By Jacob Mann
Lev Shvarts is gearing up for his sixth Iditarod. He said that he’s determined to do better in this race than any previous attempt, and he has the sled dog team to make it happen.
“It’s the best team I’ve ever had… I feel like it’s an experienced outfit… I think they’re ready. They’re in a good place,” Shvarts said.
Mushing is a full-time job, especially for those looking to prevail through the Iditarod. Shvarts is busily attending to his dogs and making his final preparations for their long and arduous trek. He said that he’s been training all year, and the amount of time for peak physical conditioning varies by dog.
“I like to see my guys do like a six hour run, take a shorter rest... then run back and still look pretty good. I think once they can do that a couple times, they’re probably in pretty good shape,” Shvarts said. “But, all in all, there’s people who count the miles. I don’t… I just kinda look at what’s in front of me and as long as it keeps getting better every time I go out, then I’m on the right track.”
The 2021 race route will begin and end at Deshka Landing instead of starting from Willow and finishing in Nome, breaking the historical tradition to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Shvarts said that it’s going to be a learning curve for everybody, but he believes that the mushing spirit will be undaunted by the changes.
“This Iditarod is gonna test us in a lot of ways… It will be different. There’s no way around that it will be different… It’s gonna be a weird year for sure… We’ve never done this before,” Shvarts said. “I think it’s gonna be a competitive dog race no matter what way anybody looks at it.”
Shvarts is an Alaskan transplant that settled into the musing lifestyle in Willow, the self described “mushing capital of the world.” He said the Iditarod is what drew him to Alaska, and he moved up here with his wife Melissa in 2011. He said that he knows just about all the mushers in the area now.
“I think there’s a lot of people willing to help each other out,” Shvarts said. “If somebody’s got a loose dog, we all band together and hop on a snowmachine to go look for it. We all take turns grooming the trail… If I’m gone for a couple of days, I can call my neighbors and ask them to feed my dogs while I’m gone, kinda make sure everything’s okay, and I’ll do the same for them. It’s just a respect for the lifestyle. There’s some really, truly wonderful people here.”
Shvarts said that his late and beloved Siberian Husky, Ollie, is the main motivation behind his newfound love for mushing, and his team’s namesake.
“We did everything together, and he was like a friend,” Shvarts said. “He kinda started me down the path… I just fell in love with the lifestyle. I thought this would be the adventure of a lifetime… and it always kind of stuck with me.”
Shvarts said that he didn’t run his first Iditarod until 2014 so he could get his team in shape and feel like he was fully prepared.
“It took me a little while to run my first Iditarod because I didn’t want to just qualify. I wanted to feel like I was ready,” Shvarts said. “I wanted to feel a level of comfort with the process, and frankly none of it prepared me for the race. Only the race prepared me for the race.”
At the end of the day, what matters most to Shvarts is his relationship with his dogs. He said there’s an unexplainable connection between them, where he can instantly know how they’re feeling or what they want with just one look. He said his goal for the 2021 Iditarod is to place in the top 20, but more importantly, it’s simply to see his team do the best they can.
“As I get older, I place more emphasis on getting my dog team to perform the best of their ability while maintaining a certain standard of comfort… If I’m 20th, I’ll be pickled pink,” Shvarts said.
Shvarts said one of the most important things he learned from mushing over the years has been to keep pushing forward, past the cold and past whatever hardships they encounter on the trail.
“Just because I can’t feel my fingers, doesn’t mean they’re gonna fall off. So, suck it up and get moving,” Shvarts said.
There are currently 47 teams on the 2021 Iditarod roster. To watch the official restart and track the race, visit iditarod.com.