By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - The 2004 winner of Alaska's famed 1,000-mile sled-dog race, the Iditarod, won again at age 53 on Tuesday to become the oldest champion, a year after his son became the youngest winner.
Mitch Seavey and his team of dogs sprinted across the finish line just 24 minutes ahead of Aliy Zirkle, who was bidding to become the first woman to win the Iditarod since 1990, when Susan Butcher claimed her fourth championship.
Seavey mushed his way from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, to the Bering Sea town of Nome in nine days, seven hours, 39 minutes and 56 seconds, his winning margin one of the narrowest in the event's 40-year history.
"I just now stopped looking over my shoulder, so I kind of realized we're here," Seavey said.
Seavey had been just 13 minutes ahead of Zirkle on Tuesday morningwhen they departed White Mountain, an Inupiat Eskimo village where racers must stop for 8 hours.
Last year Zirkle finished second to Seavey's son Dallas, then just 25. Dallas Seavey was on course to come in fourth this year.
The family have a long tradition in mushing. The race was Mitch Seavey's 20th Iditarod, and his father competed in the inaugural race.
"I hate to go off into the sunset thinking I only did it once out of 20 or more tries," said Seavey, who lives in Seward, Alaska, and operates a seasonal sled-dog touring business.
This year's contest was marked by unusual thaw conditions and unseasonable rain in the northern part of the trail, conditions that Seavey said helped his team.
"It seems like the tougher it is, the better we can do."
He also gave credit to Zirkle, a New England transplant who now lives in Two Rivers, Alaska.
"She's a great musher, and she's going to win the Iditarod sometime, and probably more than once. We just had a little more steam, I think,"
Zirkle, one of the most popular mushers, was greeted by chants of "Aliy, Aliy" from spectators as she drove her dog team into the finish chute on Nome's Front Street. "I am pretty happy to be here," she said. "I was going for it."
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum to Nome by sled-dog relay, is one of the few major U.S. sporting events in which men and women compete on an equal footing.
The name "Iditarod" derives from a local Athabascan term meaning "a far, distant place," according to race officials.
The year's event started on March 2 with a ceremonial run in Anchorage. Of the 66 mushers who started the race, 10 had dropped out of competition as of Tuesday night.
For his victory, Seavey will take home $50,400 and a new truck.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Kevin Liffey)