Commentary

For the dogs

Eager_looking_dog_of_Hugh_Neffs_team

An Iditarod athlete harnessed and ready to roll/Frank Kovalchek, Wikimedia Commons

Commentary

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.

Boring

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’s cost

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.

Shorter careers

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.

Bonds

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.

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38 replies »

  1. Jason says “My experience is that the dogs who are able to go so far with so little rest are generally the one’s who are also being cared for the best.” If you watch the dogs at the finish the first ones in all look great. I remember Buser’s dogs one year being really irritated because he was standing under the burled arch and yakking with the media. He noticed the dogs’ attitude and said “These dogs are wanting to go on to Kotzebue so let me deal with them now.” The ragged looking dog teams start coming in around 25th place.

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  2. 14 dogs in towline start.
    8 dogs in towline finish.

    Nothing behind the driver.

    Dog(s) not in towline at checkpoint arrival are dropped at that checkpoint.

    At Unalakleet, dog(s) not within 10% benchmark weight per pre-race exam are dropped. Time correction applied to driver’s cumulative Unalakleet arrival time, to be determined by length of time for weigh-in period.

    12 hour time penalty at Nome finish, if there is a dog(s) not within the 10% pre-race benchmark weight.

    No mandatory rests, “except” a 24 hour taken at any checkpoint.

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      • Bill,
        I think you are on to something here…
        Why allow for all the dropped and exhausted dogs?
        It is a logistic nightmare and sled dogs wind up piled together in Cessna 185’s.
        Take care of your dogs and finish as a “team”.
        Jeff King said on APRN last night that he once suggested: “Any musher who kills a dog in the race should be disqualified.”
        These are very good suggestions in my opinion.

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      • I see too much push-back from the successful kennels that such a ruling would do to the race. That and the incentive to keep a dog in the team that should be dropped would so change the Iditarod that things will need to get worse before such a change would work IMO.
        A little story of one of my dropped dogs @ Rohn checkpoint. The plane crashed on takeoff with several dogs aboard and my dog (Bashful) got away and was able to keep from being re-captured. When the checkers left with their dog teams (heading back to Anchorage) Bashful followed them and was finally put in harness and he helped pull back to town. Everyone wanted to know why he was dropped in such fine shape-he had a swollen front leg and a vet advised I drop him rather than take a chance on the long trip to Nikolai. He certainly wasn’t “exhausted.”

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      • Steve: Iditarod had a simple “a dog dies, you’re out rule.” the first year it was instituted, Rick Swenson, who’d never had a dog die in 20 years of Iditarod, and never would have another dog die in Iditarod, got into some awful overflow between Yentna Station and Macdougal (you might be familiar with this area) and a dog ended up dead. Swenson was madder than hell about getting tossed. a big battle ensued as to the fairness of the rule, and it was eventually rescinded. it’s a debatable rule. there are unpreventable accidents that can happen. but there certainly ought to be a rule that says if a musher has more than one dog die during the race, that’s it. time to go home.

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      • Craig,
        It sounds like Rick should have dealt with that unfortunate faith that one year…even if it was not his “fault”.
        When I heard Jeff suggest it, it made sense to me…did not know it was tried once before.
        Too bad it did not stay…a simple deterrent like that may have prevented PETA from stepping in and now pushing everyone to their side or the side of the ITC.
        That dichotomy does not work for a guy who lives in AK…hunts, fishes and skis with his dogs. (sometimes in questionable terrain)
        I am sure the 2018 race will be wet since it is 36 in Willow today with fresh snow on the trail.
        Without any concessions from the ITC, PETA will just continue to recruit protesters throughout the country to resonant their mantra…”End this Race”.
        And PETA actually pays protesters, so U know this is bound to continue.
        This will just further divide community.

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    • Bob: your suggestion for a weight standard is the best idea i can think of other than an ER/ER rule, and the Luddite-filled world of Idit-a-fans seems fearful of trusting technology even if i’d guess most of them listen to it telling them where to drive in strange cities.
      some mushers would, i’m sure, dehydrate the hell out of their dogs pre-race to try to set the lowest benchmarks, but there are a lot of dogs dehydrated by the coast so i’m not sure that matters. i would say the musher with underweight dogs in UNK should be be given the choice of dropping them or staying until they make weight.
      if they’re within a pound or two, they should be able get them back to where they should be with some rest, water and a couple good meals. but i’d venture to guess there are a bunch of dogs more than a pound or two underweight on your 10 percent.
      when they show up on the coast with their collars looking like Hawaiian leis instead of collars, it’s more than water loss.

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  3. Equal run and equal rest could slow the overall time down from Willow or Fairbanks to Nome. But you all do realize that no matter the rest or format mushers will push the competitive envelope. So dog teams will actually travel faster, faster is just as hard or harder on many dogs as running on less rest.

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    • Chad: You are wholly right that “mushers will push the competitive envelope,” and that is what makes you wholly wrong about that old, old, old idea mushers would push teams harder to try to save time if this rule were instituted.
      That might have been true in the old days when there was a discussion of a checkpoint to checkpoint race with teams held at each for a set period. But the more I think about that, I’m not sure that even then what you suggest would happen because the strategy is self-defeating.
      If it’s “harder on many dogs,” or even a few, the whole team slows down.
      And you lose.
      I concede there is a human tendency to push teams into mandatory holding points. Some of that goes on now with the mandatory 24 and the mandatory 8s. Mushers sometimes gamble on mandatory rest = automatic rebound and push too hard. See Brent Sass, White Mountain, 2016.
      A simple ER/ER rule actually discourages that sort of behavior. A simple ER/ER rule encourages mushers to take their competitive urge and turn it to optimizing run/rest times, and optimum sure as hell isn’t going to come by engaging some sort of dog-exhausting interval workout. It’s going to come in finding the speed at which the dogs can go as fast as they can and FULLY RECOVER on the rest stops.
      Joe May was right all those years ago. Joe Runyan was right when he echoed May.
      Every thinking musher ought to be embracing this idea for the simple facts it makes things better for the dogs AND ensures mushers get a little more rest along the trail, which is sure to mean better dog care which also makes things better for the dogs.
      There is really only one reason to be against the idea: because you hate change.
      I understand that. Everyone hates change. I hate the changes that have come to journalism. But in life you adapt or you die. The dodo bird failed to adapt. Where is it today?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Craig, have you established a bottom line time to get to Nome for your ER/ER proposal? I take it you mean to use the GPS to monitor drivers’ schedules and I assume hold them in checkpoints, or bar them from finishing at some point near the end of the race if they haven’t met there rest quotas. Wouldn’t it be necessary to establish a “time to get to Nome” parameter to remain in competition? In other words, how would it work technically, and how would you keep the race from going backwards to the point where it takes 14+ days for the winner to finish? Plus, I can see a world of enforcement issues, given the unreliability of the technology. I’m breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought of what kinds of arguments will arise in terms of judging.

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  4. You advocate for more rest for the dogs, but I’m assuming you oppose the mushers carrying multiple dogs in their sleds.

    In theory, both Mitch and Dallas have an excellent set up when carrying dogs. If they go on an 8 hour run, and he rotates 4 dogs through the sled every 2 hours, then a 4 hour rest, it’s a 50/50 run/rest for his dogs. 2 in sled, 4 on straw = 6 rest and 6 run.

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    • i don’t have an opinion one way or the other on carrying dogs because i’m not sure how they do or don’t rest in trailers.
      depending on trail conditions, they could be resting well or not, i’d expect. it could even be individual specific. i had friends who could get quality sleep in small boats getting the shit beat out of them in the Gulf of Alaska. i couldn’t.
      i’ve seen no science on rest in sleds/trailers. i’m sure the Seavey’s believe the dogs are getting good rest in there and believe they see a performance advantage, but we all tend to suffer from confirmation bias. it’s a human weakness.
      i do know dogs rest really well on straw in warm sunshine. i remember years ago going back and analyzing race times and discovering the warm years weren’t an impediment to faster Iditarods; they were an advantage even though heat is the major impediment to canine performance.
      the obvious conclusion was that the mushers putting down really good times were resting the dogs when it was warm and running when it was cooler and the dogs resting in the warm were really recovering well.
      so, having said all of this, i’d have to say that if there was some science to support the conclusion that dogs can get good rest a sled or trail, i’d probably be in favor of that set up.
      but it really seems more an issue of what the race looks like than dog care, and i don’t know how you’d police an ER/ER rule in a race with dogs in trailers. such a rule is most easily enforced with satellite tracking of teams to keep track of when they are stopped (ie. resting) and when they are moving.

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  5. I’m not any kind of expert either of what the dogs are capable of, the alleged practices of kennels most fans would find deplorable or why the race has to keep getting faster and faster to keep some from getting bored. I will say I have taken the time to study and read everything I could find about the race and dog care. I think I know more than the average fan or one who hasn’t grown up in a mushing community. I know what work and expense go into running a kennel. I do admit I would like to see someone besides the Seaveys win for a change, but they have so many advantages others do not, that their winning comes as no surprise. I won’t find a slower race boring because I keep up with BOP too. For the last couple of years, I have worried about the dogs in the fast pace the race was taking. I have also noticed the younger dogs of the leading kennels and your assessment of what is happening to these dogs really upsets me. I hope they do slow it down before it turns off fans like me who love the race and have supported it.

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  6. Jason is right about the Iditarod being boring. It’s watching one team after another go down the chute with an Iditarider in the sled. It’s no big deal. It’s BORING! Much of the time the snow is trucked in. Then there’s the tailgating. I’d rather drink my booze at home while watching Suits. That’s a million times more exciting!

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  7. Though the intent of an equal run and rest race is well-intentioned, it’s a very stupid idea. It would change the Iditarod from a race to a game. It would make the Iditarod so complex and contrived that spectators and mushers would constantly be in a state of confusion and eventually give up on the race. Plus, dogs could end up getting the bad end of this race format. If a team’s rest is extended by a storm, the dogs will be pushed longer once the musher starts going again. If the trail is slow because of new snow, then rest will be cut short. This race format takes the common sense out of running the race and places risk on the dogs due to mathematical gaming decisions. If Nascar races required the cars to be in the pit stop the same amount of time they are on the course, how many Nascar fans, drivers and sponsors would give up on the sport? Probably 90% of them. Same with the Iditarod. If you want to kill the Iditarod, make it an equal rest and run race.

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    • I meant in terms of playing the “who’s going to win!” game, not that the race itself is inherently boring. Obviously it’s not going to have the same appeal as the Superbowl which can be observed in a single evening and appreciated regardless of intelligence or understanding. The Iditarod is so long, and takes place over such a vast, remote distance, that it’s hard for some people to wrap their minds around, and it asks a lot out of our increasingly shortened attention spans. This fault is not the Iditarod’s, though, but rather our own lack of information and attentiveness.

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    • James: i hate to say this, but that post is really a commentary on how sense is not common. the Iditarod is already a game because the dogs need to rest no matter what the rules says. the’re dogs; not machines.
      and there isn’t anything much more confusing than the 8-hour here, 8-hour there, 24-hour somewhere rules of today. toss those and most spectators wouldn’t even notice an ER/ER rule other than that as the race got to the coast there would likely be a bunch of teams coming from behind to join the hunt, which would make things more interesting.
      not less.
      meanwhile, when is the last time teams got shutdown by a storm? are you back in the 1980s? the trails are now so well packed and snowgoes are so good (and there are so many of them out there following the race) the race simply doesn’t get shut down.
      here’s what will kill the Iditarod. refusing to change. evolution requires adaptation. the only alternative is to die. think about it. we’re typing in the tubes. the stone tablet makers are all long dead.

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  8. I think equal run rest is a fantastic idea, and I think some in the sport are already pushing it that way and showing that you can win doing it. Just looking at the Quest numbers from this year, run/rest rations for the top 5 finishers were between 1.1 to 1.3 with teams putting up nice trots of ~8-9mph. Mushers like Paige Drobny who are known to have excellent dog care are putting up numbers UNDER a ratio of 1, and she was running second for most of the race until she scratched. Last year she finished 4th with a ratio of 0.95. Credit to Mushing Tech for calculating some of the numbers I’m using here.

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  9. I think this is a great idea and would be easy to implement with modern GPS trackers. I once did a bit of research into lead dog turnover and dog ages- and noticed the trend Craig mentions of younger lead dogs with far shorter careers. I’m sure the same is true of the team dogs who don’t get as much publicity.

    Burnout in young human runners is so common there was even a Nike Ad about it along the lines of “They said I was the best high school athlete in 20 years. Then they said I was burned out, used up. You know what they are saying now? Me neither” Pictured a female runner out on a trail in the woods.

    I know of many athletes, particularly women, who suffer from high rates of burnout. Some were top national ranked competitors in high school who went to college and never did anything athletically again- either burned out, injured, or overtrained. I could list names of women I personally know who fit this category. Some never ran much again, some got back into it.

    Among ultrarunners the over training phenomenon is so common, that it is almost a given. Part of the reason I personally have steered clear of ultras. It is the rare person who has a body that can hold up to the elite ultra schedule for long. Even the great Ann Trason suffered injuries that would have been career ending for many, and took a complete hiatus from running for many years.

    Most ultra runners will excel for several years- and then completely burnout. Some so badly that they can barely walk to the mailbox and back while recovering -Crow Pass winner Geoff Roes among them. Alberto Salazar is another great example- he almost killed himself racing in Falmouth, last rites were held. Then he suffered a heart attack at a young age- probably linked to his pushing so hard when he was young. Random fact… Alberto Salazar was one of the more (most) famous graduates of my high school.

    I’m certain the same happens with dogs- and they even can suffer mental burnout from racing, not in the same way as a human but similar. Military working dogs are well known to suffer from mental burnout from stress and overwork. Dogs love routine. A dog at 2-3 is roughly like a human of about 20 or so… I’m betting if the physiological principles are similar (and they are) many Iditarod racing dogs are past their peak and either injured or physically compromised after around 3 years of age.

    An equal run/rest policy would go a long way toward making the Iditarod all about the dogs again, and also could (should?) drastically shift how dogs are treated. Also, unlike other guidelines for dog care, it is very easy to enforce.

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    • There is a premise at work here that suggests that dogs at the front of the pack in the most current Iditarod’s are being abused somehow, and the culprits are the most competitive mushers who are going so fast so far with so little rest, but the statistics on recent dog fatalities don’t really support that idea. If anything, statistics seem to indicate drivers running much slower paces with much more restful schedules are the one’s contributing to dog fatality statistics.

      My experience is that the dogs who are able to go so far with so little rest are generally the one’s who are also being cared for the best.

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      • That may be correct but the overall problem is for “the dogs” in general IMO. Clearly the top teams may have some handle on dog care but that is proprietary and most likely wouldn’t be shared with others.
        The question remains one of overall what’s best for “the dogs.” And I suspect any solution will involve some sort of slowing down of the race.

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      • Trail deaths are one thing – shortened careers/burnout potentially, probably inevitably lead to more culling. certainly some dogs will end up in tourism or developing kennels, but substantially reducing elite dog’s careers can’t be good in the longer run.

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      • Jason: the premise here is not that dogs die from lack of the rest. the premise is, as the evidence would appear to indicate, that the dogs at the front of the pack have shorter careers and thus lead to an increased volume of dogs to be dealt with both pre- and post-race.
        you actually make the case with that observation about “the dogs who are able to go so far with so little rest.” they area subset. the number able to do that at the pace of the modern Iditarod is a smaller subset. those that can do that for years is a smaller smaller subset.
        so what we’re looking at is a fraction of the top 1 percent of canine athletes.
        there’s only so many ways to get those: breed a lot, because though selective breeding will help produce good dogs there is no guarantee of great dogs; spend a lot, because anything can be bought if you have enough money; train a lot, because high volume coupled with plenty of high intensity (a dog treadmill has to be a training bonanza in the latter regard) will make dogs able to go faster, further in the short term though their careers will be shorter; or dope.
        in this context, doping might a good thing, or at least a better thing for the dogs.
        the statistics, as you note, indicate dog deaths happen all over the field. it would be nice if there were better statistics that included not just the dogs that died, but the ones that were saved by vets on the trail. there have been a lot of close calls, especially with aspiration.
        a bigger data set might tell us more, but then again maybe not.
        there are slower teams that lose dogs. no doubt about. i’m not sure all of them are getting more rest. some are. i spent a whole Iditarod on the trail with the BOP in 2010. Canadian Ross Adams’ dogs were certainly getting a lot of rest. he had a solid 10 mph dog team, and i think he must have been sleeping 8 hours in every checkpoint at which he decided to stay. it was a superb looking outfit.
        but he wasn’t representative. most of the teams at the back were slower because the dogs were slower, and thus to keep up or risk being tossed as non-competitive they had to push every bit as much as the people at the front.
        all of this makes me think it would be interesting to take the dog death data and compare it to run/rest times. it might tell us something, although it probably wouldn’t because that data set is so small.
        i do, however, know for a fact because i did the research long ago taht some of those BOP dogs head up the trail with a greater risk of death because they are not the creme de la creme of sled dogs. the dogs at the front are. the dogs at the front are picked from large pools of dogs solely for their fitness for the task. one would expect that few of those dogs should die.
        one would expect Iditarod deaths to track human marathon deaths. you don’t find many world class athletes dropping dead in marathons. the fatalities tend to be among the recreational runners further back.
        i remember when Mike Campbell and I put together the first data on dog deaths at the Anchorage Daily News decades ago. i at that time called everyone i could find who’d had a dog die in Iditarod and asked them what happened.
        i distinctly remember the conversation with Gordon Brinker, one of Zoe’s kids who you might remember. he had a dog in his team die that was 13-years-old if memory serves me right, though it might have been 15.
        i asked him what the hell he was doing with a dog so old in the team. his answer was simple: “it was my best dog.” i’m confident that dog died doing what it loved. there are others at the back that might be similar.
        at the front, you will find no dogs in their teens. most of them are lucky if they stay competitive to age six these days, and then what? a few are sold to recreational mushers or skijorers. some, some mushers are able to give away. some, i know the August Fund manages to adopt out. some, i know as fact, go to Alaska dog pounds where who knows what happens to them. and some live out their lives on chains because its worth keeping them for breeding. a lucky few become puppy trainers.
        and some, well we both know what happens to some.

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      • Well, other then some brief mentions of various leaders being swapped out in Seavey teams at more regular intervals in Craig’s article, I didn’t see and am not aware of any statistics to support the fact that sled dogs’ careers are being shortened, just that any given dog’s ability to maintain it’s place in that particular “top” program for the better part of a decade is becoming more difficult and less likely then in the old days when the time to beat to Nome was drastically longer then it is now.

        My question to you (Bill & Pete) is by what objective standard are current top drivers taking poorer care of their dogs than in past years, as it relates to the pace? Personally, I consider fatality statistics to be at the very least a barometer of how dogs are being cared for under race conditions, and the numbers seem very positive overall to me, with the latest race being a bit of a stand-out over the last decade, and with literally no driver in the front of the race having an episode. Overall, aren’t the numbers historically much lower than what we often consider the “golden age of mushing?”

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      • Craig, I hit publish on a reply and hadn’t seen your reply to me before I pulled the trigger on it. It appears lengthy with a number of solid points to consider, so it may be a little while before I can muster a cogent reply (I’m kind of playing hooky from work to read this stuff:))

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      • Not sure I’m understanding your question, Jason. I suspect that the top teams are taking great care of their dogs (probably greater than average) but they may not share their methods with other teams, in general. Clearly, as the pace has quickened, the dogs (in general) are suffering IMO. That suffering does not just mean those on the trail but those who don’t make the cut.
        I suspect any solution here will involve some reduction in the overall number of dogs used to make the Iditarod cut. However it’s done, it will surely change long distance racing IMO.

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      • Bill, your use of “IMO” is why I asked “By what objective standard?”
        “In my opinion” is not a strong enough basis with which to a) claim that top drivers are doing anything “wrong” with their dogs by running an 8 day race and b) the Iditarod race should change in order to correct whatever deficiencies of character are on display from said drivers.

        Craig replied to me as I was publishing my original question, and while I haven’t had time to formulate a proper response (his post was huge and contained numerous points each worthy of consideration and possible rebuttal), it draws a stark line beneath the central fact that we need a lot more firm numbers/statistics in order to proceed forward with the reality of making big changes to the sport. Unfortunately we don’t have those numbers, but that’s a whole different can of worms, as is the ‘skeleton in the closet’ of dog culling. Dog culling, which you are referring to I think, is a primal issue that really deserves it’s own separate platform of discussion where it’s not being conflated with every other issue under the sun concerning the sport.

        No offense meant to anyone who doesn’t agree with me, btw

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      • Jason: I will make one fundamental observation that applies to all endurance sports. Once they get to a competitive level where only the very best of the very best have a chance of winning, there are but two ways to succeed: 1) you need a huge pool of talent from which to select a very few players (as the Kenyans do in running; as the Norwegians do in Nordic skiing; as the Euros do in cycling); 2.) you need to dope; or maybe you do both.
        It’s been clear to me for a few years now that Iditarod is at that competitive level. Thus the speed ties directly back to both culling issues and doping issues. Irod needs to find some way to slow the race down. I only offered what i think is the easiest way because I think technology here is our friend, and I agree with Joe May and Joe Runyan on the sort of schedule they suggest being friendliest to the dogs.
        On top of which, I truly believe simple rules help maintain a fan base easily confused by “you have to take an 8 here, and you have to take an 8 there, and somewhere you have to take a 24, etc., etc.”

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      • I have no “objective standard” but I also am not saying the top drivers are doing anything wrong, either. There could be some question about not sharing dog care information, if indeed that is a culprit, could be considered some kind of wrong but that’s sort of an ethical question.
        Pretty hard to remove the “culling” situation from the overall problem, since it’s probably the 800 lb gorilla in the room. That gorilla doesn’t get contained, the sport does not survive. Whatever takes place is going to change the sport IMO-let’s just hope the sport flourishes.

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      • I don’t think anyone is saying that front end teams are taking poorer care of their dogs *on the trail*. But it is a unavoidable fact of life that you slow down as you get older. At some point faster Iditarods mean younger dogs with shorter careers. Competitive mushers already regard annual litters as necessary – this starts to edge into dog farming. Horseracing refers to the ‘foal crop’. We may as well start talking about the puppy crop here as well. Some form of workable mandatory slowing down potentially aids slower dogs in BOP teams during the race, and dogs in faster kennels outside the race. Potentially.

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      • Craig, I knew that talking with you would just end up sucking me back down the rabbit hole. I made a pretty successful break from the life…until the other day when you reached out to remind me. Not really sure if I should thank you for that or not.

        As far as the question of “Would slowing down the race effect the well being of dogs outside of the race itself” it’s my opinion that we would just see a different kind of power creep take the current method’s place, and pushing the limit of the envelope would not really go away, but instead simply take a different form.

        The 800 pound gorilla, and the 2-ton elephant, as you said, those are the real core issue(s) in this discussion, and the big question (pun!) is whether enforcing an equal run equal rest race ruleset would impact those two things, and I suspect the answer will be “no.” Because altering rulesets in the Iditarod will not remove the core reasons these things exist in the first place.

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  10. That was a good read. A lot of information to process, Regarding the “boring” nature of current winning strategies, I think it’s pretty fair to say that the race has been kind of boring even since the early days of Susan Butcher’s reign. At least from the casual bystander/fan perspective. Once a winning strategy is formulated and a kennel gains control for the better part of a decade, it’s really always the same story; we know who’s going to win, how they’re likely to do it, and it’s just not very interesting for anybody not related to the family and professional insiders.

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  11. Speaking of technology, the race should be run by robot dogs. That would put an end to all the animal abuses. Mushers could still make money giving kennel tours to people who want to see and experience what robots can do.

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