Iditarod 2018: Mushers share thoughts ahead of this year's race

Matt Failor talks to KTUU at the 2018 Iditarod ceremonial start in Anchorage.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The Iditarod's ceremonial start kicked off in downtown Anchorage on Saturday, with hundreds in attendance to cheer on their favorite mushers.

For the mushers themselves, this is just the first step, and a ceremonial one at that, towards what will be an intense challenge in the upcoming days.

At the start, Norwegian musher Lars Monsen had one of his dogs escape and go missing, and Iditarod champion Jeff King had his sled overturn.

Channel 2 spoke with all the mushers downtown as they prepared for the ceremonial start. Mushers stopped to give some insight into how they're feeling before the race really begins.

KTUU interviews with the mushers, and some background into their stories, can be found below.

Aliy Zirkle, Bib 31

Zirkle, who missed an Iditarod victory by one place, taking second, said there are two kinds of people in this world: those who have to compete and those who are alright just sitting on the couch and watching.

"You have to enjoy life, you have to get some happiness from it," Zirkle said, "But no one can put more pressure on Aily Zirkle than Aily Zirkle."

"It's going to be Aily and her 16 dogs that are pressuring to win," Zirkle said of herself and her team.

Aaron Burmeister, Bib 64

Burmeister placed high in 2015, pulling in a third place finish that year. He took several years off, but now says he's back due to some "unfinished business."

"I'm incredibly excited about this dog team," Burmeister said. "I'm back to take care of some unfinished business I left on the trail in '15."

He took two years off, and in his stead his brother ran his dog team. "Your dogs have to be racing every year, and it's gotta be family," he said.

Burmeister said his brother has always been a part of the kennel, his whole life, and considered it "a big 'thank you'" to be able to drive the dog team during the past Iditarod races.

Jeff King, Bib 40

King, a four-time Iditarod champion, said that though the ceremonial start is today, the real race will begin after he leaves Skwentna.

"The first 50, 60 miles is mostly on a river, which makes it easy to pass. There will be dozens if not a hundred campfires and thousands of people cheering us on," King said.

"It makes it for a fun day. But when you leave Skwentna, we go through the curtain," he said. "It'll feel like the race started. Until then it doesn't. It's all fun, but that's when the world becomes closed in on us."

King said he's excited for the southern route change this year, as he won three of his four Iditarod victories on the south route.

"It's been five years since we've been there," he said. "I'm really glad to be back to that."

As far as if King will have any new inventions on the trail this year, he said he did have at least one. As to what it is, however, King said with a smile, "I'm not tellin' ya."

Mitch Seavey, Bib 13

Seavey is a three-time Iditarod champion who took first place last year, looking again this year to pull in a fourth win.

He told Channel 2 that another win could be possible thanks to his dog team.

"We're always advancing. I think our preparation this year was better than last. I think our dog team is better than last, if it's possible to say that," Seavey said.

"I know I'm as ready as ever, so feeling confident," he said. "There are areas [in the southern route] that are really really remote and nobody ever goes there, but I'm excited about it. If it's a harder-pulling, slower trail, it suits us perfectly."

Brett Bruggeman, Bib 37

Bruggeman, an Iditarod rookie from Montana, said that to him, the race is a way to connect with his son. His son started them both on the mushing journey partly due to a unique birth defect.

"He has a birth defect where one leg doesn't develop a lot of muscle on it, so he can't do a lot of the traditional sports," Bruggeman said. "He asked one day if he could race sled dogs as a sport, and two weeks later we had 10 dogs, and now we have 44."

"So me and him have been doing it from the start, since he was about 10 years old. He's a better musher than I am, so it's easy to have him along."

Bruggeman said it was an awesome opportunity to bond with and spend time together with his son in the great outdoors.

While Bruggeman said he was nervous for his first Iditarod, he was also excited. "We'll take it one run at a time," he said.

Click here to read more about Brett and his son Spencer.

DeeDee Jonrowe, Bib 39

Iditarod veteran Jonrowe caught up with KTUU before getting her dogs saddled up, and looked back on why she feels the Iditarod really matters.

"I'd like to keep the cultural aspect and the historical aspect of why this event is so much more special than a dog race," Jonrowe said.

In addition to the broad importance Jonrowe said the race held, she said it personally taught her the importance of persevering even when you can feel "stuck" in place.

"Stuck is not a position, you must push through until safety, which could be just the next checkpoint," Jonrowe said.

In addition to being relevant in the world of mushing, Jonrowe said this lesson was relevant to her personal life as well.

"I've certainly had enough events in my life that have happened, the car accident being one of them, just sitting in the middle of a crashed car, and my grandmother dying. You couldn't stop, that's not going to fix anything ... you gotta push until you get in a setting where somebody can help you."

Lars Monsen, Bib 61

Hudson, one Lars Monsen's Iditarod sled dogs, went missing Saturday during preparation of the ceremonial start of the race in downtown Anchorage.

Around 8:00 a.m. on the morning of Mar. 3, handlers found the kennel was open and Hudson was not inside.

"He disappeared when we opened the rear doors of the trailer," Monsen said. "And he just took off and we haven't seen him since."

Hudson is described as a friendly, 2-year-old black dog. He has white on his chest with all-white toes. He's wearing a yellow collar that has small red stripes on it.

Click here to read more about the missing dog Hudson.

Martin Buser, Bib 28

Buser, a four-time Iditarod champion, and a whopping 34-time race finisher, met up with KTUU to reflect on the ceremonial start itself, in the context of Iditarod history. Buser said the start isn't what it used to be.

"It's just that -- ceremonial. It doesn't even count anymore. In years passed, it was a real hectic day. We used to have 20 dogs, we hooked up the entire team, raced competitively to Eagle River," Buser said.

"And it was competitive because the fastest time to Eagle River would yield you an entry fee for next year," Buser explained. "And I think I saved thousands of dollars going to Eagle River relatively fast."

By comparison, Buser said the hectic mad dash of old Iditarod's start was crazy and stressful, but now, he called the start "nice and relaxed" with a better atmosphere to interact with fans and spectators.

Hugh Neff, Bib 68

Neff will be the last out of the chute in this year's race, but the 14-Iditarod veteran is no stranger to the trail, and has had a career high finish of 5th place in 2011.

"This is the year I'm going to try to prove that I'm not getting older," he told Channel 2. "This is my.. 32nd-thousand-miler since 2000, my 14th Iditarod ... And as you get older, you realize it's not about what place you come in, it's about loving life.

"Every year in the Iditarod the beauty of the Iditarod is there are so many beautiful dogs, so I don't even care what place I come in, I just want to have fun. And make it to Nome," Neff said.

Matt Failor, Bib 55

Failor met up with our crew at the start with one of his dogs, Iron Maiden. He said that while he loves heavy metal (and named his dog accordingly), this year he'll be listening to something different.

"We’re classic rock, Motown, heavy metal. She’s part of the heavy metal litter. But his year I’ll be listening to some 'how to speak Spanish' podcasts. So I’m going to be trying to educate myself while I’m mushing dogs."

Failor explained his approach this year, saying, "I guess just block out all the noise, and just focus on your dogs, let them come together and see how it goes. Stick to our training schedule, we’ll be fine."

His bib number, 55, is the same number he previously raced under. "I drew it last year, so that’s a weird lucky number I guess," he said.

Dave Delcourt, Bib 57

Delcourt, though not a rookie himself, said his team this year will be full of rookie dogs, and that he's only bringing a few adult dogs on the trail.

"I've got a young team this year, I'll have 14 yearlings out there on the trail, and two adults. So we're going to be in the back of the pack, taking our time, and hopefully having some fun," Delcourt said.

His approach to the southern route is to "be weary," Delcourt said after hearing some horror stories of the southern route. Last year was his first Iditarod, so Delcourt said he had not seen the entirety of the trail before.

"I know we have to worry about some wind along the coast, I've heard there's some low sea ice on the coast, so that's going to change things up quite a bit."

Jeff Deeter, Bib 45

"This is actually the part I'm the most stressed about," Deeter said. "I just want to make it through downtown."

Deeter said every one of his dogs will be running the Iditarod for the first time, and that this would be their first ever 1,000 mile race. However, he said he expected good work from them, as they have been a "family team."

"They're a fairly young team," Deeter said, "But this group my wife and I raised, so it's basically a family team, which is really fun."

Monica Zappa, Bib 48

Zappa scratched in Shaktoolik last year after her lead dog, Dweezil, was discovered to have a heart murmur. "I just want him to have a long life. Even if he’s not a sled dog. He’s my buddy," Zappa said in 2017 of the hard decision to bow out of the race.

This year, she said, things should be different.

"I've got quite a bit different team, hopefully eliminated the issues I had last year, so it's kind of been a long-term plan," Zappa said.

Her strategy this year is to take it slowly for the first half of the race, saying, "We're not in any hurry, we just want to make it to the finish line this year."

Replacing Dweezil as lead dog is Blue Steel. "This is his fifth Iditarod as well, so he should be able to get us over the trail. And I'm not going to have any females in heat to distract him, which was another major problem last year," she said.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Bib 33

A racer from Norway, Ulsom has come close to winning the Iditarod before, but never made it past fourth place.

"All you have to do is have a perfect race and beat all the rest of them," Ulsom said.

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