Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

Mushers and dog teams faced different kinds of challenges in the 49th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The course was shortened and featured fewer amenities in rest areas in order to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Overnight temperatures dipped at times to minus-50 degrees. The looped route — from Deshka Landing to the village of Iditarod and back again — had mushers and teams revisiting some of the more challenging runs, among them Dalzell Gorge, which drops 1,000 feet in elevation in five miles.

And, of course, there was pressure from Dallas Seavey, the Tom Brady of the Iditarod, who returned from a three-year hiatus in pursuit of his fifth Iditarod title to tie the record.

Inupiat musher Ryan Redington and his dog team, one of two Alaska Native contingents amid the field of 36 finishers, were in control of the race for the first 352 of the race’s 868 miles and never fell out of the top 10.

“I’m nervous because it’s going well and I know there’s a lot of people who have high hopes for me as well,” Redington told Iditarod Insider on March 12 as his dogs rested in McGrath, 553 miles into the race. At this point, they were in fourth place.

“In dog racing, anything can happen,” he said. “We can continue to have a really good strong race. We kind of have to back off the throttle and have to take more rests on the trail. But we’re prepared either way and we’re going to do the best we can.”

And so they did.

Redington and his dog team finished seventh, crossing the finish line Monday in Deshka Landing at 2:46 p.m. local time. Redington, the grandson of Joe Redington Sr., the founder of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race,  is also a two-time winner of the 300-mile John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, and placed a close second in that race in January.

Musher Ryan Redington makes a short stop March 13, 2021 at Nikolai, Alaska during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The overnight temperature dipped to minus-20 degrees. (Photo courtesy of David Poyzer)

Dena’ina Athabascan musher Richie Diehl and his team finished ninth, crossing the finish line at 3:26 p.m. local time. It’s his second top-10 finish in eight Iditarods. A month earlier, on Feb. 14, he won the Kuskokwim 300, a highly regarded mid-distance race that counts many Iditarod champions among its title holders.

Akiak Native Community Chief Mike Williams, Yup’ik, applauded Redington and Diehl’s performances and their commitment to dog care. Redington dropped out of the 2016, 2018 and 2019 Iditarods out of concern for his team’s well-being, and Diehl dropped out of the 2020 Iditarod for the same reason.

“I’ve mushed in 15 Iditarods and 29 Kuskos and I know that dogs love to run,” Williams said. “They don’t like to be left behind. They get sick just like human beings, but overall the dogs are well taken care of. They have veterinary care on the trail. They are better taken care of than the average household pet.”

He added, “Ryan and Richie have been mushing quite a while. Ryan Redington is a grandson of the great Joe Redington Sr. I know the family -- our families are close. We share dogs and do a lot to make sure the dogs are well taken care of. And Richie, he comes from a wonderful family. That’s what it’s like here. We’re all like one big family.”

Iditarod veteran Charlie Schaeffer, Inupiaq, of Kotzebue, added, “When you have a passion to be a dog musher, there’s something involved in that passion. It’s called love. You take the best possible care of those animals that you can. In the racing game, versus the recreational game, you do that even more because there’s a purpose to you being in the racing game to begin with. Exceptional dog care — I can’t explain it any better than passion and love.”

Seavey’s strategy

Seavey and his team finished first, crossing the finish line at 5:08 a.m. local time  – a time of 7 days, 14 hours, 8 minutes, 57 seconds. He is one of only two mushers in Iditarod history to win the race five times. No one has won six times.

The Iditarod usually begins in Anchorage and ends in Nome, a distance of 998 miles. This year’s race, which began March 7, avoided larger population centers because of COVID-19 concerns. The race began in Deshka Landing on the Susitna River west of Willow, continued northwest to the village of Iditarod, then looped southeast on a return to Deshka Village, about 130 fewer miles than the customary route.

Seavey employed a strategy of well-timed rests and feedings – and patience. The race required mushers and teams to take an eight-hour rest sometime between mile 188 and 676; a 24-hour rest by the midway checkpoint at mile 432, and an additional eight-hour rest at mile 781, one checkpoint before the finish line. In addition to the mandatory rests, mushers and dogs take voluntary rests as needed.

Seavey took his required 24-hour rest early and used the down time to observe the performance of other teams. By the time others were taking their required 24-hour rests, Seavey and his team were maintaining speeds of 6-8 mph and building distance. That distance enabled them to take additional shorter rests farther down the trail to keep their energy up and fatigue at bay.

“He’s definitely in the driver’s seat right now,” Iditarod Insider commentator Bruce Lee said of Seavey March 12 at mile 601. “He’s got this cushion where even when they catch up, they’re going to be at a rest deficit.”

At one point, the speed of title contender Aaron Burmeister’s team slowed from 7.52 to 5.36 mph between two checkpoints late in the race when he had to take one of his dogs out of harness and carry him in his sled. That was the window for Seavey and his team, traveling at almost 6 mph, to build an insurmountable 20-minute lead.

Like Redington, Diehl and team were contenders from beginning to end, at one point in third place and never falling out of the top 10. His dogs were running well at the midway point of the race, in the village of Iditarod, so he decided to let them continue on to Ophir (mile 512), to build some distance ahead of the other teams, and then take a long rest there.

“It worked out nicely,” Diehl told Iditarod Insider. “They’re able to get a good rest in this cold weather. They’ve already eaten well. It’s hard to say how it’s going to play out. There’s so much race left. I think if they keep eating and keep their attitudes, they’ll do all right.”

Diehl’s team seemed to escape a stomach bug that was affecting other teams.

“Hanging out around these guys in the last two checkpoints and seeing how their dogs are eating compared to mine, mine definitely have more appetite and they’re a little more perky.”

About that cold weather: In the unpopulated former mining town of Ophir (mile 512), the temperature was 55 degrees below zero. It would warm up to minus-25 in McGrath (mile 553). Snow was predicted in Rainy Pass, elevation 3,524 feet in the heart of the Alaska Range.

Lee, an Iditarod veteran, talked March 12 about what subzero temperatures are like for mushers and dogs.

“It can be beautiful because it’s crystal clear,” Lee said in Nikolai, a Native village (population 125) at mile 601 into the race. “I don’t know if you can hear the sound of the crunchy snow. There’s a real beauty to this extreme cold. But the most difficult part I always found is just being constantly covered with frost around your face. Skin can’t be exposed for long periods of time and if the dog team’s traveling at 9 miles an hour, you’ve got a 9-mile-an-hour wind going into your face. Every time you go to do something, your ruff’s frosted, your neck gaiter’s frosted, your hat’s frosted.

“And, of course, safety wise, you have to keep track of your toes and fingers. That’s why you see these big musher mitts — beaver mitts, seal skin mittens. Honestly, nothing works better in this kind of cold than fur.”

Formidable field

This year’s Iditarod had the smallest field of competitors since 1978, but the field was formidable nonetheless. It included four past Iditarod champions: Martin Buser (1992, 1994, 1997, 2002), Dallas Seavey (2012, 2014, 2015, 2016), Joar Leifseth Ulsom (2018), and Pete Kaiser (2019).

COVID-19, injury and illness took their toll.

2020 champion Thomas Waerner of Norway could not participate because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Aliy Zirkle – who in 20 Iditarods had seven top 10 finishes, including three consecutive second places – dropped out at 8:05 p.m. March 9 when she fell and was injured while arriving at the checkpoint at mile 188. She was taken to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage for treatment of a concussion and injuries to her upper torso and was released later that day, the Iditarod press office reported.

Gunnar Johnson of Duluth, Minnesota, was withdrawn from the race at the checkpoint at mile 311 after he tested positive for COVID-19.

Kaiser, who in 2019 became the first Yup’ik and fifth Alaska Native to win the Iditarod, dropped out of the race at 9 a.m. March 13 at the checkpoint 553 miles into the race – even though he and his dog team were in 10th. “Kaiser made the decision to scratch in the best interest of his race team,” the Iditarod press office reported. “Kaiser had 10 dogs in harness at the time he made the decision to scratch.”

Between March 7-14, 10 mushers and teams dropped out of the race for various reasons. Thirty-six mushers and teams were expected to finish and share in a $400,000 purse.

'Excitement of the sport'

Amid the challenges presented by the Last Frontier, there was incredible beauty. The Northern Lights danced in the night sky and Lee talked about the lights casting shadows on the snow of the dogs running along.

And while his dogs rested in McGrath, Redington took time to give a shout-out to students at Gilman School in Baltimore, Maryland, who had sent him snacks and handwritten notes, and Secret Forest Playschool in Duluth, Minnesota, which also supports him and his team.

Redington and his team do video conference calls with the students and he has introduced students to mushing. A student he mentored, Morgan Martens, 14, of Brule, Wisconsin, won this year’s 150-mile Junior Iditarod.

“He’s a pretty awesome kid and he ran a pretty awesome race,” Redington said.

“It means a lot to me to show the excitement of the sport and also to get the sport of mushing out there. If any of them want to continue mushing, I’d be happy to mentor them.”

Editor's note: Some initial posts on social media listed the 2021 winner's name incorrectly. His name, as listed in the article, is Dallas Seavey.

IDITAROD TOP 10

The top 10 finishers of the 49th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, with time and date of arrival at the finish. Course: Deshka Landing to Iditarod and back. Race start: March 7. Distance: 868 miles.

  1. Dallas Seavey 5:08 a.m. March 15
  2. Aaron Burmeister 8:23 a.m. March 15
  3. Brent Sass 9:41 a.m. March 15
  4. Wade Marrs 12:53 p.m. March 15
  5. Mille Porsild 1:12 p.m. March 15
  6. Nicolas Petit 1:25 p.m. March 15
  7. Ryan Redington 2:46 p.m. March 15
  8. Joar Leifseth Ulsom 3:17 p.m. March 15
  9. Richie Diehl 3:26 p.m. March 15
  10. Ramey Smyth 3:41 p.m. March 15

A total of 36 mushers and teams were expected to complete the race.

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