The most telling observation about the problem today facing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race comes midway through a December report from a consultant summarizing an anonymous survey earlier sent those charged with managing “The Last Great Race.”
“The survey found that almost everyone who responded perceived that they knew the purpose and the principles of achieving that purpose,” wrote Dennis McMillian of The Foraker Group. “However, a large percentage perceived that other staff and members did not understand.”
His observation begs a simple question:
What exactly is the Iditarod today?
A wilderness adventure race? A doggy NASCAR? An event “all about the dogs?” A purely professional sports competition in which the goal is, as the late Oakland Raider’s owner Al Davis once so clearly defined it, “just win, baby.”
The only thing clear these days is that the Iditarod isn’t what it was no matter how hard it tries to cling to the old days.
“The race pits man and animal against nature, against wild Alaska at her best and as each mile is covered, it is a tribute to Alaska’s history and the role the sled dog’ played. The Iditarod is a tie to that colorful past,” the Iditarod website says.
“(Joe) Redington had two reasons for organizing the long-distance Iditarod Race: to save the sled dog culture and Alaskan huskies, which were being phased out of existence due to the introduction of snowmobiles in Alaska; and to preserve the historical Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome. These reasons were his life’s work.”
How badly out of date? The only musher mentioned from the modern area is Lance Mackey, the four-time champ who flew so high before falling so far. He won four races in a row starting in 2007 and ending in 2010.
Since then, he has finished 16th, 22nd, 19th and 43rd before scratching last year and saying he was done. Mackey gets a brief mention at the end of the description of what the race is “about.”
“There are names which are automatically associated with the race — Joe Redington, Sr., co-founder of the classic and affectionately known as ‘Father of the Iditarod,'” the page says. “Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, Alaska, the only five-time winner, the only musher to have entered 20 Iditarod races and never finished out of the top ten in those races. Dick Mackey from Nenana who beat Swenson by one second in 1978 to achieve the impossible photo finish after two weeks on the trail. Norman Vaughan, who at the age of 88 finished the race for the fourth time and led an expedition to Antarctica in the winter of 93–94. Four time winner, Susan Butcher, was the first woman to ever place in the top 10. And of course, Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985.
‘There are others — Herbie Nayokpuk, Shishmaref; Emmitt Peters, Ruby, whose record set in 1975 was not broken until 1980, when Joe May, Trapper Creek, knocked seven hours off the record… the flying Andersons, Babe and Eep, from McGrath.. Rick Mackey, who wearing his father Dick’s winning #13, crossed the finish line first in 1983, making them the first father and son to have both won an Iditarod… Lance Mackey, Dick’s son and Rick’s brother, also wearing bib #13 on his first win… Joe Runyan, 1989 champion and the only musher to have won the Alpirod (European long distance race), the Yukon Quest, (long distance race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, YT) and the Iditarod… The list goes on, each name bringing with it a tale of adventure, a feeling of accomplishment, or a touch of hero. Each musher, whether in the top ten, or winner of the Red Lantern (last place) has accomplished a feat few dare to attempt. Each has gone the distance and established a place for their team in the annals of Iditarod lore.”
Redington is long dead. So, too, Vaughan and Butcher. May last raced in 1982, Dick Mackey in 1987, Petters in 2000, Rick Mackey and Libby Riddles in 2004, and Runyan in 2008 – a decade ago. Swenson walked away in 2012, retiring without officially ever announcing a retirement.
The Anderson brothers have been gone from the scene so long they wouldn’t recognize most of the dogs running in the Iditarod today – dogs much different from the “Alaskan huskies” Redington wanted to save.
New trail order
The dogs of Redington’s day were trapline and village dogs bred to live in the unforgiving world of wild Alaska. Those dogs didn’t need coats to survive in the cold. They had fur to protect them. No more.
A lot of the fur has been bred off most Iditarod dogs. Why?
“The Alaskan sled dog has evolved over the past century from a working dog, originally developed to haul cargo sleds over snow-covered terrain to an elite modern-day athlete,” Heather Huson of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, observed in a 2012 examination of the genetics of today’s Iditarod dogs.
What Huson and her colleagues discovered about that “modern-day athlete” was something a lot of dog mushers figured out long ago: endurance is tied not to a dog’s ability to survive in the cold, but its ability to run in the warm.
“Heat tolerance is a measure of whether a dog reaches or nears a state of heat exhaustion (inability to reduce body temperature) while running in warm temperatures (approximately 19 to 50 degrees),” Huson wrote. “The body temperature rise associated with heat exhaustion causes an increased heart rate, muscle weakness, dizziness or confusion, rapid breathing, nausea, and vomiting.”
Fifty degree temperatures are uncommon during the Iditarod race in March, but it’s not unusual for the race to be run with temperatures in the 20s and sometimes warmer, especially when a bright sun is bouncing off highly reflective snow. In the latter conditions, in fact, even if the temperature is less than 20 degrees, the bodies of dark-colored dogs act like solar collectors to increase the warming effect on their bodies.
To deal with these conditions, mushers have bred dogs for thinner and thinner coats. That Alaskan husky Redington wanted to save is long gone. It’s once close cousin – the Siberian husky – is hanging on but mainly as a relic or show dog.
The Siberian husky is what most people still think of when the word “sled dog” is muttered. Sibs, as they are often called, look a lot like “Yukon King,” the Malamute that led the team of TV’s “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. “
There is no record of when the last Malamute ran the Iditarod. It might well have been the first race. They are long gone: too big, too slow; too furry.
But some Sibs still go the distance.
Lisbet Norris and Nils Pedersen of Fairbanks cling to a Sib tradition that dates back to Lisbet’s grandfather, the late and legendary Earl Norris of Willow. Norris was a contemporary of Redington’s and successfully raced Sibs before the breed began to fall behind the crossbreeds that have been coming on for decades.
Earl and Natalie’s grand-daughter is carrying on the tradition even though the Sibs keep falling farther and farther behind.
“The Norris’ are committed to maintaining the workability of the Siberian Husky,” Lisbet and Pedersen say on their website, Arctic Dog Adventure Company. “(Lisbet) completed the Iditarod, Alaska’s famous 1000-mile sled dog race, in 2014, 2015, and 2016, finishing as the #1 Siberian Husky team in 2015 and 2016, each time finishing a day faster than the year before.”
Despite the speed improvements, she only moved back in the finishing order over the course of those years. Her 2016 finish in 11 days, 21 hours, 43 minutes – a time that would have won all but three Iditarod’s prior to 1986 – left her 65th. Only a year earlier, she’d run a day slower and finished 48th.
Last year, her time would have put her 60th in a shrunken Iditarod field of only 72 starters. There were 85 in 2016. There are 68 teams ready to start the race on March 3 of this year. The race reached its peak early in the 2000s when the number of entrants started pushing toward 100. The field was then capped at 100, and the requirements for entry were stiffened to make it harder to get onto the trail.
Redington wanted a race open to anyone who could cobble together enough dogs to form a team to try to get to Nome. Some of those teams were bad; some of the mushers borderline incompetent. Entry requirements have made both the mushers and teams better.
They have also helped to speed the race from top to bottom. Mitch Seavey from Sterling set a record time of 8 days, 3 hours and 40 minutes in the 2017 Iditarod. But he finished only four days ahead of Cindy Abbott who arrived last to collect the red lantern.
A decade earlier, the time between first and last was 7 days, 6 hours. It generally fluctuated in the range of 6 to 8 days from the 1970s into the 2000s when the Iditarod really began to change.
The struggle against nature
For most of it existence, the Iditarod largely fit that “About” description of a race that “pits man and animal against nature, against wild Alaska.”
Technology and human nature changed that. The technology came in the form of ever better snowmachines, or snowmobiles as most Americans call them. They enabled the Iditarod to pack in a better trail for the race and eventually to drag groomers to make it an even better trail.
As the trail got better, the race went faster. As the race went faster, the mushers demanded better trail to avoid accidents at speed. Narrow sections of trail were widened. New trails were cut to avoid difficult to cross patches of overflow that were in some places so bad mushers simply called them “glaciers.”
A race that began as a challenge to get over the Alaska Range before anyone seriously thought about racing became an event in which people increasingly though about a racing a checkpoint earlier each year until the racing was rolled all the way back to when the official clock started at the restart in Willow.
And as the Iditarod worked to improve and maintain the trail up and over the Alaska Range and on into the Interior, simple progress changed things elsewhere. As snowmachines become more and more like other modern motor vehicles, travel in the Interior ticked upward and pretty soon there was a winter highway on the Yukon River and across the Kaltag Portage and on from there for about 300 miles along the Bering Sea Coast to Nome.
Faster trail and faster dogs meant faster races, and it wasn’t long before an arms war was underway to go faster. Mushers intensified their breeding programs to get faster dogs. Some turned to doping. Anti-doping rules were enacted.
The amoeba simply popped out elsewhere: carbon fiber sleds, the sit-down sled to help mushers rest better while the dogs ran so they could care for the dogs better when they rested, more efficient cookers to save time in checkpoints, better nutrition, better training.
Four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park put dogs in a sealed barn and lowered the oxygen content to simulate the altitude training popular with human runners and cyclists. Four-time champ Martin Buser of Big Lake obtained a treadmill he hoped would get “up to 20 mph so he can put his dogs through some speed workouts,” Josh Saul reported at AlaskaDispatch.com in 1999.
High-intensity speedwork in various forms is a mainstay of the world’s top human marathon runners. Four-time champ Dallas Seavey of Willow one-upped Buser’s treadmill by building a longer one and putting it in a refrigerated trailer (see heat issues above) so he could start the Iditarod training season earlier in the year.
More and more
Dogs that used to be run 1,000 to 2,000 miles in preparation for the Iditarod were started on programs that saw them running 4,000 or more. Some were rumored to be running a lot more. A few mushers talked about taking teams on such long runs in training they had to swap out tired drivers. Other mushers expressed opinions it was impossible to put so many miles on the dogs before the race without chemical help.
A couple mentioned Lance Armstrong, who in a 2001 Nike commercial muttered these famous lines: “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, bustin’ my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”
Armstrong was on his bike bustin’ his ass six hours a day, too. What enabled him to do that, the world was later to learn, was drugs. Whether any of that has gone on in Iditarod since the race started drug testing, which itself began because mushers thought there was a lot of doping going on, nobody knows.
There is no-out-of-competition testing during training. And the Iditarod went decades without publicly revealing a doping positive. The first case came this year and involved Seavey, who says he didn’t do it.
Whatever has been going on, the Iditarod has in the past decade been getting faster and faster. Some have in recent years suggested it might be a good idea to slow it down, but in general it’s to Iditarod’s advantage to get the race over with quick.
A quick race minimizes the costs of maintaining checkpoints in villages and remote locations, and makes for better relations with villagers who like to see the Iditarod hit town and just as much like to see the intrusion end and the occupying Iditarod army of checkpoint personnel, veterinarians, mushers and media move on.
All in all, all of these factors have helped to make the Iditarod ever more of a race and ever less of an adventure. While the race hasn’t saved the “Alaskan husky” of Redington’s day – in fact, it could be argued it has helped eliminate it – the race has helped preserve the historic trail.
Much of the trail is now regularly traveled by snowmachines, dog teams, hikers and cyclists on fat bikes. Unfortunately, the sum total of all of them has pushed the wilderness back a little.
The Iditarod is no longer as described in that “About” statement. It is something else. What that something is not clear.
“While the board seem to perceive it understands the organization’s purpose more than the staff thinks they do; both board and staff were aligned in the perception that they have no clear direction,” McMillian wrote. “This perception was also voiced by most of the sponsors and participants who contacted Foraker.”
About all that’s clear about the Iditarod these days is that the ceremonial Anchorage start is a great pageant in Alaska’s largest city, and the restart the next day up the George Parks Highway in Willow is a great excuse for a lot of people to journey out along the Susitna and Yentna rivers, on to Skwentna and Shell Lake beyond for almost 100 miles, to party and drink a lot of alcohol.
Beyond that, the race becomes the focus of 20,000 or so fans who subscribe to the Iditarod Insider to stay up-to-date with the latest trail gossip and checkpoint splits and….
How Iditarod completes that sentence will determine if it grows or withers. Sponsors don’t sign on to sporting events for nothing. They want to know they’re getting some bang for their buck. They want to know they’re being associated with something in which people are interested.
The Superbowl – a sporting event that lasts for but a few hours today – is expected to bring in $500 million in revenue for NBC. Why? Because about 100 million people are expected to watch.
The Iditarod will never attract 100 million viewers, but in order to grow interest it needs to know both what sells and what it’s selling.