If – as the modern Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race likes to claim – the event is “all about the dogs,” the time has come for The Last Great Race to harness technology to make the event easier on the dogs.
Four words: Equal run/equal rest.
Satellite tracking of dog teams now gives Alaska’s biggest sporting event the opportunity to slow the race by requiring equal amounts of run and rest based on movements tracked from space. Doing this would not only benefit the dogs, it should also help make an increasingly boring race more interesting by forcing mushers to figure out a strategy to make the rule work to their advantage.
With an equal-run/equal-rest rule, some mushers are certain to try to bank rest at the start of the race to allow for a push along the Bering Sea coast because “negative splits,” speeds slower at the start of a race than at the end, lead to fast finishing times.
The world record in the marathon was set in 2014 by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto running negative splits, and as distances increase beyond 26.2 miles, the evidence only builds that going out relatively slow and speeding up over time is a far better strategy than going out too fast.
Physiologically, humans and dogs aren’t much different in this regard, and the top mushers are well aware of that fact. Defending and three-time champ Mitch Seavey years ago confessed what he hates about climbing over the Alaska Range in the opening days of the Iditarod is that the invariably bad trail that develops behind the first teams in that land of ups, downs and deep snow makes it a gamble to ease into the race.
More than a decade ago, Seavey was contemplating negative splits. The Iditarod needs to encourage that sort of thinking, though not everyone will abide by it.
Even with a requirement for equal run and rest in order to officially finish, it’s predictable some mushers will leave Willow on the 1,000-mile trek to Nome thinking they can put down equal-run, equal-rest times all the way – a reasonable strategy – or take off too fast either because they can’t control themselves (in a race, it’s human nature to race to the front) or because they think they can play the weather.
A musher going out fast enough, while others are being conservative, could conceivably put a storm between herself and the field, and in that way gain enough of an advantage to be able to add back necessary rest time while teams behind are struggling to catch up.
An equal-run/equal-rest rule has the potential to make the race a lot more interesting than it is now with contenders invariably down to but a handful by the Bering Sea coast.
There were five in that group last year at Unalakleet, and aside from Nic Petit sneaking past Joar Leifseth Ulsom to finish fourth, and Jessie Royer making a run from hours back to catch a fading Wade Marrs to take fifth, they finished in the same order they left Unalakleet about 275 miles from the finish line in Nome.
This has become the Iditarod norm. The race is usually all-but decided by Unalakleet. Number one and two there last year – the Seaveys, Mitch and Dallas – never looked back on the way to the finish line.
Who wants to watch a race once it becomes so predictable?
A few, diehard fans, no doubt. Subscriptions to the pay-per-view Iditarod Insider indicate there are about 20,000 of those. Ask around in the real world and people tell you, “Yeah, I like to watch the start in Anchorage,” and catch the end in Nome.
In between? Who cares.
Altering the rules to force some shifts in strategy could help change that dynamic, but even if the rule change failed in this regard, it would still help the dogs.
Dogs normally sleep 12 to 14 hours per day. Veterinarians say they need at least 10 hours for good health. Twelve hours to provide a little extra recovery time to compenate for the pace of Iditarod would seem a fair minimum.
More than a decade ago, before GPS was everywhere, mushers themselves first started talking about how to slow the race in the interest of providing the dogs more rest. It was a futile discussion then. The logistics of the Iditarod with its few checkpoints, all small, make it impossible to turn the event into a dog-friendlier competition like the Pedigree Stage Stop Race in Wyoming.
Even if you could get all the teams together at the same time at the one-room, log cabin, heart-of-the-Alaska-Range cabin that is the Rohn checkpoint, there isn’t enough room to park them in the surrounding spruce forest. And stopping the teams at Rohn, or any other checkpoint overnight, would invariably require the front-running teams to spend extraordinary amounts of time hanging around checkpoints while forcing the back-of-the-pack teams to push to try to meet deadlines.
Simply requiring all teams to finish the race with equal run/equal rest times instantly solves all problems.
There are, of course, those sure to object to any rule that slows the Iditarod. It’s a race, right? The objective in a race is to get from Point A to Point B in the shortest possible time, isn’t it? Slowing the Iditarod would alter the character of the race, wouldn’t it?
The character of today’s Iditarod – with its well-packed, well-marked trail and small hoard of Iditarod fans and media following along – is so different from what Iditarod used to be that if the late Susan Butcher, a four-time champ, got back on the runners and headed up the trail, she largely wouldn’t recognize the event.
So let’s forget the character issue. And as for speed, even NASCAR recognized that speed kills and took steps to slow down its races.
Speed doesn’t necessarily kill in the Iditarod, but it certainly diminishes dogs.
Anything – people, horses, machinery or dogs – pushed to the maximum limit of performance will have a shorter competitive lifespan. The relationship isn’t direct and it applies in varying degrees, but in general the faster things go the sooner they wear out.
If nothing else, slowing the Iditarod would likely give dogs longer careers, which would mean fewer dogs facing retirement or a bullet, and fewer dogs needing to be bred to produce the teams of tomorrow, thus throttling back on the dog farming of today.
“Running is not a long-term career,” Mbarak Hussein, a Kenyan runner, told The New Yorkers Charles Bethea a few years ago. “You come in and have maybe two to three years of really running and making good money. I was lucky to have more than that.”
Hussein won five marathons between 1998 and 2006, but as Bethea noted, “they are regarded as second-tier races—Honolulu and Twin Cities were his bread and butter—but winning so many is still a rare feat. ”
Hussein’s longevity might be tied in part to running those “lesser marathons” instead of pushing himself ever harder in training in hopes of winning the big marathons.
When American’s best-ever marathon runner abruptly and unexpectedly retired in 2016, he cited a physiological decline brought on by the over load of training volume and intensity that helped him post a 2 hour, 4 minute, 58 second time in the Boston Marathon. Ryan Hall’s Boston time was the best-ever, by far, for an American in that event.
Hall, however, fell victim to “chronically low testosterone levels and fatigue so extreme,” New York Times reporter Lindsay Crouse wrote at the time of his retirement. “…He can barely log 12 easy miles a week.
“Testosterone is vital for optimum athletic performance, but that hormone’s levels can drop over time with extreme training.”
Hormones aren’t the only thing affected by higher and higher loads of endurance training and most especially speed training. The whole body takes a beating.
Among human runners, there is now a term for the burnout that comes with doing too much: over-training syndrome (OTS).
“Perhaps the most well-known case of performance-destroying OTS is that of Alberto Salazar,” writes Isaac Williams at Men’s Running. “Between 1980 and 1984, Salazar set three American track records and won three New York Marathons in a row. His intense training schedule, however, brought his career to an abrupt end. After a 15th placed marathon finish at the Los Angeles Olympics, he spent the next decade in a downward spiral of respiratory infection and depression. By the time he eventually retired in 1998, the former golden boy of US athletics could barely run for half an hour.”
Nobody keeps data on the competitive lifespans of Iditarod dogs, but there is a general consensus that they, too, have suffered shortened careers as the race has grown ever faster.
Five-time champ Rick Swenson’s legendary lead dog Andy raced for a decade. Andy was lucky to race in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Iditarod, and even the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, were different events than they are today.
Iditarod/Quest dogs no longer have 10-year careers.
When Dallas Seavey won the Iditarod in 2015, he raved about how only two dogs in his team were over four-years-old. When he won again in 2016, a four-year-old dog named “Reef” was in lead. When his dad, Mitch, won last year, he had four-year-old Pilot and five-year-old Crisp leading the team.
Guinness was five when she won for Dallas the Lolly Medley Golden Harness awarded the Iditarod’s to dog in 2012. By Andy’s age, she was dead of an illness. Andy lived to just shy of 20 years old.
When the late Susan Butcher was dominating the Iditarod, she often had a dog named “Granite,” in the lead. Granite raced until he was nine years old and retired after the 1990 race. Butcher credited Granite with leading the team to victory in 1986, 1987 and 1988. And in 1989, she lost by only an hour.
There was a time when many believed an experienced, veteran lead dog – a dog five, six, seven, or eight years old – was key to winning the Iditarod.
”…Nugget is my nomination for top dog of the century,” Joe Runyan, the man who beat Butcher in 1989, wrote years after that race. Nugget was a dog owned by Emmitt Peters, the Yukon Fox, from Ruby. In 1974, Peters loaned Nugget to friend Carl Huntington from the village of Galena just down the river.
Nugget towed Huntington’s team to victory in the ’74 Iditarod. She was 11 years old, but she wasn’t done winning. She led Peters and his team to victory in the race in 1975 and along the way transformed the Iditarod. The Nugget-led time finished that race in roughly 14 days, 15 hours.
The team chopped six days off the previous finishing times. Swenson has called Peters’ victory the greatest ever, noting that it set the standard for the modern Iditarod. Before Peters, the Iditarod was simply an adventure. After Peters, it became more and more of a race.
And eventually it became nothing but a race, and there was no place for any 12-year-old lead dogs because they just can’t keep up. The thousands of mile in training and the speed of the new race combine to take their toll.
Dogs wear out sooner.
Iditarod mushers still talk about the strong bonds they form with their lead dogs, but they generally have to make those connections a lot quicker now than in the past, and the connections generally don’t last as long.
They can’t because the dogs have shorter careers. Some mushers these days talk about 5,000 miles in training in the lead up to Iditarod. Three years of that with three Iditarod’s thrown in totals 18,000 miles.
It used to take a dog almost six years to accumulate that sort of mileage. A five-year-old dog today might have run as many or more miles than an eight-year-old dog of yesteryear.
All of this because ever more is being asked of Iditarod dogs as mushers push to reach the absolute limit of canine performance. The time has come for that to end. It’s time to follow the lead of NASCAR and back off the throttle.
This is not some wild, radical idea.
“Joe May (the 1980 champ who won in a record time then) recommended a schedule of running four hours, resting four hours, running four hours, resting four hours, running four hours, resting SIX hours,” former champ Runyan wrote in “Winning Strategies for Iditarod Mushers,” his sometimes painfully honest book published in 2003.
Runyan confessed to putting the May scheduled into use after arriving in McGrath in 1983 with a team in disarray. At first, the schedule merely eased the mind of a then-rookie musher.
“Now resigned to a schedule and an attitude of letting the pieces fall where they may,” Runyan wrote, “I began to enjoy the Iditarod Trail.
“I could have been team number 60 on the trail at times. However, after a day, the genius of the schedule began to work and the team started to get stronger and crazier with each rest. Especially after the six-hour rest, the team was really high on the idea of getting back on the trail.”
The results were predictable. Runyan started moving up through a field of faster-starting Iditarod teams fading as they tired. On the way to Old Woman cabin on the Kaltag Portage, Runyan caught Peters. By the village of Koyuk, he’d caught Butcher who was that year with a gang of others chasing Rick Mackey to Nome as Mackey closed on his first and last Iditarod victory.
Runyan eventually finished 11th, an impressive showing for a rookie. I remember being in Unalakleet on the west end of the Kaltag Portage when he hit the Bering Sea coast that year; he had the best-looking team in the race.
In his book, he admits to wondering in retrospect what would have happened if he’d cut some rest on the coast. If Runyan had simply reduced those six hour rests to four, its pretty clear he would have caught and passed Butcher, who eventually finished only a couple of hours ahead in ninth.
It’s not impossible that Runyan could have put the team in position to arrive at White Mountain, where there is a mandatory rest of eight hours, close enough to challenge Swenson for fifth on the stretch run to the finish line.
White Mountain, it should be noted, would be the ideal place for Iditarod to calculate the equal run/equal rest goal. If a musher doesn’t meet the bar at that checkpoint, he or she could be held until the equal-rest standard is met. If some musher doesn’t trust the Iditarod to calculate his/her moving (running) time versus stopped (resting) time, he or she could download a private GPS satellite tracker and have eight hours to fight it out with race officials.
But here’s the important thing, straight from Runyan’s book:
“Since that (1983 race), I have always advised the rookie musher to try that schedule. I just don’t know that anybody had actually done it from start to finish…(but) from experience, I know it is a schedule that allows a dog team to recover, rebound and even beat other teams.”
The operative words there are “recover” and “rebound.”
If the Iditarod really wants a race that is “all about the dogs,” if it really wants the dogs to arrive in Nome, fit, healthy and tired – not exhausted and badly underweight as is now sometimes the case – there is a path forward.
All it takes is the willingness to embrace technology and change. The race did that for the mushers when it allowed them two-way, satellite communication all along the trail. Now, it is time to help the dogs with similar technology.