NPR Story
1:00 pm
Tue March 20, 2012

Iditarod Winner Dallas Seavey Raced Against Family

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:56 am

After more than a week of grueling days on a dog sled, Dallas Seavey won 2012's Iditarod, beating his father and grandfather in the process. The race took off from Willow, Alaska, on March 4, Seavey's 25th birthday. Nine days, 4 hours and 29 minutes later, he crossed the finish line in Nome as the youngest musher ever to win the race.

Seavey talks with NPR's Neal Conan about the extreme conditions of the Iditarod, from freezing dogs to sleepless nights, and what it means to be in a legacy racing family.


Interview Highlights

On his family business: racing sled dogs

"My grandfather has been raising sled dogs since 1963, prior to there ever being an Iditarod. And he ... actually competed in the very first Iditarod. ...

"This is the 40th anniversary of the Iditarod. And he's the only one that competed in the first race that was really fit enough to take on the trail now again at 74 years old. My dad, he just completed his 19th Iditarod. ... [His career] is just, you know, riddled with top-10 finishes and, of course, his victory in 2004. So this is certainly a family affair."

On his lead dogs, Guinness and Diesel

"These dogs, this breed as a whole is a phenomenal animal, and we have the utmost respect for all of them. So Guinness and Diesel may have the privilege of being the poster [children] for the Alaskan husky, but they represent the breed as a whole. ...

"Guinness is turning 9 years old, and she has raced in every major race that I have competed in. And she's been my lead dog in almost every one of them. This year, when she's, you know, getting a little bit older, she did less leading in the race, but I can communicate with her so well. She always went in lead when we had very difficult steering to be done. You know, she'll take step for step by my command. It's like having a remote-control dog up there.

"And what really inspires me about Guinness is just her enthusiasm. Not just for mushing, but for life, you know, in every aspect. And every time it's time to go, she is barking and screaming her head off, lunging against the line. She is the smallest dog in my team, but she's got the biggest heart. Now, she's not a big fan of big crowds of people. Sled dogs, like myself, honestly, spend a lot of time out in the wilderness with our pack, our team. And, you know, so when we come into Nome and there's thousands of people there, it's a little overwhelming. But there again, I was impressed with her bravery, and as long as Dad says it's OK, then we're going to go right through the middle of this crowd. She just bulldogs her way right to the finish line there. Just a lot of spunk in that little dog.

"Now, Diesel, he is younger. He's only 5 years old, and he's actually the largest dog in my team. And he is really just becoming that superstar leader. He has the athletic talent to be the best dog in the world. ... But ... he's not overly confident, and that's something we've been developing and working on for many years.

"And that's why now as a 5-year-old, he's finally becoming confident enough to be a real solid lead dog. So he spent most of his career kind of working his way up in the team, developing that athletic ability. And now that he is confident enough to be a lead, he is such a supreme athlete that it's not even difficult for him. It makes the position much easier being the athlete that he is."

On caring for the dogs during the race

"If we do have a casualty on the race, it's typically going to be some sort of a heart arrhythmia or something of that nature; that's the same thing that's going to get the top marathon runners. You have perfectly fit human beings running, you know, 26.2 miles, and there's a sudden death issue, and that's the sort of thing we've run into [in] the past with this race.

"But now, with better scanning prior to the race, every single dog has an EKG. ... We take blood samples to make sure that all their levels are acceptable and they're in fit, you know, fit condition to go into the race. Prior to the race, they have three different vet exams ... and then during the race, the dogs are checked at every single checkpoint along the way. ...

"I have done mouth-to-mouth with some older dogs in my kennel in the past, always with great results, and that's something as a musher you need to know how to do. It's like being a lifeguard that doesn't know how to do CPR. I mean, it's kind of a prerequisite."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Dallas Seavey turned 25 on March 4 and marked that date in a way that very few people will ever do. Seavey celebrated his birthday on the Iditarod, the grueling sled dog race across hundreds of miles from Anchorage to Nome, and finished more than nine days later as the youngest ever to win the famous event. His lead dogs Guinness and Diesel took the podium with him and in the pack that trickled into Nome hours and days later, his father Mitch, a 2004 winner of the Iditarod, and his grandfather Dan, who's completed(ph) the race five times.

Mushers, give us a call. What's special about the Iditarod? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Dallas Seavey joins us now by phone from Anchorage. Congratulations.

DALLAS SEAVEY: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: And this is - I gather, since your father and grandfather were in the race, this is kind of the family business.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEAVEY: Yeah. It's something of the sort. My grandfather has been raising sled dogs since 1963, prior to there ever being an Iditarod. And he found the race and actually competed in the very first Iditarod.

CONAN: And he's run a number of times. Your father, of course, a former winner. This is exclusive company you've joined.

SEAVEY: Yes, it is. You know, my grandfather just competed the Iditarod, oh, about two days ago, and this is the 40th anniversary of the Iditarod. And he's the only one that competed in the first race that was really fit enough to take on the trail now again at 74 years old. My dad, he just completed his 19th Iditarod, which is just, you know, riddled with top-10 finishes and of course his victory in 2004. So this is certainly a family affair.

CONAN: Do you remember, during the course of the race, the moment - was there a moment when you passed either your grandfather or your father?

SEAVEY: Well, my dad is, honestly, one of my biggest competitors in this race. Though we're family, we have two entirely separate kennels, and we compete against each other every year, in more races than just the Iditarod. And he was actually leading the race up until the halfway point. He actually passed the halfway. He won the award for being first to the Yukon River. And I made it there about an hour behind him. So I do remember when I finally took the lead from him. And yeah, it's a long race.

And you never, you know, once you pass a musher, it doesn't mean you're not going to see them again. So he was definitely in the back of my mind as a competitor, but also in a much better light, in the back of my mind, as one of my best friends and my dad.

CONAN: Did he say anything as you went by?

SEAVEY: You know, how we ended up passing - we had a little bit different schedule, so I actually passed him when he was stopped. And then we were kind of leapfrogging back and forth until eventually, when he, you know, advanced, it wasn't far enough to catch up with me. So there was never a clear point (unintelligible) now that I was clearly in lead, just because we had different resting schedules.

CONAN: I see. All right. And different resting schedules, these are something each musher decides for himself and his team?

SEAVEY: Absolutely. And that's honestly what defined our race for me and why we were eventually able to pull off a victory. We took a much different approach, focusing on doing much shorter runs that the dogs can maintain a quicker pace on. It's much easier for them. And they're stopping for shorter breaks, stopping before the team is tired. So we're not really recuperating. We're just simply refueling. So we tend to make a lot more stops, not doing as long a run as many of the other competitors. And by the end of the race, we were neck and neck with everybody else, but we had a much stronger, healthier and faster team.

CONAN: Now, you've obviously competed in other races in addition to the Iditarod. What is special about this race?

SEAVEY: Well, you know, I've competed in, yeah, many different races. Actually, last year I won the Yukon Quest, which is the other 1,000-mile dog sled race. And you know, so I guess I've competed in all the major races. And the Iditarod is special. It is - part of it is the history. The Iditarod has been around for most of the 40th anniversary. And what it celebrates: the history and the appreciation that the state of Alaska has for the Alaskan huskies in the Iditarod trail. Sled dogs are to Alaska as the horses were to the Wild West. They were a necessity to opening up the gold mining fields and really developing the state. So we're really out here commemorating these great athletes, these awesome animals, man's best friend, and also the trail and the people that populate these remote places in Alaska.

CONAN: People may be familiar with one or two famous sled dogs. Balto comes to mind.

SEAVEY: Yeah.

CONAN: Are Guinness and Diesel going to take their place in that company?

SEAVEY: You know, they certainly have in my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEAVEY: In mushing circle, yes, there's the utmost respect for the top sled dogs. And obviously winning the Iditarod in lead certainly puts them in a very elite crowd. But also in the mushing circles, the people that do know, you know, several mushers dogs intimately, those people have a great respect just - not just for the winning dogs but for every dog that not even just completes the race but even starts the race and takes part in it. These dogs - this breed as a whole is a phenomenal animal, and we have the utmost respect for all of them. So Guinness and Diesel may have the privilege of being the poster child for the Alaskan husky, but they represent the breed as a whole.

CONAN: And can you tell us a little bit about them? What are they like?

SEAVEY: Well, they're actually - they're very interesting dogs. They have a lot of personality. Guinness is turning nine years old, and she has raced in every major race that I have competed in. And she's been my lead dog in almost every one of them. This year, when she's, you know, getting a little bit older, she did less leading in the race, but I can communicate with her so well. She always went in lead when we had very difficult steering to be done. You know, she'll take step-for-step by my command. It's like having a remote control dog up there.

And what really inspires me about Guinness is just her enthusiasm. Not just for mushing but for life as - life, you know, in every aspect. And every time it's time to go, she is barking and screaming her head off, lunging against the line. She is the smallest dog in my team, but she's got the biggest heart. Now, she's not a big fan of big crowds of people. Sled dogs, like myself, honestly, spend a lot of time out in the wilderness with our pack, our team. And, you know, so when we come into Nome and there's thousands of people there, it's a little overwhelming. But there again, I was impressed with her bravery and as long as Dad says it's OK, then we're going to go right through the middle of this crowd.

She just bulldogs her way right to the finish line there. Just a lot of spunk in that little dog. Now, Diesel, he is younger. He's only five years old, and he's actually the largest dog in my team. And he is really just becoming that superstar leader. He has the athletic talent to be the best dog in the world. He already has a pretty good number of puppies out there. But he is just not - he's not overly confident, and that's something we've been developing and working on for many years.

And that's why now as a five year old, he's finally becoming confident enough to be a real solid lead dog. So he spent most of his career kind of working his way up in the team, developing that athletic ability. And now that he is confident enough to be a lead, he is such a supreme athlete that it's not even difficult for him. It makes the position much easier being the athlete that he is.

CONAN: We want to hear from mushers today. What's special about the Iditarod? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You mentioned there are puppies out there. You run your own kennel. This is a business, no?

SEAVEY: Yes and no. My family has been able to make something of a business out of racing sled dogs, but it's certainly not from the racing aspect. Racing is where we're seen. Obviously, you know, we interviews like this because of our racing. But the way we can afford to do this is typically through tourism. So in the summer months I do a sled dog show. We actually do a dinner show where we're really highlighting the extreme abilities of the Alaskan husky and what makes them a unique animal and what makes the Iditarod such a special event. So that's where we are able to afford dog mushing.

I have nearly 90 sled dogs right now. I mean, it's just an overwhelming number of dogs. Each dog, just in food alone, costs me more than $1,000 a year just to feed the dogs. That's aside from vet care and the actual manpower to distribute the food and whatnot. So when you win the Iditarod, and it's a $50,000 check, that's great. I really appreciate it, but it's half the costs of my food bill for the year. So racing is not something you can really call a business. I call it a hobby. And if you're willing to put the effort in in the summer months, then you can afford to continue to do this hobby year after year.

CONAN: And $50,000 and a pick-up truck.

SEAVEY: The truck is very nice too, yes. Unfortunately, I put on thousands of miles on a vehicle every year, and this was long overdue. I need a new truck. I've been breaking down all over the state. I was actually literally towed to the starting line last year. This year I made it in a little bit better shape, I suppose, so that is a nice bonus in there as well.

CONAN: You also have sponsors?

SEAVEY: I have one major sponsor and that's J.J. Keller & Associates based at Neenah, Wisconsin, and they are super helpful. And that's, you know, they definitely support our racing, and then, you know, all my stuff says J.J. Keller across it. But they know as well as I that the coverage that they get from the race isn't going to justify the sponsorship. Who's going to buy their product? The moose and caribou out there? Not likely. This isn't NASCAR. We don't have hundreds and thousands of fans.

So there again, the sponsorship is made valuable to them by the speaking engagements and the visits that we do on the offseason. So right now, we're lining up a number of visits for their trade shows and things of that nature. So the sponsorship is - I would put that in more in the tourism category because that's something we're going to be working for over the summer.

CONAN: Dallas Seavey, the winner of the 2012 Iditarod. Let's get a caller on the line. This is Carolee(ph) from Fenton in Michigan.

CAROLEE: Hi. I called in because you said mushers should call, and while I have never done a long distance race, I spent eight years doing sprint races in the state of Michigan. And I raced not only Alaskan huskies but also my Belgian sheep dogs when I was first getting started. So I have great admiration for the toughness it takes to do the Iditarod as opposed to a sprint race. We might go a little faster but for a much shorter distance. I wondered, what do you feed your dogs?

SEAVEY: That's an excellent question. First of all, you know, I would just like to say, I appreciate mushers of all genres, whether it's sprint racing, just recreational mushing or, in fact, the Iditarod, because, again, the focus of the Iditarod is to promote the Alaskan huskies and in this instance the trail and state as well. But it's really the breed we're focused on. So seeing people using sled dogs as transportation or recreation, it's wonderful at whatever level. Feeding dogs is one of the crucial points that has allowed us to speed this race up over the last several years.

I have a combination - I primarily feed, well, red meat - beef is probably the main one - and we have some horse meat as well, I suppose. Fish, mostly salmon, and we have a real oily fish here in Alaska. It's called she(ph)-fish . I feed a lot of that and a lot of fat, mostly beef fat, lamb fat, I have a poultry fat blend. But really the pinnacle of my food, the main, you know, the base of my feeding is Momentum. It's made by Dr. Tim's Pet Foods out of Michigan. In fact, he lives in Marquette, where I went to school.

And that food is incredible food. It's a new food on the market. He's a veterinarian, and he ran his first Iditarod in 2009 and saw that we really needed a top-level food that was affordable. And he - I mean, it's been a couple of years in the making, but he has definitely answered the call and that has become one of the top foods and that's really the base of my feeding program year-round, and then I substitute it with the meat and fat, depending on the temperature and the length of training runs that we're doing and just the general output of the dog and also the age of the dog.

CONAN: Hmm. Carol Lee, thanks very much for the call. And good luck in your next sprint race.

CAROL LEE: Thank you and good luck to Mr. Seavey.

SEAVEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Dallas Seavey, the winner of this year's Iditarod. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. One story that came out of the race that people down here in lower 48 noticed was that musher Scott Janssen, trying to revive one of his dogs by giving him mouth-to-mouth. And that raises an issue that a lot of people are concerned about, that this is a - this can be a tough race for the dogs.

SEAVEY: It certainly can be, I suppose. You know, we have now - we just got done with the Iditarod and had our third year in a row with no casualties on the race. And I really think that we have hit a turning point. The last many years, we have put so much focus and emphasis on basically preventative vet care, and that has not only advanced our knowledge of these dogs and the animals and our ability to do more with them, but it also sped up the race because we have been able to prevent problems, basically. Now, there are going to be issues along the way. I had an incident with a moose earlier this year. A somewhat - pretty much a half-crazed moose, because they had a very hard winter this year with a lot 30 below temperatures and almost record-breaking snow.

And fortunately, I got the best of the moose without any injury to my dogs. But there's unpredictable things like that that can come at you. If we do have a casualty on the race, it's typically going to be some sort of a heart arrhythmia or something of that nature; that's the same thing that's going to get the top marathon runners. You have perfectly fit human beings running, you know, 26.2 miles and there's a sudden death issue, and that's the sort of thing we've run into the past with this race.

But now, with better scanning prior to the race, every single dog has an EKG. We hook them up, have about dozen clips in them, monitor their heart, make sure there's no irregularities in the heart. We take blood samples to make sure that all their levels are acceptable and they're in fit, you know, fit condition to go into the race. Prior to the race, they have three different vet exams, the actual physical exams. And then during the race, the dogs are checked at every single check point along the way. And a lot of times, I don't stay in the check points for a long time, but when I come into a check point, the first thing the veterinarians are going to do is they're going to take their stethoscope and check the heart and lungs.

And that it is very important 'cause those are the things that me as musher, I'm not going to be able to see, you know, outward signs of any issues there. So we've taken a much more aggressive, proactive approach and a preventative approach. And we've seen the results. Unfortunately, Scott Janssen had that situation out there, and I know him personally. He's a great guy, and I am just, you know, impressed. And I think he really showed the spirit of the mushers and what it takes to be a musher, to know how to do that.

I have done mouth-to-mouth with some older dogs in my kennel in the past, always with great results, and that's something as a musher you need to know how to do. It's like being a lifeguard that doesn't know how to do CPR. I mean, it's kind of a prerequisite. So again, I commend him on his excellent dog care out there, and there will be curve balls now and again. But we have had just basically better knowledge about the sport, about the animals, and taking that proactive approach, we've seen the results.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. Jeff calling from Sioux City in Iowa.

JEFF: Yes. I was wondering how you determine which dog will be you lead dog and if you use the same lead dog throughout the race.

SEAVEY: All right. That's an excellent question right there. Lead dogs may be one of the biggest misconceptions about mushing. You know, typically, when we see the movies and whatnot, there's a lead dog, and they're the alpha dog. Well, as in my example here, Guinness, my main lead dog, she's the smallest female, not exactly the alpha animal. And I actually had five lead dogs in my team that were all equally crucial to our victory here. Guinness and Diesel had a little bit higher level of involvement. But I couldn't have won this race and probably not even finished the race without all five of those lead dogs taking their turns.

And this is where knowing the personality and the history of these dogs, I can put the right lead dog or lead dogs - I oftentimes run two in front, on, you know, in my team, whenever the conditions are called for. If I have deep snow, I've got some larger males that are going to go upfront, and they're going to help break out their trail. They've got longer legs. They can handle that condition better. If we have got real glare ice that takes precise steering, Guinness is my remote control leader. We can go anywhere we need to. I've got leaders that are more stubborn, mentally tough, they can handle the storms and the bad weather, but that same kind of stubborn toughness isn't going to make them the most responsive lead dog. You're going to need all five.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call. And Dallas Seavey, again, congratulations. We appreciate your time today.

SEAVEY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Dallas Seavey, winner of the 2012 Iditarod. Tomorrow, we'll talk about evolution of the quarterback. Join us for that conversation. Peyton Manning just announced his signing up with the Denver Broncos. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.