A 1992 Penn graduate, Aliy Zirkle may not be a household name here in Philadelphia, but in Alaska, where she currently resides, Zirkle is a mushing celebrity.
Mushing, better known as dog sled racing, is a sport famous for grueling distance races. Teams of anywhere from eight to 14 trained sled dogs run for thousands of miles through the icy Alaskan terrain. The Iditarod, or as Zirkle refers to it, the “Super Bowl of dog sled racing,” kicks off every year on the first Saturday of March. For mushers brave enough to take on the challenge, the 1000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome can take anywhere from eight days to just short of two weeks.
Even crossing the finish line of such a trying race is a huge accomplishment. Every year only around 30 teams of dogs and mushers are able to complete the race, with many teams inevitably dropping out along the way. Zirkle boasts a career of impressive results, including three consecutive second-place finishes from 2012 to 2014 alongside three other top-10 finishes.
This past week she finished her 18th Iditarod, placing fourth after holding the lead for a large portion of the early race. She eventually was overtaken by three other teams, including young gun Peter Kaiser, who ultimately secured his first career win.
Because of the variety of factors that can affect the race progression, including weather and injuries and fatigue to the dog team, a key component of the sport is strategy. Part of the skill is choosing when to rest and recover the team. If the Iditarod is indeed the Super Bowl, mushers have the challenge of choosing when to take a mandatory halftime.
It was with this decision that Zirkle attempted to get a leg up on her competition in this year’s race, choosing to delay her halftime in hopes of getting ahead of weather that she anticipated would hit the other mushers who had stopped earlier.
“I pushed ahead and most of my competitors stayed behind, and I was gambling on the fact that snow was going to fall behind me, but it fell on top of me. So it ended up slowing me down instead of slowing them,” Zirkle said. “It was a bit of a gamble but I needed to do that in order to really try to win this year. You can just continue to do the status quo year after year, but then you’re going to continue to come in second, third, fourth, fifth. This was the one time I was like, ‘to heck with it, I’m going for it.’”
It's gambles like these that have made for an incredible racing career.
Zirkle is the only woman to have ever won the Yukon Quest, an arguably more grueling 1000-mile dog sled race. Kicking off every year in the heart of winter, the race is known for remarkably difficult weather conditions. There are only three people who have ever won the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, and Zirkle would be the first woman to accomplish the feat.
Behind such an impressive racing career in Alaska is a lifetime of passion for athletics and competing. During her time at Penn, Zirkle was a multi-sport athlete on volleyball and track. Zirkle once held the school record for the hammer throw.
After attending the Olympic Trials for the hammer throw in 1992, falling just short of making the team, Zirkle moved to Alaska to work for the Department of Fish and Game, using her biology degree to monitor the wolf population. It was there that she fell in love with the sport of mushing.
Her experiences at Penn served her well in her new role, as mushers have to walk a fine line between their role as an athlete as well as a coach to other athletes: the dogs. As the track and field coach for Zirkle’s time at Penn, Tony Tinese provided a perspective that would serve her in well in her new role.
“Tony was the epitome of the best coach I’ve ever had. He rose every individual athlete that was under him up to the best they could, because he was always doing the best he could. No matter what, he was always in the gym, he was always eating right, living the way you coach,” Zirkle said. “You have to be that way with dogs.”
In a sport extremely dependent on the speed of the dogs, not everyone shares Zirkle’s same concern for their well-being. She has won the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award four times, given to a musher every year in the Iditarod that prioritizes dog care while embodying the competitive spirit of racing.
She regards her dogs as athletes and has devoted her life to raising and taking care of the over 50 dogs that she and her husband, fellow musher Allen Moore, house at SP Kennel.
“Dogs are both easier and more sensitive than people," she said. "They are easier because they always push themselves. In humans we have this mental hurdle that we sometimes have to get past, whereas dogs don’t have that. But that’s where you as a coach come in and have to say when to take it easy. You really have this bond with your team that surpasses just telling them what to do. It’s a dog-human relationship. As a coach you have to be the strong one."
And strong she is.
During her 2016 Iditarod, Zirkle and her dogs were attacked by a drunk man who repeatedly tried to hit her and her team with his snowmobile. They survived and continued on with the race, despite incurring injuries to some of the team. Fellow musher Jeff King lost one of his dogs when the same man attacked him and his team later on.
The man was later arrested and found guilty of assault.
Having survived such a traumatic incident did, however, leave a mark. Racing the Iditarod a year later in 2017 meant that she would have to travel along the same pathway where the incident had happened a year earlier.
“That first year it was almost impossible to get back out on the race. But I feel more powerful now that I did it again. I’m not ready to take on the world, don’t get me wrong, but now because I know there are going to be more hurdles, all I have to do is get fit and get ready to jump them,” Zirkle said.
Unsurprisingly, what draws fans of the sport to Zirkle is her incredible resilience in the face of such setbacks. Years of passion for her sport and her dogs has allowed for her story to extend far beyond the frozen tundra of Alaska. The recently released Netflix show “Losers” features an episode on Zirkle where she tells her traumatic story.
In the face of certain difficulties that she has encountered throughout her career, Zirkle can always count on fellow mushers if she’s ever in need. Being a part of the tight-knit community of a rather niche sport provides an interesting dichotomy of competitive support.
“We are friendly competitors. Everyone definitely wants to beat the next person, without a doubt. But they’re not going to 'Tanya Harding' you,” she said. “They’re going to help you out because you are in a situation out in the wilderness where you have a commitment to uphold the code of the north, which is to help your neighbor."
Zirkle will be seeing much more of these friendly competitors, as she doesn’t see retirement anytime in her near future. As she transitions into the summer offseason, she will give her dogs some time to rest before beginning the training cycle for next year’s Iditarod.
Although it’s hard to predict how a team will perform on a given year, one thing is for sure: Alaskans are rooting for Aliy Zirkle.