UPDATE: This story was updated from the first version to include Nic Petit’s decision to drop out of the race.
Bad judgment is among the most normal of human behaviors, and Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race leader Nic Petit put it on display Monday.
Some might fault him for this, but the reality is that the responsibility for Petit’s actions rests with race organizers, not Petit. Petit pushed a dog team until it quit because he wanted to win the race.
The Last Great Race years ago reached the point where mushers were forced to run this risk if they hoped to win, and race organizers have been unwilling to do anything about it.
Petit this year tried to help them out by disguising what happened with a story about a dog fight and the team getting flustered because he raised his voice. It’s garbage. His team has heard his voice raised before, and Iditarod dogs are so tired by the coast they lack the energy for much of a fight, if any.
Petit’s team quit for the same reason Brent Sass’s dogs quit in White Mountain in 2016 and four-time champ Jeff King’s quit on the Kaltag Portage in 2012 and Petit’s on the Portage in 2014 along with Hugh Neff’s on Golovin Bay later in that same year.
The dogs quit because they’d been pushed too hard. It’s that simple, and it’s been going on for too long.
Ask Rick Swenson, the winningest musher in Iditarod history. His strategy in the 1987 race was to make defending champ Susan Butcher drive so hard along the Bering Sea coast that her team would blow up. The plan didn’t work.
Instead it backfired at Safety, the last checkpoint on the trail. Swenson’s team quit on him there. It was the darkest moment in the career of the state’s premier dog driver, and he would never be the same after.
Swenson won one more Iditarod in 1991 to cement his place as the best, but it was a bit of a fluke. It was about Swenson himself being tougher and bolder than anyone else in the race.
When a trio of mushers led by Butcher turned back for the safety of White Mountain to sit out a hellacious coastal storm, Swenson rearranged his team so the most heavily furred dogs were to the windward side of their teammates, put coats on dogs he thought needed more protection, and then went to the front of the team, took the gangline and led them through the storm himself.
It was a different time with different dogs and a different trail when a musher could still win by stepping up as the proverbial “toughest dog in the team,” but the race was already changing. It wouldn’t be long before Swenson would be simply unable to compete.
After ’87, he clearly could not bring himself to push a team to the razor’s edge of exhaustion to win. Not that he was all that good at it before. As a young reporter on the trail in 1983, I can still remember getting lectured by Swenson on how he wasn’t going to “burn up a dog team” trying to catch Rick Mackey that year’s eventual race winner.
Swenson would never have done what Petit did on Sunday in making an 11-hour, nonstop run from Kaltag to Unalakleet, a run that was noticed by many familiar with the sport if not by the asleep-at-the-wheel Alaska media. There were those who wondered immediately if Petit was going to pay a price. There were those who predicted what came to be the inevitable end.
Petit made it through one more checkpoint before his team quit on him. Dogs aren’t robots. They can only give so much. They are dependent on the judgement of driver, and Petit’s judgment was bad.
Snowmachines from the village of Shaktoolik were eventually sent out to pick up Petit and dogs and haul them back to the airport. The Iditarod, in a media statement, said the musher had scratched from the race “in the best interest of his race team’s mental well-being.”
Back in the last millennium, Iditarod lacked the technology to help put an end to this problem of burning up dog teams. The technology now exists to change that. It has existed for some time. Iditarod organizers could years ago have reformed a race wherein the path to victory has become pushing dogs as close to exhaustion as possible without going over the cliff.
For the dogs
There are now two global positioning system (GPS) tracking beacons on every dog sled. The beacons tell Iditarod exactly how much time the sleds spend moving and how much time they spend stopped with the dogs resting.
The Iditarod can easily write a rule requiring every musher have X hours of rest in the team by the penultimate checkpoint of White Mountain, and then require that a team that hasn’t banked enough rest by then stay until it has satisfied the rest requirement.
Such a rule would end the race to win the “grueling” Iditarod by exhausting dogs. No musher in his or her right mind is going to want to burn up a team getting to White Mountain only to sit there and wait as a parade of other teams driven by mushers with better judgment goes storming past.
But Iditarod has refused to even address this idea. The organization argues the lone, mandatory, 24-hour rest somewhere along the trail, the mandatory eight-hour rest somewhere along the Yukon, and the mandatory eight-hour at White Mountain are adequate.
Clearly they are not.
Over the years, there has been enough recognition of the problem that from time to time Iditarod has talked about adding more mandatory rests and turning the event into something of a stage race. That’s a bad idea. A series of sprints between mandatory stops are harder on the dogs than a steady pace.
There’s no sense setting up a system that encourages mushers to make things harder for their teams when it is possible to set up a system that encourages mushers to make the race easier for their teams.
If you go back and crunch Iditarod numbers over the years, you will find the race doesn’t always go to the musher with the fastest dogs; it regularly goes to the musher whose dogs can survive with the least rest.
The data for last year’s race shows that Joar Leifseth Ulsom from Willow didn’t have the fastest dogs on the trail. There were faster dogs behind him at almost every checkpoint and especially so along the Bering Sea coast.
But Ulsom was able to grab a lead by resting his dogs less and then hold on. By the time the race reached the key, 80 mile leg over the Topkok Hills between White Mountain and Safety, there were teams behind Ulsom a full 2 mph faster than his, but Ulsom had a big enough lead they couldn’t close the gap.
Petit ran a different strategy last year than this year. He rested his team more, and it showed.
On the 20-mile run in from Safety to the finish line in Nome, Petit’s team was trotting along at better than 10 mph. Ahead of him, Ulsom’s dogs could do only 7 mph. This is the difference between a marathoner runner ticking off six-minute miles and a marathon jogger taking nine-minutes per mile.
In marathon terms, Ulsom had gone out too fast and hit the wall. But it didn’t matter. By then it was too late for Petit – who’d run a sensible race with adequate rest for his team – to catch the slower team, and so he finished second.
Petit obviously tried a new strategy this year. It was the strategy the race rules encourage mushers to play. It was the strategy that risks pushing dogs until they drop.
And so they did.
I can already hear Iditarod fandom starting to sputter, and I can see the spittle forming on the lips of know-nothing boosters who live in the Iditarod echo chamber of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil and good-God-don’t-speak-any-evil.
Yeah, yeah. I know. Anyone who doesn’t think today’s Iditarod is God’s gift to dogs has to be some sort of animal right’s nut job, maybe a closet member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
The truth is that I’m a guy a lot like Petit. Maybe too much like Petit. Probably worse than Petit on the PETA scale. I’ve without doubt killed more animals than Petit. I’m good at killing.
Still, like Petit, I have a soft spot for dogs. I let them in the house and on the couch, as he does, although I admit this wasn’t always the case and the couch sitting is allowed on only one couch. But if the dogs were to move from here to live with someone else, I’d be damn picky about who, as Petit is in dealing dogs, because there are people in this state who see dogs as nothing more than commodities.
Like Petit, I’m also a pretty competitive guy, and that is something not always easy to contain. And I’m someone known to fall victim to bad judgment now and then because that’s what we, as people, do.
I’ll freely admit to being there when several dogs dropped from heat stroke or exhaustion because although I knew I was asking for a little more than they had to give, I asked anyway.
The Iditarod as it is run today encourages rather than discourages this sort of behavior.
The Iditarod might proclaim that the race is “all about the dogs,” but there is a double standard.
Yes, for a majority of the field, “all about the dogs” is arguably true. All Knik’s Jeremy Keller is trying to do out there is cover the 1,000 miles from Willow to Nome with a gang of family pets.
The same is the case for most of the other Iditarod BOP (back of the pack) mushers as they have come to be called. The race is to them about their dogs and their personal adventure, and not about winning anything.
But to a handful of the others at the front, the Iditarod “is all about the winning” – not all about the dogs. The dogs are interchangeable and expendable parts.
Top mushers at least used to be honest about this. More than one over the years was heard to remark that he or she just wanted to “win the damn thing so I can retire.”
When you want to win, you do what you need to win. The things you need to do to win are not always pleasant or even within the rules. Nobody talks about the Iditarod cheating that has gone on over the years, but there is Iditarod cheating that has gone on over the years.
The new rule that popped up this year saying “a musher may not be accompanied by or accept assistance from any motorized vehicle that gives help to the musher, including aircraft and snow machines” didn’t arise by accident.
There was a reason. There were indications the rules against “outside assistance” got bent to help a musher or mushers last year. The Iditarod has a history of this. The late-Susan Butcher and husband Dave Monson bent the rules on the way to her first of four victories; as a result, Teller musher Joe Garnie ended up second.
Butcher was an extremely talented dog driver. She was always destined to win an Iditarod or more, and she showed that by winning three after the rules were changed specifically to make sure Monson wouldn’t be following her along the trail to assist with tactical advice or more.
Winners become winners by doing what they need to do to win.
If that means cheating, well, as defrocked Tour de France champ Floyd Landis – the man who brought down Lance Armstrong and is responsible for cycling finally making a good faith effort to clean up doping – put it so well, “it was either cheat or get cheated. And I’d rather not be the guy getting cheated.”
And if winning means pushing dogs to their very limits and sometimes beyond, there are people who would rather not be the guy holding back because at the Iditarod finish line in Nome there is one race champion getting a lot of attention and a long list of forgotten and forgettable losers.
And therein rests the description of an event in which animals need protection from the bad judgment of people. It’s easy enough to provide in this age of technology, too.
All Iditarod has to do is step up.