Iditarod 49 is underway — but it won’t come to Nome
Iditarod 49 began on Sunday, March 7, as 47 mushers and over 650 dogs embarked on the roughly 852-mile race from Deshka Landing, near Willow, to Flat, near Iditarod, and back. Due to COVID-19 concerns, the Iditarod Trail Committee organizers discouraged people from attending the start — and cancelled the ceremonial start in Anchorage— but several hundred fans gathered along the Susitna River to cheer on mushers and their teams in a unique race.
Warm temperatures and sunny weather greeted mushers for the start on Sunday afternoon and the soft snow made for slower mushing right out of the gate. After receiving a rapid COVID-19 test in the starting corral, mushers and their teams hit the trail. Since no unauthorized personnel were allowed in or near the staging area at the Deshka Landing boat launch, dedicated fans traveled by ski, snowshoes and snowmachines to the first stretch of trail right outside the chute.
The party atmosphere of “normal” Iditarod starts was apparent as spectators set up chairs, barbeques and planted encouraging signs in the snow. One group set up a makeshift Tiki bar and gave out free cocktails. Helicopters and small planes swooped overhead and a drone hummed in the air taking photos. A few PETA protestors stood along the highway miles away from Deshka Landing, but none were to be found at the start.
From the staging area, an announcer introduced each musher before they came out of the chute. The dogs raced by to roaring applause and some spectators got close enough to high five the mushers as they went by. Aside from a few quick pauses to untangle or redirect dogs, all of the mushers disappeared into the woods without a hitch.
The start was outstanding given the current circumstances, said Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach. Due to COVID-19 protocol, the crowds inside the starting chute were greatly diminished. Urbach estimated that there were about 300 people as opposed to 1,000 in the immediate starting area. The event was live streamed online with commentary from the Iditarod Insider crew of Greg Heister and Bruce Lee.
While the lack of spectator fanfare was unfortunate, the point of mushing is, ultimately, the dogs. Urbach said that there were a lot of good looking dog teams. Urbach said that a central challenge was creating a COVID-19 plan and determining when and how much to test. This involved a lot of trial and error. “We created and broke down numerous plans,” Urbach said. Even though the start went off seamlessly, Urbach does not feel as if they are in the clear yet. “You never really know,” he said. Regardless, he believes the effort put in on the front end has paid off, and Urbach is relatively confident that they will be able to successfully execute the plan.
Urbach said there have been a few challenges, including needing to make sure that everyone inside the Iditarod-controlled area was wearing their mask properly. “If [the masks] were down around their chin, they would be hearing from me,” he said. Another hitch was that there were a small number of positive tests among volunteers, all of whom are now quarantining.
According to Urbach, for the most part, the response to the Iditarod’s altered start was that of understanding. While the cancellation of the ceremonial start was disappointing, everyone understood at the end of the day, he said. Urbach said that Iditarod looked at ways to hold a ceremonial start; however, he pointed out that it does not make sense to not allow spectators to an event that is purely for the spectators. He said that the Iditarod is already planning a big celebration for the race’s 50th anniversary in 2022.
It is not only the start that looks different, but the race itself. Mushers are traveling along the Gold Trail Loop, which follows the traditional southern route taken in odd years, but only goes as far as the abandoned village of Flat, a historic mining community just outside of Iditarod. From there, mushers will follow the trail in reverse back to Deshka Landing. The changed route will allow mushers to avoid the villages along the Yukon River and the notoriously stormy Bering Sea Coast, but they will need to go through the challenging Dalzell Gorge twice. Since press coverage of the event will be limited, Urbach said the best way to follow the race is through the Iditarod’s Insider coverage.
While the altered route will undoubtedly present new challenges to even seasoned racers, several mushers have a proven record of success.
One team to look out for is four-time winner Dallas Seavey, who is looking to tie Rick Swenson with an elusive fifth Iditarod victory in his first Iditarod since 2017. Due to insurmountable traveling difficulties, defending champion Thomas Waerner is not racing this year, but other recent champions and likely frontrunners include 2019 winner Pete Kaiser of Bethel and 2018 winner Joar Leifseth Ulsom.
Nome’s Aaron Burmeister—the sole participant from the region—has high hopes for his team in what will be his 20th Iditarod. Burmeister told the Nome Nugget that training went well and that he believes his years of experience will be an advantage in this year’s race. Burmeister had planned for 2021 to be his last Iditarod, but he is postponing retirement because the race will not end in his hometown of Nome.
One notable musher has chosen this Iditarod as her final race, however. Aliy Zirkle, who has been a fierce competitor and fan favorite for years, announced that this race—her 21st consecutive Iditarod—will be her last. She and her husband, Allen Moore (also an Iditarod and Yukon Quest musher), agreed to retire together. Zirkle, who is 51, explained that she is “retiring before she needs to retire.” Zirkle has finished every Iditarod she has begun.
In an interview, Zirkle explained that she has been fortunate enough to have spent nearly 25 years mushing. “It’s been an incredible experience,” said Zirkle. “I have been blessed by the support that Alaskans have thrown my way,” she said, adding that she has been riding that high for a while. However, all good things must come to an end, and Zirkle said that she and Moore decided to retire simply because they did not want to put the same level of effort into dog training anymore. “My life has revolved around Alaskan huskies,” she said, and after nearly a quarter century she is ready for something different. She explained that both she and Moore are “all or nothing” people; every time she races, she tries to win.
Yet, Zirkle said, a competitive life cycle has a limited number of years, and she made the decision last summer that she would retire after 2021. At the time, Zirkle did not know that the Iditarod would not end in Nome. She is disappointed that her last race will not finish underneath the burled arch, but “if they’re putting the race on, I’m going to run it.” She is just happy that the race is happening at all, but all the same disappointed that she will not be able to travel through villages and end in Nome.
“A real Iditarod ends in Nome,” she said.
Zirkle’s training has been different this year, but not because of the altered route. She explained that mushers did not know the trail would be different until their training cycle had already begun. Instead, the buildup to Iditarod has been different because she and Moore have fewer dogs. They downsized their kennel to 24 dogs total. Typically, she said, they compete in several races leading up to the Iditarod, but this year the Last Great Race is her team’s first and last race of the season. There are a lot of unknowns, said Zirkle. But what is known is the quality of her dogs; Zirkle is bringing a mature team down the trail—some of the dogs have run as many as five or six Iditarod races. “It’s an older team and an older musher,” she laughed.
While Zirkle and her team’s experience will likely work to their advantage, the different trail brings with it different terrain and weather conditions, meaning that even veteran racers are somewhat unsure as to what the race will hold. As Zirkle put it, “We’re all rookies.” This will make the race “real exciting,” she said.
In terms of race predictions, Zirkle said that there are “young guns that go out strong and fast,” but sometimes falter around 100 miles from the finish line. But because this year’s race is shorter, they might be able to pull it off. Then there is the added challenge of going over the mountain range twice and keeping enthusiasm up in the team in an out and back route. According to Zirkle, communication with the dogs will be particularly important this year, and she believes that she and her dogs have honed this.
The 2021 race may be full of question marks, but when asked what her personal goal is, Zirkle is entirely confident. She may be retiring, but this does not mean her last race will be a leisurely ride into the sunset. “I need to be competitive,” she said. “I intend to start with every intention to do as best as we can...and I’m going to try my darndest to put on the best race I can.”
As to what the future holds, Zirkle said that she and Moore will again reduce their kennel size to six to eight dogs by the summer. “I’ll have enough dogs to mush to the post office,” she said, but “we don’t want our lives to revolve around mushing anymore,” and the only way to do that while respecting the dogs is to give them away, explained Zirkle.