I've been struggling with how to write this without sounding like I'm bragging. I finally decided just to brag about them. Consider yourself warned.
Both Dallas and Mitch did awesome interviews with Iditarod Insider in Koyuk. No, stuttering half-coherently through bloody noses and frostbitten faces isn't awesome, but they both give a great look at their mindsets and philosophies. When they're that tired, mushers don't lie, it's like a truth serum.
Dallas describes how his priority is preserving his dog team, not just for this year, but for years to come. He values their eating, speed, and attitude over position. Similarly, Mitch realizes on camera that he's got the fastest team, and his instinctive reaction is not to cut rest and make a move, but instead to rest even longer, and preserve the strength.
Mitch also alludes to "walking in order, like we used to do." He's referring to the prevailing race strategy that started during Doug Swingley's glory days in the late 90's, was perpetuated by the Norwegians, and cemented by Lance Mackey. The general concept was make a big move somewhere around halfway, get as far ahead as you could, and then march to Nome. If you weren't in first, you ran until you were. By the end of the race, everyone was walking, and the first team to Unalakleet ALWAYS won.
The Smyth boys were the exception. They were long feared and revered for their ability to power up the coast, seemingly coming out of nowhere to place as high as second. They were never funded well enough to mount winning efforts, but their ideas inspired us. Jessie Royer is a good friend of theirs, and learned how to race from them.
For the Seaveys, the race philosophy started when my grandpa Dan Seavey (Mitch's dad) ran the first Iditarod. No one knew if they could even make it to Nome. Finishing was held in high regard, and competition was a distant second. That attitude still rules the kennel. Mitch is the teacher now, with three boys having finished the Iditarod, and countless handlers and 'B' teams each year asking for advice. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "You have to finish first." Run to finish, hope you can win.
The meaning is clear. If you don't finish, who cares what sled you drove, place you were in, or anything else. Finishing is always the #1 goal. Once you are SURE you're going to finish, you can start pushing a little bit. At the first sign of weakness, revert back to rule #1.
Meanwhile, after the 2014 Iditarod, and the 2015 Yukon Quest, it seemed many mushers were racing with a "run to win, hope you can finish" mentality. Rinda Clark pointed out a few minutes ago that we've seen very few scratches this year, which is encouraging.
A few days ago I wrote that Dallas was running to win, while Mitch was running to not lose. That struck a chord with a lot of people, but perhaps its meaning was misunderstood.
My dad and I have spent countless hours going over stats. We've had spreadsheets, data, and trends graphed since I was 8 and they called me the 'List Man.' (I had a list for everything) Writing race schedules was my forte. We (my dad racing, me coaching) won several races by out-scheduling our opponents, none bigger than the 2008 All Alaska Sweepstakes, a $100,000 winner-take-all race where we beat Jeff King by seven minutes after taking four hours more rest. Through all of our study, my dad and I concluded that most races are lost, not won. If you just don't lose, you're in really good shape to win.
Mitch ran his first Iditarod in 1982, took a bunch of years off to raise boys, and then went back to racing in 1995. Those first three years back he raced like the front guys, and finished with 5, 5, & 6 dogs in his team. Something had to change.
So we went back to the old ways. Forget the competition. Forget you're racing. Just Mush. Race your dog team the way you trained them. Don't make moves, don't try to win. Just get yourself to Nome as quickly as possible, and everything else will take care of itself.
The Iditarod is very, very, very, very long. Don't ever forget how long this thing is. Kaltag is not almost there. Unalakleet is not almost there. Even now, they're a very long ways from the finish. You don't have to speed up at the end to win, everyone else will slow down, if you simply slow down less, you will be the fastest team.
The results were immediate. Mitch placed 4th in the 1998 Iditarod, won in 2004, and has been by far the most consistent musher over the past decade, with ten top-10 finishes in 11 years. The only miss came when he was withdrawn after cutting his finger in 2011. That's also the only time a Seavey didn't finish the Iditarod, out of 40 tries.
Dallas grew up with the same mentality, and has made an art form of patience. Trust me, it's not easy for Dallas to stop in Shaktoolik and let Aaron Burmeister go by two hours. Or for Mitch to stop in Elim in 2013 and let all those teams catch up. Every instinct says 'go, you've got this!' It takes patience, self control, and mostly a deep faith in your philosophy, and trusting your dogs to give it back to you.
Mitch hasn't made a single move, hasn't skipped a single rest break, hasn't made a single long run. I described him as 'maddeningly conservative" a few days ago. He's been a patient grasshopper. While I've been writing this, he left Koyuk in third place, behind only Dallas and Aaron Burmeister. It's working.
Mitch knows well he's the weak link on his dog team. He's 56 years old, and he became the oldest champion two years ago. He's racing against his own son, who employs the same philosophy, same dogs, and is 30 year younger than him in a running race. Try to write a game plan for that one... I'm the schedule guy and didn't know where to start. Mitch is showing that patience and wisdom can combat a lot of years.
The race is far from over, Mitch would need a miracle to catch Dallas, and several other teams will have a say, but the old rule holds true. Just Mush. You can chose your friends, but have to be blessed with family.
This picture I did not steal, it's Mitch with Damon Tedford at the end of his 4th place Yukon Quest run as a rookie last month. Damon bought into the philosophy.