Born to run: Iditarod veteran in it for the journey

by @EmilySchwing March 3, 2015 5:00AM ET

Aliy Zirkle, who has finished second in the grueling race for the last three years, has another shot at the title

Aliy Zirkle drives her dog team across the portage from Kaltag to Unalakleet during last year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, March 8, 2014.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News / MCT / Getty Images
Drawn to Alaska's lifestyle, Aliy Zirkle moved to the state after finishing college
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News / MCT / Getty Images

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — On a frigid morning last March, in the small coastal community of Nome, a couple hundred spectators gathered around the famous burled arch at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. But the majority of fans weren’t there to watch Dallas Seavey cross the line and claim his second title.

Seavey’s arrival happened with little fanfare, but the crowd erupted into cheers two minutes and 22 seconds later, when Aliy Zirkle reached the finish line. This was her third second-place finish. It was also the third time she has lost to a Seavey in the race. In 2013 she finished only 23 minutes behind Mitch Seavey, Dallas Seavey’s father, and in 2012 she placed second to Dallas Seavey.

On March 7, she will again face the Seaveys, along with more than 70 other mushers, in the grueling nearly 1,000-mile race. Zirkle, who is characteristically reticent about her perennial runner-up status, will drive many of the 16 dogs she drove in the last three Iditarods. But the race itself will be different: Warmer weather has contributed to melting snow and unsafe conditions, prompting the event’s organizers to change the course to one that hasn’t been run since 2003. Says Zirkle: “I’m up for a new adventure.”

Zirkle, 46, is among the most loved female mushers since Susan Butcher, a four-time champion, introduced the world to the sport 29 years ago. Women typically make up only about a third of the field, and no female competitor has finished first since Butcher’s last victory in 1990. Zirkle says, “In the dog mushing world, people want to beat me because I’m Aliy Zirkle. There are a few men that I could count on my 10 digits that want to beat me because I’m a woman.”

“It's a point of pride for mushers to not have a male or female class,” says Bruce Lee, a champion musher and a mentor to Zirkle. “It also reflects a frontier attitude that women are just as valued and tough as men.”

Zirkle drives her team into the Ruby, Alaska, checkpoint during the 2012 Iditarod.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News / MCT / LANDOV

The Iditarod routes follow a historic trail that mushers used to deliver serum to Nome during a diphtheria outbreak in 1925. The route have been used by hunters, trappers and gold miners for more than a century.

“It's romantic, and the dogs are amazing,” says Lee. “They’re the greatest, pure way to see this amazing landscape.”

For Zirkle, dog racing is a lifestyle. “It’s like drinking coffee in the morning,” she says. “I don’t even know if it’s a sport.”

Unlike the Seaveys — Dallas Seavey’s grandfather Dan Seavey was one of the organizers of the first race in 1973 — Zirkle isn’t from Alaska. She was born in New Hampshire and grew up there and in Puerto Rico and Missouri. In college at the University of Pennsylvania, she played volleyball and participated in the hammer throw, a track-and-field sport. After graduating, she moved to Bettles, 240 miles north of Fairbanks, to work as a biological field technician with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. “I was always into animals,” she says. But she also moved north to immerse herself in the wilderness lifestyle.

“I bought a snow machine and drove it about 2 or 3 miles and drove it into a tree and thought, ‘Oh, my God! There’s got to be a better way,’” she says. “Soon after that, I adopted six dogs, and that was my transportation from then on. They were a lot better to steer than a snow machine.”

Zirkle at SP Kennel, which she manages with her husband, musher Allen Moore, June 2014.
Katie Orlinsky

Twenty years later, Zirkle owns 40 dogs and runs SP Kennel in Two Rivers with her husband, Allen Moore, who is also a champion musher. They learned early on in their relationship, after a race eight years ago, to avoid competing against each other. “It was a flop in that we came in third and fourth. What was the point?” he says. Now Moore races the kennel’s top dogs each year in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, while Zirkle drives younger, less experienced dogs in that event. In the Iditarod, they switch.

“Probably the point when we aren’t excited about going out and messing with dogs at 10 or 20 [degrees] below [zero] is the point when we’re no longer going to do it,” she says.

From October to April, Zirkle doesn’t do anything else. “It’s criminal!” she joked. “I’ve tried a couple times to read a book that doesn’t have anything to do with dogs or survival … But as soon as I put the book down, I’m like, ‘OK, tomorrow we’ve got a 65-mile run.’”

Driving a dog team is just one of her responsibilities. There are myriad daily chores — cutting raw meat, hauling buckets of kibble and hot water, cleaning the yard. It’s manual labor in subzero temperatures. And she makes time to focus on her fitness: After completing a daily training run, sometimes up to 90 miles, with her dogs on Alaska’s remote trails, she heads to a small cabin-turned-gym next to her house for a workout.

She has large, rough hands, toughened from years of work in the cold, but her demeanor is friendly. “She works hard at being upbeat, and she’s fun to be around,” says four-time Iditarod champion and friend Jeff King. “She is clearly a fan favorite.”

But sometimes, her popularity has proved a competitive liability. In last year’s Iditarod, she pulled in first to the Unalakleet checkpoint, where approximately 120 people had showed up to cheer her on. Zirkle stopped to greet almost everyone, many by name. That generosity cost her precious time.

She can also be disorganized. In 2012 she reached Kaltag, halfway down the Iditarod trail, with a list in hand. Her plan was to grab some dog food and a few supplies and take off. But what should have taken less than five minutes took 18 as the tired musher ignored her list and fumbled through her gear.

“She makes some horribly consistent mistakes that have kept her from being there first,” says King.

She is well known for her attention to animal care — properly feeding the dogs, applying ointment to their paws and ensuring they aren’t overworked. While some mushers are narrowly focused on winning, Zirkle says, “I didn’t get into dog mushing to race or to go, go, go. I got into mushing because I love dogs.” The race allows for mushers to drop tired and injured dogs along the race route. Mushers can start with a maximum of 16, but they must cross the finish line with six dogs. “I do race dogs hard, but I have never pushed a dog any harder than I have pushed myself,” she says.

Zirkle tends to one of her dogs during the 2014 Yukon Quest.
Katie Orlinsky

Zirkle says it was difficult to watch Dallas Seavey take home the first-place purse — more than $50,000 and a Dodge Ram pickup truck — in last year’s Iditarod. But, she says, “At least I didn’t scratch.” The race was particularly trying: There was little snow on much of the first half of the route, and a dangerous windstorm struck within 30 miles of the finish line. Of the original 69 teams, only two-thirds completed the race.

She says she was able to reach the finish line in part because her dogs trust her. “The time I put in to whelping puppies and raising them by hand in the corner of my house intimately paid it forward so that when I asked them to do something that they should not have done — gone through a blizzard where you can’t stand up — they went,” she says.

Since she began racing decades ago, the sport has changed. Attention to breeding and genetics is creating faster dogs. Dallas Seavey won in eight and a half days, whereas the 1973 winner, Dick Wilmarth, won in just over 20. And mushing is becoming much more expensive. It can cost at least $30,000 to compete in the Iditarod, including entry fees, dog food and gear. But as she prepares for her 15th Iditarod start, Zirkle says she feels not so different from the 24-year-old who “traveled across the state of Alaska with a dog team just because she wanted to.”