Iditarod Front-Runners Looking Forward To Time Away From Competition

Aliy Zirkle talks briefly with her mom at the Iditarod finish line. She carried a picture of the two of them in a sled bag for 1000 miles because her mother couldn't be in Nome this year. (Photo by Emily Schwing)
Aliy Zirkle talks briefly with her mom at the Iditarod finish line. She carried a picture of the two of them in a sled bag for 1000 miles because her mother couldn’t be in Nome this year. (Photo by Emily Schwing)

The top-10 Iditarod mushers have arrived safely in Nome and their sled dogs are tucked in for a long rest in the dog yard. For most of the front-runners, a top-10 finish is nothing new.

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When Aaron Burmeister arrived in Nome, he received a warm welcome from his hometown. He rode the runners with his 6-year-old son Hunter for the final stretch down Front Street and crossed under the burled arch in third place.

“We’re happy, very, very happy,” he said. “The team did incredible. We had a fantastic race from start to finish.”

Aaron Burmeister in Kaltag. (Photo by Emily Schwing)
Aaron Burmeister in Kaltag. (Photo by Emily Schwing)

Of his 15 Iditarod finishes, this is Burmeister’s fourth in the top-10. It’s also a career best.

“I’m just honored I was on the runners this year driving them to Nome,” Burmeister said.

But he wasn’t ready to commit to another run down the trail next year. Burmeister says he’ll reevaluate his priorities and his kennel first.

“My little man here is 6-years-old and my daughter is two, and my wife – they haven’t seen their dad a whole lot the last few winters,” Burmeister said. “So, it’s time I spent a little bot of time with the family and do some other things. I’ll certainly be back but there’s other things in life besides Iditarod.”

Jessie Royer also finished with a career best in fourth place.

“Well you always try to do your best,” she said. “I’ve been top-10 before, this is my first top-5, so that’s pretty exciting. I just come into this race every year just to do the best I can with this team.”

Before she took off from White Mountain, she said she was looking forward to crossing the finish line so she could get some sleep. Beyond that, she says she has plans to travel with her dog team, but only for fun.

“I’m excited – not excited for the winter to be over, but I’m going to do some spring camping trips with the dogs after this and just go have so fun with them and not worry about all the serious training,” Royer said. “We’re going to go up to the Brooks Range and go caribou hunting and just fun stuff now.”

Jeff King, who finished in 7th place this year, will run one last race next month before he also takes his dog team out for a less competitive adventure.

King: “I’m taking the team up to the Brooks Range to go caribou hunting with my future son in law… I’m going to have a little talk with him and a gun and a dog team out in the woods.”
Reporter 1: “Is that a threat?”
Reporter 2: “Or a promise?”
King: “…both!”

This was King’s 23rd complete Iditarod. He has finished 19 of those races in the top-10.

“A few first for me, for sure, and after this many years of racing, they’re harder to come by…spectacular northern lights around Galena, got chased by a seal, and saw a wolverine today,” King said. “Going to Huslia was a first, and Koyukuk was really fun, so lots of wonderful memories for this trip.”

Jeff Kings team ate "like pigs" in Kaltag on Saturday night. (Photo by Emily Schwing)
Jeff Kings team ate “like pigs” in Kaltag on Saturday night. (Photo by Emily Schwing)

Early in the race, he had the makings of winning team, but by Unalakleet, King decided to slow down. He hinted that his days of hard-core racing might be behind him.

“I enjoy not being in quite as big a rush. I really do,” he said. “I don’t want to rush my whole life. I like to do a great job with the dogs, I enjoy travelling by dog team so much, it’s such a huge part of my life and I don’t want to rush it.”

But one musher who would have liked to arrive in Nome a little faster is Aliy Zirkle.

A large crowd gathered to cheer on her team as they sped under the burled arch in fifth place.

A tearful Zirkle greeted her lead dogs, taking a moment with one in particular: Scout.

“In the dog yard, he’s the fun police,” she said. “He doesn’t like a lot of other dogs having fun around him. He’s that way on the trail. He’s all business. He’s a fantastic guy.”

Zirkle broke away from media to greet her fans, shaking hands, giving and receiving hugs and chatting with the crowd as her dog team jumped in harness and begged to go.

She didn’t comment on whether she will return for another Iditarod, but her husband Allen Moore is still out on the trail, driving a team of up-and-coming young puppies.