The victory was so strange that Seavey said he didn’t even realize he won the race until about 90 seconds after he crossed the finish line.
“Man, this is a lot of people coming out to see third place come in,” he thought about the hubbub when he arrived in Nome early Tuesday morning.
“I just found out that I won. I think you guys knew before I did,” he told a packed convention hall in Nome early Tuesday morning.
He thought he was “racing my dad for third,” he said. But the trailing musher he thought was his father, defending champion Mitch Seavey, was actually Aliy Zirkle, and they were battling for first place.
Only Zirkle knew it, though.
The strange finish started Monday afternoon when four-time champ Jeff King enjoyed an hour’s lead over Zirkle and left the checkpoint at White Mountain.
King wasn’t challenged as he maintained, and at times, extended his lead along the Bering Sea coast. He was trying to become the race’s second five-time winner.
Then Safety happened.
Safety is the last checkpoint in the race, 22 miles from the finish line in Nome. The area was buffeted by extremely high winds and a ground blizzard.
A gust of wind blew King off course and into driftwood about 4 miles before Safety. He was able to get the team back together, but they wouldn’t run.
So he sat for 2 1/2 hours until he flagged down a passing snowmobiler. He hitched a ride to the checkpoint at Safety and scratched.
Zirkle had made up the hour on King, and conditions were so bad, she decided to stay in Safety — a checkpoint no one ever uses for a break.
“I had to stop in Safety for a couple of dogs and myself,” said Zirkle, who had frostbite on her hands.
When she went to sign in, the paper was blank. She asked workers where King was, and they were surprised she didn’t see him on the trail.
“I never saw Jeff out there, but I wasn’t on the trail most of the time. I don’t know where I was,” she said.
Because of the blizzard-like conditions, she wasn’t going to continue.
“I said, to heck with it, I’m staying,” Zirkle said.
She had a cup of coffee, talked to people in Safety about how bad the conditions were, took a nap.
And after she woke up, she saw Seavey breeze through the checkpoint, staying only three minutes. She walked outside, and decided to get on the trail, after resting there two hours and 38 minutes.
Zirkle then left the checkpoint 19 minutes after Seavey.
She lost the race by two minutes.
“I wasn’t in a big hurry. I was racing for third, and I was telling my dogs, ‘We’ve done our work here, you guys have done a good job, let’s go home,”’ Seavey said. “‘No rush, guys, let’s take it easy.”’
At one point, he even stopped to take selfie photos during sunset, right before he hit the bad weather.
“Sure, yeah, hindsight, blah, blah, blah ... second’s pretty good,” Zirkle said about her third consecutive runner-up spot.
“I’m sure I’m going to be bummed,” an exhausted Zirkle told fans who mobbed her in the city’s convention center, where top mushers traditionally meet with fans immediately after coming off the trail.
But she also noted that three second places are “better than scratching.”
Seavey finished the race in eight days, 13 hours, 4 minutes and 19 seconds, easily breaking the previous record set in 2011. Zirkle was 2 minutes 22 seconds behind him.
The trail this year has been marked by poor conditions because of a lack of snow after a warm winter by Alaska standards.
A number of mushers were injured at the beginning of the race as their sleds ran on gravel near the Dalzell Gorge. One musher, Scott Janssen of Anchorage, had to be rescued by a National Guard helicopter crew after breaking an ankle.
Snowless conditions again greeted mushers as they reached the western coast of the nation’s largest state.
The race began March 2 in Willow with 69 teams. As of Tuesday morning, 17 mushers had dropped out and one was withdrawn.
The Iditarod winner receives $50,000 and a new truck. The 29 teams after that get cash prizes decreasing on a sliding scale. All other teams finishing the race receive $1,049.
John Baker had held the fastest finish in Iditarod history, covering the trail from Anchorage to Nome in eight days, 18 hours and 46 minutes in 2011.
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