A news analysis
UPDATE: The “official” standings for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race are now posted online and show Mille Porsild finishing in Nome at 13:05:00 on March 16 with Michelle Phillips five minutes behind her at 13:10:00 on the same date.
Their actual finishing times can still be found on the Wayback Machine, an internet archive. The arrival times in Nome shown there are 08:56:02 on March 16 for Porsild and 12:52:53 for Phillips on that date.
The data would indicate Phillips was penalized 17 minutes, 7 seconds for staying in a Kwik River shelter cabin, and Porsild was penalized 4 hours, 8 minutes and 58 seconds for staying there.
The women spent roughly the same amount of time in the same cabin with their dogs. The Iditarod is offering no explanation as to how the penalties were determined, or how they were imposed in Nome when the Iditarod rule book says White Mountain, the race’s penultimate checkpoint, is the last place at which time penalties can be applied.
When the women took to the cabin to shelter their dogs, Porsild was down to eight while Phillips still had 10. So the differing penalties cannot be linked to taking more dogs into the shelter cabin.
Fourteen years ago, a 52-year-old nuclear physicist from Montana named Rob Loveman decided to make the journey to Nome in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
A veteran mountaineer and competent woodsman, Loveman made no claims to being a world-class dog driver. But he managed to jump through all the hoops the self-proclaimed “Last Great Race” required of rookie dog mushers hoping to make the 1,000-mile trek across the vast wilderness that still exists between the urban core of the 49th state and the old, gold-rush city of Nome.
Nome – population 3,825 – is the largest city along the more than 1,000-mile-long Bering Sea coastline of North America, and getting there via the Iditarod Trail is a true adventure whether traveling by dog t
eam, snowmachine, fat bike, skis or feet.
Loveman thus came to Alaska all pumped up about his Iditarod journey.
He made it about 350 miles up the trail before he was pressured to drop out. He was by then the last musher in the string of Iditarod teams working their way toward Nome, and when he refused to buckle to the pressure put on him to quit, he was withdrawn.
Race Marshall Mark Nordman said at the time that Loveman’s dogs were in great shape, but that Loveman and his team were traveling so slowly that they had violated the Iditarod’s rather arbitrary rule requiring teams remain “competitive.”
“He was just having a hard time staying awake and just trying to keep up with his dogs,” Nordman said,
Loveman, blessed with a sense of principle greater than that of common sense, didn’t take the situation lightly. He sued the Iditarod, arguing that in the process of booting him out of the race, the Iditarod had ignored its very own rules on withdrawals.
He also eventually lost his lawsuit, but not on the merits. An Alaska judge simply ruled that the Iditarod was under no obligation to follow its own rules, that the organization could basically do anything it wanted in terms of dealing with mushers on the trail.
The race seems to have taken that ruling to heart.
Different folks, different rules
Flash ahead now to the just-completed, 50th running of the Iditarod which drew to a close amid a storm pounding the Bering Sea coast.
In the midst of that storm, at least three mushers – Mille Porsild from Willow by way of Denmark; Michelle Phillips from Tagish, Yukon Territory, Canada; and Riley Dyche from Fairbanks – took their dogs into safety cabins along the trail to shelter them from the cold and wind.
Some other mushers complained that this was a violation of one provision of Iditarod Rule 37 that says, among other things, that “dogs may not be brought into shelters except for race veterinarians’ medical examination or treatment.”
The rule itself is vague. Given the conditions along the trails, all three mushers could legitimately argue they brought their dogs inside for “treatment” of developing hypothermia.
No penalties are specified for breaking the rule, either. And, in this case, different penalties were assigned to Porsild, Phillips and Dyche in Nome. Porsild was relegated from 14th to 17th in the standings, which cost her about $3,500 in prize money; Phillips was dropped from 17th to 18th at a loss of about $1,000; and Dyche was simply fined.
The Iditarod has not revealed the size of his fine, though it is widely rumored to be $1,000. Neither has Iditarod said anything about how the decision was made to assess the three mushers different penalities.
Let alone explain why they were penalized at all.
According to Rod Perry, a veteran of the very first Iditarod, the shelter rule dates back to the very beginning of Iditarod and was intended solely to maintain a level playing field for all the competitors.
He provided this history:
“The rule had its origin with the very first Iditarod. George Attla, arriving in his home country of Galena with a team diminished to less than half his original sixteen, and, as he stated in his KYAK radio interview, “run way down by all the hard work,” housed them indoors for two days and three nights recruiting them.
“Ready access to that level of shelter was an option unique to (Interior Alaska) residents. There was nothing prohibitive about it within our simple, single page of mimeographed rules. Nor was there any rule against George and Bobby Vent adding a snowmachine and driver apiece from among their neighbors to putt along with them the rest of the way to Nome, hauling all but their listed required gear.”
Since the beginning of the Iditarod, the general intent of the rules, in general, has been to encourage fairness. A ban on “outside assistance,” for instance, was adopted in 1987, the year after musher Dave Monson appeared in almost every checkpoint along the trail to help coach his wife, the late Susan Butcher, to the first of her four Iditarod victories.
The mind-fogging effects of sleep deprivation are one of the biggest challenges Iditarod competitors face, and there is little doubt that having a well-rested and trusted companion on hand to offer advice on race strategy, provide a second set of eyes on how various dogs are performing and provide general moral support can be a big help.
The penalty section of the Iditarod rule book also makes it clear that the race’s overriding issue is, or at least was, fairness.
“Time penalties will be imposed when determined by race officials a rule infraction has
occurred and a competitive advantage has been gained,” the rules state.
Grammatically, that sentence says a rule infraction is not enough to warrant a penalty; the rule infraction must also produce a “competitive advantage.”
There is no indication the mushers penalized this year gained any sort of competitive advantage. When Porsild and Phillips left Koyuk, they had a lead of six to eight hours on mushers who passed them while they were in the cabin and went on to finish in front of them.
Phillips, who finished only 10 minutes in front of Willow’s Lev Shvarts in Nome, had built up a nearly five-hour lead over him by the time she reached Koyuk. She lost all of it and more while holed up in the Kwik River shelter cabin with her dogs.
By Elim, the next checkpoint after Koyuk, she was 1 hour and 17 minutes behind Shvarts. She did leave that checkpoint two minutes ahead of him. But at White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint where all mushers are required to rest their teams for a mandatory eight hours before the run to the finish line, the two arrived at the same time.
Race officials, however, later altered the standings to move her behind Shvarts at the finish even if she did get there first.
Phillips has said she plans to appeal the penalty imposed on her team. What Porsild will do is unknown.
At this time, she is reported to be back in Denmark where her mother is dying of cancer.
Supporters of the two women are pointing to Iditarod Rule 50 as a key point in any appeal. It states that to “be recognized as a legitimate protest, any (illegal) action observed by a musher must be presented in writing at the next checkpoint….”
They say no protests were presented in Elim, the next checkpoint after the cabin camp out, and that none were ever presented in writing.
It is also unclear how time penalties could be levied on any musher in Nome when the rules state, in no uncertain terms, that “time penalties will not be levied past White Mountain.”
The rules make it pretty clear that the only penalties that can be levied in Nome are warnings, fines, withdrawal – “a process that must be imposed by a three-judge panel, either by a majority or unanimous vote, and which has the effect of involuntarily eliminating the musher and team from the race but which does not imply any deliberate misconduct or violation” – or disqualification.
The latter is the penalty linked directly to accusations of cheating, which is the issue here.
“Mushers shall be disqualified for rule infractions involving physical abuse of a dog, or for
cheating or deliberate rule infractions that give a musher an unfair advantage over another musher,” the rulebook says.
If Porsild, Phillips or Dyche truly gained an unfair advantage by use of the shelter cabins, the appropriate penalty in Nome would be disqualification. But there is no real indication that they gained any advantage.
In fact, the opposite might be the case. They appear to have lost the advantage they had gained by stopping to shelter their dogs because of concerns about the heath of the animals.
If one were to strictly adhere to the guidance offered in the rule book, it appears highly questionable as to whether any penalties at all should have been imposed, but as Loveman learned too well, the Iditarod is under no obligation to follow its own rules.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to this as the 50th anniversary of the Iditarod. The 50th anniversary will occur in 2023.