NOME, Alaska – Last year, the youngest musher ever to win Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race said his 25-year-old stamina gave him the advantage to get his dogs to the finish line first.
Just one year later, Dallas Seavey’s own father proved youth doesn’t always win out, using careful strategy and an all-out sprint to the finish to become the oldest winner ever of the grueling, 1,000-mile race.
“This is for all of the gentlemen of a certain age who think it ends at 50, because it doesn’t,” 53-year-old Mitch Seavey said late Tuesday after cruising across the finish line almost three hours ahead of his son.
Youthful mushers may have some physical advantages — they can do some things more easily, such as running with their dogs to give them a break, rather than just sitting on the sleds, on their way to the finish line in the old frontier town of Nome.
But dog mushing, in fact, is among the few extreme sports with such a huge age range. That’s because experience takes a long time to acquire and, more importantly, because the true super athletes in the game are the dogs — a factor Dallas Seavey is quick to acknowledge.
“The dogs can be enough,” he said last year in an Iditarod.com video. “There are certainly mushers that can win the Iditarod and have won the Iditarod and never set foot off the sled. Those are some impressive dog teams.”
Older mushers may not have the vigor of their younger counterparts, but they have more experience and more lessons learned from past mistakes, and they often are better prepared to handle things like the numbing sleep deprivation along the trail.
In the past decade, other Iditarod winners have included Jeff King, who was 50 when he won; John Baker, who was 48; and Norwegian Robert Sorlie, who was 47.
The elder Seavey, who also won in 2004, apparently had the best dog team this time. His son, now 26, ended up placing fourth, behind older competitors — 43-year-old Aliy Zirkle, who was followed by four-time champion King, now 57. Before this year’s race, King had been the oldest Iditarod champion after he won in 2006 at age 50.
Also, Dallas Seavey’s win at such a young age is in some ways unique. He grew up in the sport in a multigenerational family, unlike most mushers — not all — who come to the race later, sometimes well into middle-age.
So the experience — which older mushers say is so crucial to winning — was there along with the youthful stamina when Dallas Seavey forged ahead in the 2012 race, beating Zirkle to the finish line by one hour. Most other young mushers with stellar performances also come from a mushing background.
“Last year, you had a boy who was raised around the sport, knew dogs from the time he was old enough to sit in a sled,” race marshal Mark Nordman said Wednesday.
At the end of the trail, however, mushing doesn’t favor any age, said Baker, who won the race in 2011 and placed 21st in this year’s race.
“I guess it can still be an all-man’s sport,” he said as he walked from the finish line Wednesday to the dog lot next to the convention center.
“It does take a lot of knowledge to get everything done, so I think age isn’t going to hurt you that much.”