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.)
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.
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 Competitor.com. “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.
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.