Competition in this year’s Iditarod was nothing less than fierce, and the racing didn’t quite until the finish line. The race for first and second place was close in this year’s Iditarod, but there were three other races among top twenty finishers that were even closer.
In the wee hours of the morning, Rookie of the Year Joar Lleifseth Ulsom narrowly beat out Jake Berkowitz for seventh place. The Norwegian’s lead dog Sivo crossed under the burled arch just as Jake Berkowitz’s leaders caught up with Lleifseth Ulsom’s sled.
When it was all over, Berkowitz said he’d had a lot of fun.
“We were running together he passed me maybe a mile out. Basically our one goal, we saw those lights coming from behind and clocked him at 10 minutes behind us. We just had to do whatever to get over cape Nome and get away from those guys, so we had a real good time out there,” Berkowitz said.
Jake Berkowitz finished with 15 dogs. It’s the largest team to cross the line so far. But it just wasn’t enough to catch the Norwegian.
“He took off and I need to learn some Norwegian commands or something because he took off like a bandit,” Berkowitz said.
Lleifseth Ulsom was all smiles when he finished. He hadn’t expected to place in the top-10, let alone claim Rookie of The Year.
“It’s much better than I thought I could do, I’ve been very happy with the dogs, they’ve been amazing,” Lleifseth Ulsom said.
He gives most of the credit to his dogs. The 26-year-old’s team has a large following back Norway.
“I don’t know. I bet my mom is proud, huh?,” Lleifseth Ulsom said.
By the time the sun came up, another close race was playing out on Front Street. Veterans Paul Gebhardt and Cim Smyth battled for 15th place as their teams neared the finish line. When Smyth saw Gebhardt five miles out, he knew the time had come.
“There was a little bitty dot and I thought that might be a dog team. I watched it for a while and it was moving like a dog team not a rock,” Smyth said.
A mile and a half before the finish line, Smyth caught Gebhardt.
“We were really cooking at that point, just smoking a long, but neither one of my leaders had ever been here before. There were some people cheering up on the road, and one of my leaders though that’s gotta be the finish line,” Smyth said.
Smyth had to stop his team and switch out his rookie leaders for a 10-year old veteran. But while he was reorganizing his dogs, Gebhardt reclaimed the lead. Once he stripped off his heavy coat, to run with his dogs, Smyth, a 12-time Iditarod finisher, was able to pass one last time.
“I don’t know that there’s been a single race where I haven’t picked up a place or two between White Mountain and here,” Smyth said.
Smyth and his brother Ramey are known for their fast run times into Nome.
“We’re late everywhere else. It’s a last minute thing. Just a last minute kind of guy,” Smyth said. “It’s cause the dogs are ready to go, you know they’ve been nurtured and cared for the whole way and they’re finally primed to run.”
That’s Ramey Smyth, Cim’s brother. He posted the fastest time in the top 20 on the last run from Saftey. A nearly identical race scenario played out for him, but this time, the competition was four-time champion Lance Mackey, who pulled in under the burled arch, panting, sweating and generally flabbergasted.
Like his brother Ramey Smyth’s shy team balked on the city street, so Mackey ran down to help his competition across the line. When it was official, the two shook hands.
Mackey says he was “dilly-dallying” on the trail until he saw Smyth’s team barreling down upon his.
“I seen a little dot coming down the hill, it looked like a snow machine it was coming that fast. So whatever reserve they had I asked them for it. He caught me right here in no man’s land. He had me hands down, came on to the avenue, shot across the road and that was my one opportunity to get it back. I’ve never been passed in the last little bit and that was kind of a weird feeling,” Mackey said.
In hindsight, Smyth says he should have done things a little differently.
“I should have waited to pass him on the street to catch him and not pushed quite so hard to catch him before the street and just take it down the wire and wait to see if it happened,“ Smyth said.
Smyth had a tough race. He was forced to drop a dog from his team early on and he drove for nearly 500 miles on a sled with a broken runner.
Ramey Smyth has now finished 20 Iditarods. He says someday he’ll return to the race, but he needs to recover mentally and financially from this year’s run to Nome.
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