lance’s younger brother Jason Mackey of Salcha helped him finish the race. The brothers agreed that this year Jason would not sacrifice his race if Lance again ran into difficulties. Jason, 44, was in 35th place Monday night. Twelve mushers have scratched so far.

Dallas Seavey, 29, is looking for his fourth Iditarod victory in five years. He cruised into the White Mountain checkpoint — with dogs running easily and tails wagging —at 9:48 a.m. Monday, 39 minutes ahead of his father, Mitch Seavey of Seward. His goal was to be 20 minutes ahead.

Dallas Seavey had nine dogs in his team, and that is where the Willow musher said the challenge lies in getting to Nome first. With a small team, Seavey said care needs to be taken in managing the team, especially the run/rest times to prevent the team from becoming discouraged and slowing down.

There is no room to make mistakes, he said. Dallas left the checkpoint with only seven dogs.

“If they slow down, you won’t get them to go fast again,” Seavey said. “If you want to do well you have to maintain speed.”

In 2012, Dallas Seavey became the youngest Iditarod champion ever. He said Monday that his dogs were running well and had good energy, but he was not so sure about himself.

“The dogs’ energy is good; mine not so much —tired,” he said, as he tended to his dog team, putting down straw, feeding them and massaging ointment between the pads of their feet.

The sleep-deprived musher will get an opportunity to rest. Teams are required to take an 8-hour break in White Mountain before racing to the last checkpoint at Safety 55 miles away and then to Nome.

Mitch Seavey arrived in White Mountain at 10:27 a.m. When asked if he could beat his son, Mitch said, “I just have to outrun him… It is just toe-to-toe now.”

Seavey, 56, who won the race in 2004 and 2013, said his biggest concern was his young lead dogs and if they could remain mentally strong until the end of the race. He retired two of his more experienced lead dogs and said the front end of his team is “thinking it has been a long trip mentally.” 

Seavey said he does not have a “hard-headed” leader that could overtake Dallas’ team, but he said 3-year-old Pilot, who had been leading the team for hundreds of miles, was showing lots of potential.

 “He could be something,” Seavey said, casting an eye to future races.

Mitch said his chances are about 50/50 for overtaking his son and winning the race.

“Either I will or I won’t,” he said. “One of us is going to win unless something phenomenal happens, and I feel good about that.” 

After Dallas Seavey had tended to his dogs, he walked the 15 feet over to where his father’s team was resting and gave his father a hug before the two briefly discussed the race and then parted, saying they intended to get some rest. Both father and son left exactly eight hours after completing the mandatory rest requirement. Mitch Seavey arrived in White Mountain with 12 dogs but left with two fewer.

Sass, 35, of Eureka, also left on time but returned to the checkpoint, telling race officials he wanted to give his team more rest.

“There are a million different things that make them hard to beat,” Sass said, when asked about the Seaveys after arriving in White Mountain.

At this late point in the race, he would have to have a spectacular run to Nome, and something would have to go wrong with the Seaveys, in order for him to overtake either one of them, he said.

Sass said pushing his team in an effort to keep up with the Seaveys was “no easy task” and his dogs were thinking “they were done with the race.”  

Sass said his goal for this year’s race was to hold his position.

“It is all part of the learning process,” said Sass, the 2015 winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

Sass said he knew after taking a long run across Golovin Bay that he would have speed issues.

“It was kinda fun for a little while there. All three of us were in a row and I was ahead just for a little while, which was kind of fun. And then Dallas passed me and left me in the dust,” he said.

As of Tuesday, Sass was still in the White Mountain checkpoint. Iditarod blogger Sebastian Schnuelle posted on the Iditarod website that race judge Karen Ramstead woke Sass up and that he was tending to his dogs. “He ran an ambitious race, and in the end, the schedule was a bit too ambitious for his dogs. He did not voluntary return to the checkpoint, the dogs refused to leave,” Schnuelle wrote. Alluding to the fan base that considered Sass a hero for giving the dogs extra rest, Schnuelle offered his first hand account of how things really unfolded. “I am sorry to having to point this out, but it was not Brent who made that choice, is was his dogs who did,” Schnuelle wrote. “When dogs refuse to go, a mistake was made.”  Schnuelle continues to write that “It doesn’t make Brent a bad person or a bad musher, but it also does not make him a hero.”

Noah Burmeister, 36, of Nome and Nenana, was in eighth place Monday night. After arriving at the checkpoint in Elim, he said he was able to keep up with the leaders until Galena and then his race changed.

“I was running with those guys but they are running away from me now,” he said.

The Nome Nugget

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