Is harder safer?

Lanier 2013 snowmachiner in bkgrd

Happy dogs on their way into Nome/photo courtesy Julie St. Louis

An Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that moved north of the Alaska Range for a Fairbanks restart this year because of bad trail was clearly kinder to mushers, but with three dogs now dead along that trail there are reasons to seriously ponder what the move meant for the dogs.

Correlation does not imply causation, but there are some things here worth considering, starting with the fact that two dogs died the last time the Iditarod moved the race north after a string of years on the traditional route without a death.

Five dogs have now died in the two races in the past three years run from Fairbanks along the flat, frozen rivers of the Interior to join the Iditarod Trail at  Ruby on the Yukon River. Only two dogs died in five previous races on the traditional route over the Alaska Range, and both of those deaths were the result of accidents – not racing.

(Editor’s note: Five dog have actually died in conjuction with this year’s race, but two deaths happened away from the race course. One dog died of a still not fully explained heatstroke on a fight to Anchorage, and another got loose in Alaska’s largest city and was killed by a motor vehicle.)

Death-free Iditarod

For the first time in 2010, Iditarod ran the race from the Willow restart north of Anchorage over the Alaska Range to McGrath and on to the Yukon River and Nome without a dog death.

Two more death-free years immediately followed in 2011 and 2012.

Twenty-thirteen should have been the fourth straight such year, but there was a screw up at the checkpoint in Unalakleet. A tired dog that had been dropped was left outside in a ground blizzard. It ended up buried in snow packed so hard the dog asphyxiated. 

Checkpoint modifications were made to protect dogs from such a thing happening again, and no dogs died the 2014 even though rough, snow-short trail that year beat the dickens out of mushers.

Fifty-two-year-old Scott Janssen, Anchorage’s “mushing mortician,” broke his ankle and had to be med-evaced from the trail. Fan favorite DeeDee Jonrowe from Willow was forced to drop out after losing her team in the Dalzell Gorge, and Willow neighbor Linwood Fiedler, a longtime Iditarod veteran, quit after taking a pounding on that stretch of trail.

Four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King shot a scary video of his rock-banging, death-defying ride through the Dalzell. 

Many mushers complained about dangerous trail conditions through the range. One claimed he nearly died on the Bering Sea coast. 

So when warm weather left the mountains snow short again in 2015 and the threat of bad trail loomed once more, Iditarod officials made the decision to move the race restart north to Fairbanks for only the second time in race history. The weather there turned bitterly cold, and several mushers suffered frostbite in 50-degree-below zero temperatures, but there were no serious injuries to people.

Two dogs, however, died. Both belonged to four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks. Of the first to die, the Iditarod Trail Committee reported, “there were no abnormalities found that could identify the cause of death.” Of the second, it was reported, that “although abnormalities were found, the cause of death could not be determined.”

Follow-up testing was said to be taking place, but it was never reported. And by 2016, as the race moved back onto the traditional course, those deaths were forgotten.

Sadly, there was a dog death on the trail during the 2016 Iditarod, but it was the kind of dog death that kills an estimated 1.2 million dogs per year in the U.S.  A dog in King’s team was struck and killed by a motor vehicle – in this case a snowmachine piloted by a drunk driver.

The death of that dog, like the death of the dog outside the checkpoint in Unalkaleet, could hardly be attributed to the stresses of racing, which essentially leaves the Iditarod with an eight-year span in which there were six years with no racing-related dog deaths on the traditional course and two years in which their have now  been five deaths (with others yet possible) on the flatter, musher-friendlier, Fairbanks-Ruby-Iditarod course.

These differences in dog deaths could be just a coincidence, but there is a legitimate reason to ponder whether the Fairbanks-Ruby-Iditarod route places more stress on the dogs and thus increases the likelihood of death.

Speed kills

Physiologists have long known that as the pace of running for any animal – dog, horse, human – goes up, so to the stress on the organism. Pumped up on amphetamines, Tom Simpson, one of the greatest British cyclists of all time, managed to push himself to death in the 1967 Tour de France. As with dogs in the Iditarod, his death followed days of physiologically stressful racing.

All of which is where the Alaska Range enters the Iditarod equation.

The Alaska Range can be thought of as one giant speed-bump. Because of the difficulty of the trail, mushers are forced to slow their teams to protect themselves.

“There’s a lot of things on that route that force you to slow down,” said Arleigh Reynolds, associate dean of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a physiologist, and a musher who once won the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race.

Reynolds knows well the performance risks to dog teams – or people – from going out too fast in long-distance races. When Reynolds ran Rondy, he regularly posted slower times than his rivals to halfway and almost always came home faster to pass them.

“Almost every single world record” in human sports in recent years has been set by people running what are called “negative splits,” he said. These are races started at a pace slower at the beginning than at the end.

“When Dennis Kimetto set the (human) marathon world record to 2:02:57 in 2014 at the Berlin Marthon, he ran the first half in 61:45 and the second half in 61:12,” writes Jason Fitzgerald at  “Haile Gebrselassie ran a similar strategy in 2007 when he ran the WR of 2:04:26 with a spread of 62:29 and 61:57. The next year, when he broke 2:04, he had half marathon splits of 62:05 and 61:54.”

Human running history is full of stories of runners who went out too fast only to find themselves struggling to finish races. Luckily, most of them lived. But the stress placed on a runner or cyclists or dog who over-exerts early and tries to push on is extreme and can prove deadly.

And the temptation to avoid going out too fast behind a dog team on a flat, easily navigated course like that from Fairbanks to Ruby requires a lot of discipline, Reynolds said.

“There’s a physiological law,” he said. If mushers allow their teams to use too much energy too soon, they will pay a price later. Luckily, for the vast majority of teams, the price is a slower time to Nome and a lower finish, but the possibility that the stress of going too hard too early might play a role in dog deaths on down the trail cannot be ruled out.

Reynolds said it certainly deserves some study.

“I think you hit the nail on the head there,” he said.

Record Iditarod

Mitch Seavey, the musher from Sterling who this year demonstrated the Iditarod really is all about the dogs by winning his third championship at the age of 57, ran a carefully paced race at a speed at which his team was conditioned to perform.

Seavey is well familiar with the negative splits, and it is obvious he was holding his team within its limits early in the race. Halfway into the Iditarod, he was in fourth place and then steadily opened up a lead that saw him winning by close to three hours over his son, the defending champ and previous Iditarod record holder Dallas Seavey.

Along the way, Mitch took about 8 hours off the course record. His dogs did slow as the race progressed, but next to the dogs of Nic Petit from Girdwood they were still the fastest dogs on the last 20 miles of trail into Nome. The same could not be said for a lot of other teams.

Reynolds noted team management was probably harder for the amateurs in this Iditarod than for mushers like Seavey, professionals who spend their lives training and racing dogs.

“They know how to control their dog team,” Reynolds said, and themselves.

How the race shifted among the lead teams in 2017 is a testament to the value of negative splits or something approaching that goal. A lot of the early front-runners fell of the pace and suffered while some of those who went out conservatively surged ahead.

How much faster the start of the race this year than in past years is startling.

Wade Marrs of Willow led  into the village of Tanana, about 230 miles down the frozen rivers of the Interior from Fairbanks, in 33 hours. Last year, it took the leader of the Iditarod 45 hours to make Nikolai, near mile 270 on the traditional Iditarod Trail.

Because of the mileage distance between those early checkpoints, the times need to be corrected. But even if one takes five hours off the Nikolai time – figuring a top dogteam does those extra 40 miles at a conservative 8 mph (Seavey was still going faster than that at the end of race) – you’re still looking at a time that cuts seven hours off 2016.

The seven hours is about the difference between the new record set by Seavey and the old record set just last year by his son, Dallas. It also reflects a pace a lot of teams in the 2017 Iditarod couldn’t hold.

Marrs was among them, although he did manage to hang on to finish sixth behind a fading team down to a speed of less than 6.5 mph on the last stretch of trail from Safety into Nome. Seavey did almost 9 mph on that stretch of trail.

The leaderboard for the Iditarod in Tanana showed some pretty startling shake ups as teams that went out too fast fell down in the standings and some others rose dramatically.

Veteran Paul Gephardt from Kasilof was behind the 30th team into Tanana, but reached Nome in tenth place. Norwegian Lars Monsen led four-time champ King into Tanana in 18th position.

Monsen fell back to 26th as King climbed to 11th. There were plenty of others who followed this pattern. Former champ John Baker from Kotzebue went from ninth in Tanana to 18th at Nome. Noah Burmeister from Nenana fell from 10th to 29th.

Jason Mackey from Salcha, heralded by an Anchorage newspaper as an Iditarod contender midway through the race, fell out of the top 20, going from 14th in Tanana to sixth in Ruby before starting a steady slide to 21st at the end.

None of these drivers suffered dog deaths, but teams that go out too fast in the Iditarod are undeniably weaker teams when they hit the coast where weather can prove difficult for the dogs.

Two of the three dogs deaths on the trail this year came on the coast. Iditarod veterinarians have spent a decade trying to avoid this by encouraging mushers to keep their dogs fatter and better hydrated on the way to the coast.

Those are easier goals to accomplish when the team is moving at a slow pace than when moving at a fast pace, and the Alaska Range speed-bump without a doubt slows the pace.

All of which makes interesting the question of whether a trail that is harder and more dangerous for the people involved in the Iditarod might actually be safer for the dogs involved in the Iditarod.

CORRECTION: This story was edited on March 17, 2017 to correct Noah Burmeister’s name.

















13 replies »

  1. Maybe it is nothing to do with the speed of the teams. Maybe it is the fact that both years starting in Fairbanks, 2015 and 2017, the temps were down to 50 below while teams were running, breathing, sucking huge amounts of burning cold air into their lungs. Did that contribute or cause the lung issues which killed several dogs later in the race?

  2. The best thing for the dogs is not have the race at all,–ever! It’s too risky,–deadly. There ARE issues with dogs running endurance races. From Dr. Paula Kislak: “As a veterinarian I have analyzed the medical literature and found that research in well-respected veterinary journals demonstrates that up to 61% of dogs who run in an endurance race suffer from painful bleeding stomach ulcers which can rupture causing death, and 81% sustain pulmonary damage to lungs and airways, predisposing some to cancer ultimately. And these do not include the crippling fractures, soft tissue injuries and chronic arthritis for those who survive. It is a sad commentary when we run dogs to exhaustion, organ failure and death in the name of sport and entertainment.”

    • And I am the primary author of both of the studies that are cited by Dr. Kislak, and her quote is in part misleading and in part just totally false. Yes, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60% of dogs will have what veterinary internal medicine specialists would regard as clinically-significant lesions in the stomach IF NOTHING IS DONE TO PREVENT THEM, but the vast majority (>90%) of those lesions are nowhere near the severity that would make stomach rupture a realistic possibility. Furthermore, her observation conspicuously omits the fact that those data were recorded BEFORE we were able to figure out how to prevent those stomach lesions. And nowhere in the paper on airway physiology of sled dogs is it suggested that the findings of that study constituted “damage”, much less predispose the dogs to cancer. The paper demonstrated that the airways of racing sled dogs resemble the airways of other elite athletes participating in winter sports.

      • I do not know who posted this earlier quote of mine but I have reviewed my original analysis and all of the source material and I stand by the conclusions stated.

        In addition, I hope Dr. Davis joins me in respecting and observing the foundational pillars of the veterinary oath which state that we pledge to work for : “the protection of animal health and welfare, [and] the prevention and relief of animal suffering” which does not include the intentional induction of disease and disability for entertainment and prizes.

        While drugs may partially treat the hemorrhagic intestinal “symptoms”, the “underlying systemic condition” of dogs being over-driven past their capacity to remain alive and healthy remains unaddressed, which is why about one half of all dogs that start the race are unable to finish, despite all the drugs in the world.

        And drugs are never without negative side effects. For instance, the drug recommended to treat bleeding ulcers,(caused by as little as 100 miles of training), has been documented to cause diarrhea on occasion which contributes to potentially deadly dehydration and, while racing, feces flung into the faces, eyes and lungs of following dogs predisposing to ocular and pulmonary infections.

        Using drugs in the service of allowing this to continue is no service to dogs.

  3. Craig,
    Your mention of Tom Simpson and the 1967 TDF is certainly a grisly example of a drug-addled human pushing himself to death, and I think there may be other less sensational things to be learned from team cycling. Team cycling and races like the Tour de France with a Lance Armstrong leader and a bunch of domestiques who will do anything to help their leader win, seems to be the only sport comparable to the Iditarod. In both events you have a team of super fit endurance athletes maxing out for an extended period of time covering big chunks of geography. Team members perform a certain function at a very high level and if they are no longer able or needed to perform that function they are dropped from the team. The important thing is to get Lance (or Dallas) to the finish line first. The question is does the Iditarod want to be about just the musher (like the Tour is just about the team leaders) or does it want to be about musher + team? As the drugs in the Tour indicate, when it’s just about the leader winning at all costs, things can get pretty ugly. Maybe we need an equation to chart some middle ground between the humanitarian award and the first under the arch? Here’s one way to calculate a musher + team “winner”: for each dog dropped add 2 hours to the overall time. Start with 16 and drop 9? Add 18 hours. Start with 16 and finish with 16? No penalty. That shakes up the standings a bit and acknowledges the fact that if you finish with 16 dogs your team ran more total miles than a team that finishes with 11.

  4. The race is hardly “safe” for the dogs over either route. Dragging a sled one thousand miles in eight days is simply more than most dogs can endure. Roughly half the dogs don’t make it to the finsh line and a lot of the ones that do look absolutely trashed. Many sustain permanent injuries, some don’t ever recover.

    When the Iditarod started it was run with a different type of dog; today’s racing dogs are much smaller, much faster, and they are way less suited for Arctic conditions. These hybrid huskies are prone to cold injuries and also to gastric ulcers caused by overexerting themselves. The cold can be challenging for the dogs, the ulcers can be deadly.

    Ten years ago a lot of race fatalities were being attributed to ulcers and industry veterinarians discovered that the majority of the racing dogs developed the condition to some degree. While only a small percentage were dying, it was enough to threaten the phony “dog loving” image of the race. So DARPA and the Department of Defense pitched in a few million dollars to study the problem and it was discovered that with a small dose of Pepcid the dogs could once again go like the wind.

    Pepcid is now exempted from the Iditarod’s (pretty much nonexistent) anti-doping policy, along with corticosteroid creams which are used on dogs’ feet. Where foot tenderness and ulcers were once the weakest link in the dogs physiology, now the mushers are masking the symptoms of overexertion (sore feet and bloody stool) with OTC medications. They had a few death free years and now the top contenders are pushing the dogs even harder. Maybe the trail plays a factor, or maybe the dogs’ hearts are just the next organ in line to be pushed beyond their breaking point.

    • If there is going to be a discussion, it should be based on facts.

      “Ten years ago a lot of race fatalities were being attributed to ulcers and industry veterinarians discovered that the majority of the racing dogs developed the condition to some degree.”

      I am the senior author on the paper that described the prevalence of gastric lesions in racing sled dogs, but at no time have I ever worked as a veterinarian in industry. My colleagues and I were (and some still are) faculty at various veterinary colleges around North America. We had no financial interest in the research we were performing – it was done because that is what faculty veterinarians do.

      “While only a small percentage were dying, it was enough to threaten the phony “dog loving” image of the race. So DARPA and the Department of Defense pitched in a few million dollars to study the problem and it was discovered that with a small dose of Pepcid the dogs could once again go like the wind.”

      The majority of the studies pertaining to gastric ulcers in sled dogs were funded off of my credit card (resulting in a second mortgage on my house), and later by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and by a charitable fund started by Karen Ramstead after the death of her dog Snickers. The funding received from Department of Defense was not related to the image of the Iditarod, and was not focused on gastric ulcers – it was focused on identifying the nature of the muscle metabolism that facilitates this type of exercise. And it was not a few million dollars (I wish).

      The use of famotidine (Pepcid) or omeprazole (Prilosec) does not make the dogs run like the wind – in fact, the studies have demonstrated absolutely no effect on the dog’s performance except for eliminating the gastric ulcers, which is why these types of drugs are not prohibited by any anti-doping agency for canine or human athletes. And these drugs are not “masking” symptoms. Our studies have demonstrated that the lesions are actually no longer present – the endoscopic exams showed normal gastric mucosa.

      • Michael: from the literature i’ve read, i’d have to agree with you on Pepcid/Prilosec. and i couldn’t agree more that any discussion of what to do to make the race better for dogs “should be based on facts.” too much discussion today gets off in the weeds of feelings. but i also think people who have concerns about the use of drugs in the Iditarod have legitimate reasons for concern. the anti-doping program there, at least from the outside, appears less than robust. i’m frankly unaware of any other doping program that has never caught a cheat, and those more familiar with anti-doping programs than I, tell me that if they saw such a program they would suspect there was no program. i do know that the lack of out-of-competition is a major Iditarod weakness. i personally know enough about doping that i could pretty easily set up a program to use blood boosters and muscle builders to advantage in preparing a team for the Iditarod and never worry about getting caught because of the lack of out-of-competition testing. but maybe, this being Iditarod, there have been people caught and sanctioned who were never revealed. the Iditarod tends to keep a bit behind closed doors.

      • “Under actual racing conditions, famotidine was not sufficiently effective in preventing severe EIGD [exercise-induced gastric disease]. A further study was then conducted, which compared the efficacy high-dose famotidine (40 mg PO BID/~25 kg dog) with omeprazole (20 mg PO SID/~25 kg dog) in preventing EIGD under racing conditions. This study showed that, with carefully timed administration, near the conclusion of a long exercise bout during which minimal snacking has occurred, omeprazole is more effective in reducing the number and severity of gastric lesions in racing sled dogs than famotidine. If an additional 30 min is allowed to pass prior to feeding the dog, efficacy can approach 100% in preventing clinically significant lesions during even the most strenuous exercise events.”

        – Michael S. Davis and Katherine K. Williamson, “Gastritis and Gastric Ulcers in Working Dogs,” Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 2016; 3: 30

        The study indicates that stomach ulcers are almost 100% preventable in a very controlled environment, but that does not reflect the chaotic conditions that occur throughout the race. While clearly less dogs are dying from ulcers, it seems like more are now dying from heart and lung damage.

        The permitted use of corticosteroids on the dogs feet makes it nearly impossible to determine that the same drugs are not being given to the dogs orally or as injectables. While corticosteroids are not necessarily performance enhancers, they do mask symptoms of pain. The fastest mushers only spend a few minutes at each checkpoint, all the race veterinarians have time to do is observe that the dogs are not seriously injured. No one is collecting blood and urine samples, and the ITC would probably have to put the testing fees on their credit card too, if they actually wanted to identify abuse.

  5. By your logic, is the Crow Pass Crossing safer than the Mayor’s Marathon? Both are marathon length events. One has a sooth, flat and fast course. One has a hard, slower and “dangerous” course that goes over a mountain pass. Each of these courses is a real life metaphor for the Iditarod course comparison you make. Seems this comparison leans towards harder not being safer. Fast and easy courses have one major risk – over exertion of the cardiovascular system A hard course offers many other types of risks an easy course does not. I’m not advocating easy. Just pointing out that risks of a different type likely make a harder course less safe for dogs. Also, statistically there is too little Iditarod race data to support the claim that flat courses are not safer. Maybe after another 20 flat races.

    • totally agree that there is too little data to draw any real conclusions at this point, Tim. and the over-the-range course does present physical dangers not present on the smooth, flat course. but we do have data on the physical dangers of the traditional route going back to 1973. i compiled all that data. i’m going to go on memory here which is admittedly a gamble, because i don’t have access to the old Anchorage Daily News database from which icould pull the story written after months of actually tracking down mushers who’d had dogs die and asking them what happened. but my recollection is that in all those early deaths there was one (possibly two) dogs that died from injuries sustained running through the range. that’s a pretty small number. the main problem in the old days was the same as the problem today (well except for ulcers which seem to have been licked), over-exertion related issues. dogs that burned too much of the candle early struggled and sometimes died later. i hate to use the word “common sense” here, given that sense just isn’t common, but the scientific evidence would indicate that the over-exertion risks increase on courses that encourage athletes (dog, horse, human) to go out too fast. i admit to some possible bias. i have way too much personal experience with this problem. i still remember running the 50th Boston Marathon. also my first and last Boston. some Boston training sites warns that it’s “critical you spend these last few weeks perfecting your ability to run UNDER CONTROL, especially downhill.” i was not under control. i hit halfway on pace to run sub-2:45. i was not a 2:45 marathoner. i might have been OK if i’d gotten there on 2:55 pace, but i didn’t. Heartbreak Hill became I Just Want to Quit Hill, and then I’m Embarrassed to be Here Running This Slow Hill, and finally by the top I Think I’m Going to Die Hill. i didn’t die, thankfully. i staggered to the finish, and then i almost crawled to the hotel which was luckly nearby and collapsed into bed. it was ugly. it would have been far better if Heartbreak Hill had come about a quarter of the way into the race to slow me down and same me from myself, which is sort of what the Alaska Range does during the Iditarod.

  6. I would agree with you; the longer, more difficult, slower, traditional route through the Alaska Ranger appears to be a safer race for the dogs.
    This race is about the dogs and their safety has always been priority number one the past 20+ years
    Now that we have additional race history stats we need to use them when considering changing the official start to Fairbanks
    If we do have to move to Fairbanks due to lack of snow, we need to consider ways to slow the race between Fairbanks and Kaltag.

    • thanks, Al. i truly appreciate that coming from a vet i respect and knowing i’m going to take some fire for writing this story. but sometimes somebody has to take some fire.

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