But they’re all trail miles! Mitch is officially a classic. He was born July 1959 in Minnesota – the same year Alaska became a state. Gas was 25 cents a gallon, a new car was $2,200, and you could buy a new house for $12,400. Ben Hur was a box office hit.
He moved here at 4 years old and got his first sled dog later that year. He’s mushed well over 100,000 miles (accurate records are hard to come by from the 60’s), wrestled through college and coached Dallas for years, and stays in great shape by running, walking, biking, and general life on a farm. In 2017, he became the oldest guy to ever win the Iditarod at 57. Now he’s 60, and just arrived 13th into Rainy Pass (mile 153) of his 27th Iditarod with a legitimate chance to claim his 4th championship.
On the plus side, he’s once again driving an amazing dog team. His dogs were getting on the ‘experienced’ side last year, but he got a huge boost from Ryan Santiago’s puppy team, with 5 three-year-olds making their first A-team this year. He’s got Pilot back at 100%, Bug still going strong, and Drake just hitting his prime. Solid leaders and some enthusiastic and talented rookies is a good recipe for success.
On the downside, while he’s aging amazingly well, he’s 60 and being held together by athletic tape. He separated his shoulder this winter, and was only halfway through the recommended healing time and therapy when the race started. He’s mentioned it a few times this winter, but I didn’t realize how much it was limiting him until I saw him trying to move his loaded sled at the start. It wasn’t pretty. He won’t complain, but we’re relying on some sticky nylon to keep his right arm attached.
Mitch’s shoulder the morning of the race start.
Most importantly, Mitch still thinks he can win. You’ll never hear him say ‘The dogs are good, but I’m getting old.’ He’s too stubborn to admit that, which, along with a high pain tolerance, is a strength in long distance racing. The dogs were trained and the schedule was written as if he were 30. He’s written the check; we’ll see if his body can cash it.
The weather isn’t doing him any favors. By all accounts it’s deep snow, slow going, and the trail will deteriorate with more traffic. That means physically forcing a heavy sled back onto the trail over and over. Imagine pulling a winter sled with 2 kids on it in deep snow vs. hard packed snow. It’s easier with two arms.
By making it to Rainy Pass, he’s through the worst of it. The Steps are notoriously bad in deep snow years. Iditarod fans who’ve joined in the last 7-8 years may not have even heard of them, but they’re a series of steep drops into the Happy River Valley, and every team that goes down them on the brakes digs a deeper and deeper trench. By the 20th team, they’re going down a luge run. The Dalzell Gorge, Post River Glacier and Farewell Burn are next, there aren’t any easy parts of the Iditarod.
I didn’t mean this to sound like an obituary, more as inspiration. Most guys his age are worried about their blood pressure, Mitch is still making Pete and Joar earn it. I’ve heard of people aging badly, or aging gracefully, Mitch is aging like a wolverine facing off against a grizzly bear for the last meal before hibernation.
* This one is for Toni and Tracie – Look no math!