NOME, Alaska — Mitch Seavey scored one for the AARP-eligible crowd Tuesday night by becoming the oldest champion in Iditarod history.
Seavey, 53, outdueled Aliy Zirkle on the final stretch of the 1,000-mile race.
“This is for all the gentlemen of a certain age who think it ends at 50, ‘cause it doesn’t,” Seavey said after crossing under the burled arch with a team of 10 dogs.
The Sterling, Alaska, musher steadily pulled away from Zirkle on the 67-mile run from White Mountain, where just 13 minutes separated the two mushers in the afternoon.
Led by Tanner, a 6-year-old, orange-brown husky who is a kennel favorite, Seavey coasted down Nome’s Front Street at 10:39 p.m.
“I gotta go congratulate my lead dog Tanner,” Seavey said after his team came to a stop. “He’s probably the best I’ve ever had.
“Tanner is happy to be a sled dog and he makes it look easy.”
Seavey’s winning margin of 23 minutes, 39 seconds made it the fourth-closest race in Iditarod history. Seavey finished in 9 days, 7 hours, 39 minutes, 56 seconds. Zirkle finished in 9 days, 8 hours, 3 minutes, 35 seconds.
“I was going for it,” Zirkle said, “but that slippery little sucker, I couldn’t catch him.”
As she traveled from White Mountain to Nome, Zirkle watched Seavey’s winding tracks in the snow. She tried to guess if the musher was speeding up or slowing down based on whether the tracks stayed smack in the middle of the trail or drifted to the side.
“And you don’t know,” she said. “But it’s kind of fun to guess.”
“And then for about 30 miles of the trail we’re high above treeline in these rolling mountains, and every time I would come up over the hill I would see him coming back down the other side,” Zirkle said.
Zirkle, 43, said she thought she saw Seavey’s yellow sled after Safety, but it was just a hallucination.
Meantime, Seavey was imagining he was seeing Zirkle all across the tundra.
“I saw the raven Aliy, I saw the fuel tank Aliy. And the upside-down boat Aliy,” Seavey said. “Everything I was seeing back there I thought must be her … I would continue to scare myself that she was catching up to me.”
Zirkle’s time is the second fastest by a woman. Her time last year — 9 days, 5 hours, 29 minutes, 10 seconds — is the fastest.
“You’re gonna win this thing,” Seavey told the Two Rivers musher as he shook her hand.
Seavey replaced Jeff King as the Iditarod’s oldest champion. King, who was poised early Wednesday morning to claim third place, was 50 when he won his fourth victory in 2006.
Mitch’s son Dallas was 25 when he won last year’s race, giving the Seaveys the oldest and youngest champs in race history.
Both of those distinctions came at Zirkle’s expense. Dallas beat her by 59 minutes, 44 seconds last year.
Tuesday’s victory was the second for Mitch — he won his first in 2004 — and marked his 19th finish in 20 attempts.
“I hate to go off into the sunset knowing I only did it once in 20 tries,” he said, “so it’s sorta a validation.”
The finish was the 12th for Zirkle, who was hoping to drive her team to its second thousand-mile championship of the year. Nine of the 10 dogs she finished with — Quito, Olivia, Scruggs, Scout, Beemer, Nacho, Chica, Biscuit and Willie — helped Zirkle’s husband, Allen Moore, win the Yukon Quest last month in Fairbanks.
“My dog team is my heart,” Zirkle said. “They’re my family and they’re fantastic.”
Seavey will collect $50,400 and a new pickup truck for his victory. Zirkle gets $47,100 for second place.