The Iditarod and the quest for speed
Part III of III
Ever since musher Rick Swenson’s epic, man-against-the-elements victory of 1991 when he went to the front of his dog team to walk the dogs much of the way through a storm raging in the Topkok Hills outside of Nome and notch a record fifth victory in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the operative theme for the event that long ago trademarked itself as “The Last Great Race” has been faster, faster.
No one knew it in ’91, but that race would mark the end of the old Iditarod and the beginning of a new one. It took the legendary dog driver from Two Rivers more than 12 and a half days to reach Nome that year. Big Lake’s Martin Buser would take almost two days of that time the next year, and the norm would not long after fall to nine days plus hours and eventually to eight plus.
As a result of this fundamental shift, what began as a challenge of men and dogs against the cold, the wind and the wilderness has become more and more a doggie NASCAR. To go faster, the dogs have been bred to look houndier and less huskyish, and the trail has been groomed into a dependable track rather than the poorly marked and maintained route much of it once was.
Yes, elements of the old Iditarod can still force themselves into the picture. Even in the Twenty-first Century, Mother Nature is a force that cannot be denied at times.
She froze the faces, fingers and toes of mushers with 50-degree-below-zero cold in 2015 and stole from Aliy Zirkle what seemed a certain victory in 2014 with a coast-lashing windstorm that caused Zirkle to hunker down in the Safety checkpoint while behind her on the trial it got so bad four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King decided he had to abandon his team and go on foot for Safety. Dallas Seavey passed them both in the storm to go on and win.
At the other extreme, there was the warmish winter of 2014 that left the trail in goodly parts of the Alaska Range more rock and dirt than snow. That trail did to mushers and their equipment the kind of damage that was the norm back in the sled-smashing Iditarod of the late Twentieth Century.
Then the trail began to get better, the speeds faster, and slowly but steadily the focus of the Iditarod’s smallish fan base and the bigger name mushers calling the shots in the event shifted to “the race.” The old days of conserving dog power for 700 or so miles to be in a position to start racing on the Bering Sea coast ended.
The Iditarod became a full-on race from the restart in the roadside community of Willow, 70 miles north of the state’s largest city, to Nome.
When the race restarted in Willow that is.
The most obvious sign of the transition from the hardman days of old to the speed racing of the present came in 2015 and again in 2017 when the race restart was moved north from Willow to Fairbanks because of a lack of snow in the Range.
Too hard; too dangerous
This was not because of any problems for the dogs no matter how some might have tried to spin the story in that direction. The dogs regularly train by pulling mushers behind them on four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) on dirt roads and trails all over the 49th state and elsewhere.
“Although (the sport) is called ‘dog sledding,’ much of the important training that happens to a competitive dog sled team actually happens in the fall on ATVS or carts long before there is any snow” is how musher Sarah Stokey explains this on the Turning Heads Kennel website.
“The ATV is a good choice because we have both gas and brakes at our disposal as training tools. The ATV can also be put into various gears to determine how much the dogs will pull. When put into first gear, the dogs have to pull against the gears of the machine making for a tougher pull.”
As well prepped as the dogs might have been to give it a go on dirt in the snow short years, the mushers – or at least the top mushers – were having none of it. After the bare ground craziness of the 2014 race, they’d had enough of the old Iditarod. King that year recorded some wild video of his run through the Dalzell Gorge, which was then provided to the Anchorage Daily News.
“The 2014 Iditarod trail includes some of the toughest mushing in the history of the race, veterans said. Especially early along the trail, mushers were battered and bruised on snowless ground,” the state’s largest newspaper proclaimed. “…King shot this footage using a helmet cam between Rainy Pass, in the Alaska Range, and the Rohn checkpoint on Monday, March 3.”
The 2014 trail might have been the roughest trail many of the competitors then racing could remember, but old timers could recall when the trail through the Dalzell Gorge snaked around “sled-buster rock.” It was so named for a reason; it broke enough sleds that eventually the trail was moved up onto a hillside to avoid the rock.
Thus began the many improvements to the trail that would accumulate over the years. They reached a peak when the Iditarod started grooming the trail near the start of the new millennium.
“In normal years, (the trailbreakers will) go out two to three weeks early to put a trail in the mountains in the Dazelle(sic) Gorge,” the Iditarod reported in 2017. “They’ll cut ice shelfs, use plywood to build makeshift guardrails, and build ice bridges. Last year, eight volunteers built 32 ice bridges over the span of about 10 miles in 10 days.
“At race time, the trail breakers will stay 24 hours ahead of the mushers to give the trail time to set up. The journey to Nome takes twelve to thirteen days and in that time they’ll place roughly 15,000 lath trail markers. Most days, they’ll cover 70 to 80 miles, but trail detail will drop their average speed down to three and a half to four miles an hour – a contrast to the dog teams’ average of eight to nine. In addition to breaking trail and setting markers, these guys are cutting deadfall, clipping branches, picking up brush, and anything else they can do to make the trail as clear and safe as possible. If a big snowstorm comes through a couple of the guys will backtrack and lay new tracks so the teams know where they’re going.”
The way it was
To understand how different things are from what they were when Ian Wooldridge first labeled Iditarod “The Last Great Race on Earth” for a 1979 segment of the BBC’s “The World About Us,” one really needs to go back and watch the grainy old film – there was no video in those days – of that race on YouTube.
The film opens with past Iditarod champ Dick Mackey warning mushers that they “don’t know how hard it is out there,” progresses to a Bush pilot in Skwenta explaining he’s flying supplies ahead on the trail because the snowmachines of the day can’t keep up with the dog teams, and then detours slightly from the ’79 race to recount how the late Norman Vaughan, who served his apprenticeship as a dog handler in Antarctica, got “hopelessly lost” in Rainy Pass for five days in an earlier Iditarod and by the time he was found “his dogs had eaten their harnesses (and) Vaughn was in the late stages of hypothermia.”
The hardships of the trail are later underlined by aerial photos of a trackless Happy River valley swept down to white pavement by the winds that howl down out of Rainy Pass onto the tundra of the long plateau north of the Puntilla Lake lake checkpoint, and then the words of one musher on arrival in the ghost town of Iditarod – “you stop breathing when you lose the trail, and you start breathing again when you find it” – and finally, as the race nears the “remarkably unfrozen” Bering Sea Unalakleet, the words of another driver – “there’s a thousand time in this race you wish a helicopter would come and just pluck you off the trail.”
This is was the Iditarod.
As Woldridge summed it up at the end of the film, “the Iditarod Trail is no longer about gold or even winning. It’s about surviving and reaching the end of the loneliest road.”
The ’79 race Woldridge covered was won by a then 28-year-old Swenson. He’d previously claimed victory in the 1977 Iditarod and would go on to win again in 1981, 1982 and 1991. It took Swenson 15 days and nearly 10 and half hours to reach Nome in ’79.
By 1981, he’d reduced the winning time by almost three days though even then the trail was nowhere near as good as it is today. It had been rerouted around sled-buster rock by the early 1980s, but mushers were still left largely to fend for themselves in the Dalzell Gorge. There were no bridges being built although sometimes some brush was cut and dumped down between the icy shelves of the creek so a dog team dropping off one side could make it up the other.
Still, there were places where the dogs needed help getting out of the frozen creek bed.
Some dog drivers in those days told Daily News photographer Jim Lavrakus that they came to dread seeing him ahead on a rock outcropping along the trail because they knew it meant they were about to encounter bad or worse trail. And the conditions really didn’t get much better once through the Dalzell.
Mushers got a break when they came out of the gorge onto the frozen Tatina River. There was a patch of dangerous open water to be avoided, but it was generally smooth sailing on down the river and into the Rohn checkpoint.
North of Rohn, however, everyone knew more hell-bashing awaited.
The worst of it
“The first 20 miles out of Rohn has some of the consistently worst trail on the whole race,” the late Don Bowers wrote in a 1990s trail guide, although the first 10 miles weren’t actually that bad except, sometimes, for the crossing of the gravel bars, glare ice and open, overflow water of the Kuskowim River on the way into the woods to the north.
The real difficulties actually started about 10 miles beyond at what ‘”most people call the Post River Glacier, but which is really a separate, smaller stream,” Bowers wrote. “This little stretch is about a quarter-mile of pure nightmare even under good conditions, followed by some merely terrible trail for another quarter-mile or so.”
Most mushers came to call this simply “the glacier,” though it technically wasn’t a glacier. It was aufeis (off-ice), “German for ‘ice on top’ (that forms) downstream of underground springs that gush all winter long,” according to University of Alaska publicist Ned Rozell. “Many Alaskans know this ice as overflow. Its gradual buildup has created glaciers on Alaska roadways and has in midwinter forced people from cabins as their property slowly transformed into a skating rink.”
Skating rink would often describe the conditions on the glacier, especially when there was fresh water running atop the ice to really slick things up. Iditarod past champion Joe Runyan once offered a good description of what happened when a dog team encountered something like this:
“The team rolls along, hits the ice, speeds up with a natural inclination to get to the other side, and suddenly the sled slides sidewise like a hockey puck to the bottom of the glacier, at the same time dragging the team into brush and debris. Usually a massive tangle follows, the musher stretches out the team again, lines up the sled like a cue ball to the end of the glacier, and continues. Occasionally, however, the sled catches an edge and flips.”
Things could get ugly at the glacier, and it didn’t get better further on.
Beyond the glacier, in the old days, came the “buffalo tunnel” through the spruce on the way to the Farewell Burn. It was barely a dog sled wide. It was not uncommon for a musher to hit a bump there that tipped the sled to one side only to have the handlebar ripped off by a tree. The trail was regularly littered with the parts of broken sleds and gear that got dumped out of those sleds.
Ahead awaited just more trouble.
“One of the potentially worst stretches of overflow is after you are by Egypt Mountain, only a couple of miles before (Farewell) Lake,” Bowers wrote. “The trail will enter an area of several acres of swamp and trees that may be flooded with ice. The trail exits up the hill to the left, although in some years it is entirely possible to miss it and continue on down the icy swamp, ultimately coming to the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. In 1997 six teams were tangled up in this mess for an hour and a later musher missed the turn completely, got lost, and ultimately took almost two days to get to Nikolai.”
After Eygpt’s overflow came the Burn itself with its windblown snow and hard, runner-busting drifts that a dogsled slammed into on one side before crashing down off the other and beyond that the open water of Sullivan Creek. By the time Bowers wrote his book, the Burn – once the site of the largest wildfire in Alaska – had regrown enough to block the winds, which limited the drifting and made travel across it much easier, and a bridge had already been built over Sullivan Creek.
(Before that bridge was built, the author had the lovely experience of filling his boots with water in the creek in the process of freeing someone else’s stuck snowmachine in temperatures near 40 degrees below zero. He also helped destroy a snowmachine-towed sled between Rohn and McGrath. It hit too many drifts and tussocks in the Burn. The wind that formed the drifts blew the snow out of the tussocks in those days, making the trail rougher than hell. The sled made it to McGrath after being repeatedly lashed back together, but it was ready for the dump.)
The Burn is no longer the problem it once was. Nature took care of that although here as elsewhere snowmachines spinning their tracks can fill the trail with moguls that are no fun for a dog team or the rider on the sled behind. Still….
Sullivan Creek is no longer a problem. The bridge took care of that.
The glacier is no longer a problem. A new trail cut through the woods to provide a detour around it took care of that.
The buffalo tunnel, or “chute” as Bowers called it, is no longer a problem. It was widened by men with chainsaws to prevent those sled-smashing crashes.
Even the tussocks aren’t so much of a problem anymore. Trail groomers dragged from Rohn to Nikolai over the years took the tops off them. Some still emerge in snow-short years, but they are a kinder, gentler version of what they were.
Better trail accounted for much of the reduction in times for what had by the 1980s become an 11 to 12 day race to Nome unless the weather became too much of a challenge for the equipment then used to maintain the trail. The ’85 race won by Libby Riddles, the first woman to claim victory, was plagued by snow largely because the snowmachines of the day were nowhere near the machines they are now.
Snow-caused stoppages added three days to the race south of the Alaska Range and another day or so to the north. A wind storm along the coast, which provided Riddle the opportunity to grab the victory that vaulted the Iditarod out of the cold, dark of Alaska into the bright lights of international news, added a bit more of a delay, but most of the 18-day length of that race traced back to lack of snowmachine power to break trail.
The race isn’t stopped by snow anymore. The airplanes now have more trouble with the weather than do the snowmachines.
When asked about impassable snow conditions, trail-breaker Jeremiah Melin told Iditarod.com he hears that every year “it’s always the worst trail conditions ever. It’s impassable; the race is going to have to be canceled,” but somehow the snowmachines roll on.
“We have the best machines there is for the job that we’ve got,” he said. “It’s really hard to find snow conditions these things can’t go through. We’re all very experienced riders. We know what we’re doing on these things.”
Technology has played a big role in Iditarod changes, but the dog drivers have changed as well. The old-timers were a naturally self-reliant lot because they had to be. They grew up, lived and worked in a world where it was impossible to call for help.
During the 1982 race, the late Herbie Nayokpuk – the Shishmaref Cannonball – tried a Riddlesque move that failed. He spent 24 hours out in screaming, Bering Sea coastal winds before retreating to the Shaktoolik checkpoint where he told KUAC Fairbanks reporter Karen McPherson, “I almost quit….(But) maybe we still get another storm, maybe I have a chance to rest my dogs tomorrow and go again.”
“And he did go again, though his face and neck were badly frostbitten,” McPherson added, “and both he and his dogs were discouraged. A break from the pack in an effort to win nearly cost him the whole race.”
When Hugh Neff’s dog team quit in significantly milder conditions on Golovin Bay in 2014 – 32 years later – Neff didn’t wait long before pushing the rescue button on his satellite communicator to call for help. He spent only 10 hours on the ice before a volunteer the Iditarod sent out on a snowmachine rescued him.
Neff then dropped out of the race, and he and his girlfriend accused Iditarod officials of trying to kill him by failing to organize a quicker rescue after he pressed that save-me button.
In 1982 the frostbitten Nayokpuk pulled himself together back in Shaktoolik, got back in the race and reached Nome fourth to cement his place in Iditarod lore. He never won the race, but he was inducted into the Iditarod Hall of Fame in 1997. Swenson joined the hall the same year, his five Iditarod victories without argument topped by the 1991 win with a do-or-die finish that trumped even Riddles’ daring in ’85.
Swenson walked his dogs through a storm that turned back the late, great Susan Butcher and a gang of fellow trail-hardened frontrunners in order to reach Nome in 12 days, 16 hours and 34 minutes. Buser, the only other musher to follow Swenson into the storm, finished a couple of hours back. That race now far back in time would mark the last time the Iditarod took 12 days or more to finish.
Faster days ahead
Buser’s time the next year was 1`0 days, 19 hours and 17 minutes. It marked the beginning of the era of 9- to 10-day races. Montanan Doug Swingley become a dominant force in that time and credited the success of his faster, race-winning dogs to “altitude training” amid the same sort of doping rumors that had once swirled around four-time champ Butcher.
Alaska mushers, meanwhile, started training harder to try and beat Swingley, and in 2002, with near-perfect racing weather helping to ensure a near-perfect trail, Buser won his third and final Iditarod in just under nine days.
Over the course of the next few years, the finishing standard for the race settled in around nine days as a norm, give or take five to 21 hours. This was despite plenty of technological innovation intended to help make the dogs go faster. King built an “altitude barn,” the doggie alternative to the altitude tents being used by human athletes, in 2007 hoping to better the late Lance Mackey, the then dominant competitor. Buser in 2009 started using a treadmill so he could train dogs at a controlled pace.
For a while, it looked as if Buser’s 2002 record time might define the limits of man and dogs. Mackey did slip under 9 days in 2010, but only by 51 seconds. King ran the fastest race he’d ever run that year and finished just under two and half hours back. Buser’s record looked pretty secure then.
But the record would fall the very next year, having lasted not quite a decade.
Kotzebue’s John Baker, a notoriously hard-driving musher, took exactly four hours off Buser’s time in 2011 on his way to his first and last Iditarod win. His mark would stand for only two years before the Seaveys – father Mitch and son Dallas – took control of the Iditarod with a dynasty built around the state’s largest sled-dog business and possibly more.
As with Butcher in the ’80s and Montana’s Swingley, a three-time winner in the ’90s, the rumors of doping circled around the Seaveys as soon as they started winning consistently, and this time with slightly more substance than with Butcher and Swingley.
There remains to this day the unresolved question of how exactly Dallas’s dogs ended up with dope in their urine in Nome in 2017, and there is a European musher who worked as a handler for Mitch – and just happened to be a one-time competitive athlete and a medical student (now doctor) – who says he and Mitch talked a lot about doping, though there is no evidence whatsoever that the Seaveys began a doping program.
The elder Seavey’s concern may, however, have centered mainly around his belief that a lot of the competition might be doping. The younger Seavey, in defending the doping accusations against him, would later tell a closed gathering of Iditarod mushers that accusing him of using something as minor-league as tramadol was the height of hypocrisy given all the mushers giving their dogs more potent performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), according to multiple sources who were in that meeting.
Whatever the case might or might not have been as regard drugs – the Iditarod has for years given tacit approval to the use of PEDs in out-of-competition training, a use that has been proven effective for human athletes – there is little argument that the Seaveys were running the biggest dog farm in Alaska, giving them access to a huge number of dogs to put into their Iditarod teams, and they were aided by a small army of handlers available to help train those dogs.
The old-fashioned way
Over the years, the Seaveys built a popular and highly successful tourism business – Seavey’s Ididaride – featuring year-round sled-dog rides on snow, land and – in summer – the ice of Alaska glaciers. There is a strong argument to be made that their Iditarod dominance came largely as an outgrowth of this business.
Access to the pick of the best dogs from a huge pool of race candidates helped Mitch, the 2004 winner, put to rest the idea held by some that he was a one-time wonder as so many before him: Dick Wilmarth, Carl Huntington, Emmitt Peters, Jerry Riley, Dick Mackey, Joe May, Rick Mackey, Libby Riddles, Dean Osmar and Joe Runyan.
Topnotch mushers all, they never made it back into the winner’s circle, and for a long time, it looked like Mitch would join them.
Prior to that 2004 victory, his best finish was fourth in 1998, and in 10 races dating back to 1982, he’d made the top 10 only twice. His record did improve after 2004 as the Seaveys grew their sled-dog business. Mitch was a top-10 finisher for the next eight years, but seldom anyone’s prerace pick as the winner and never first under the burled arch that marks the finish line in Nome.
All of that changed with a second victory in 2013, a year after Dallas claimed his first victory. The younger Seavey’s success the previous year had been seen by some as a sign of the father giving way to the son, but such was not to be the case. The two Seaveys would go on racing against each other, often competing for the spotlight, for years.
Dallas won for the second time in 2014 and in the process took more than 30 minutes off Baker’s winning time to set a new race record. That stood for a year before Dallas’s team went under the eight-and-a-half-day mark in 2016 with his third consecutive win and fourth total. Mitch was second, only 45 minutes back.
Mitch went even faster the next year to win the 2017 race in a time of 8 days, 3 hours and 4 minutes. Eight teams behind him finished in under 9 days. And Mitch became, at age 57, not only the fastest musher ever to win the race up to that time, but also the oldest.The fast times defined a whole new Iditarod with some mushers then talking about how someone might need to run a sub-eight-day race to beat the Seaveys.
But in the fall of the year came news of doped dogs in the team of that year’s runner-up, who just happened to be Dallas.
Suddenly all the pre-race talk about Iditarod 2018 was focused on drugs. Dallas ended up sitting out the 2018 race. Mitch raced and finished third. Race winner Joar Liefseth Ulsom took nine and a half days to reach Nome.
The slower time could have been weather related. Iditarod finishing times are regularly influenced by weather and trail conditions although there was some discussion at the time as to whether everyone was being extra careful about what medications they might be giving their dogs with the drug testers having publicly revealed their first success with testing.
There are rumors of earlier drug positives, but Stuart Nelson, the race’s chief veterinarian since the late 1990s, has denied those rumors while race marshall Mark Nordman has suggested a somewhat different view, saying there were positives but they were traced back to drug contaminated meat that mushers fed their dogs. Horse meat was sometimes used for dog food prior to 2007 when U.S. slaughterhouses were banned from slaughtering unwanted horses, and horses were (and still are) regularly administered antibiotics that can later be found in their meat.
It is still possible to buy horse-based dog food in Canada, but it is not regularly used by mushers anymore.
Whether the use of PEDs changed after Dallas ended up in a huge mess is an unknown, but it is a simple fact that finishing times slipped back into the nine-and-a-half-day range for the three years following Dallas’s drug mess with wins by Norwegians, Ulsom and Thomas Waerner, bookending a victory by Peter Kaiser – a popular, 31-year-old musher of mixed race from the predominately Alaska Native community of Bethel.
Not that those three races were without their own controversies. Ulsom was alleged to have received assistance from his then-girlfriend, a better-known musher, and Waerner was reported to have been aided by a group of Norwegians on snowmachines who were covering the race as journalists.
But little of this saw the light of day in keeping with newly imposed Iditarod policies.
The race instituted a “gag rule” in 2016 that empowered race managers to crack down on any musher who said anything that could be viewed as a derogatory comment about the event.
How much the gag rule publicly silenced anyone is unknown but in 2022 there appeared in the Iditarod rulebook a new rule declaring “snowmachine use to assist a specific musher by breaking trail or impeding the progress of a competitor by damaging the existing trail is strictly prohibited.”
This solution to a problem appeared despite little public awareness that there was a problem. The rule, however, came as no surprise to Iditarod insiders familiar with the behind-the-scenes bitching about how supporters of some mushers used snowmachines to, on one hand, break trail through fresh snow in front of their favorite team and, on the other hand, to pulverize good trail to slow teams chasing their favorite team.
When the gag rule first appeared, many believed it was mainly intended to stop mushers from bad-mouthing Iditarod sponsors – most notably Donlin Gold, a mining project in Southwest Alaska being pushed by Canadian mineral giant Barrick Gold and NovaGold Resources, a mineral exploration company headquartered in Salt Lake City.
To power the mine, Donlin had proposed building a gas pipeline from tidewater on Cook Inlet north along the route of the Iditarod Trail to McGrath, a distance of about 300 miles, before turning west down the Kuskokwim River to the mine site. The potential for development in the Iditarod corridor angered some older mushers who thought a pipeline and service road would undermine the historic character of the trail.
Donlin’s plan would “result in complete, irreversible destruction of the scenic and cultural nature of a 58-mile stretch of our Iditarod National Historic Trail. Included is the spectacular Rainy Pass segment,” Dan Seavey, father of Mitch and grandfather of Dallas charged in a commentary penned for the Anchorage Daily News.
Some younger mushers, meanwhile, opposed the mine in the simple belief that it is impossible to mine without causing environmental devastation, a now common view among some younger Americans despite steady advancements in mining technology and greater regulatory oversight.
Still, many mushers saw the gag order as broader than just protecting sponsors from criticism; there was a belief it was also intended to protect race managers, who had in the past come under regular criticism. Mushers always seemed to be upset about something, from poorly marked or maintained trail to rule interpretations that caused them trouble or failed to cause their competition trouble. And then there were the issues with back-of-the -pack mushers arbitrarily forced out of the race or harassed into quitting only to later decide they’d been abused.
Suffice it to say, Iditarod officials do their jobs at least as well as NFL referees, or as badly, with no flags available to be tossed to order up instant replays of questionable decisions. Musher Brent Sass was tossed out of the 2015 race when caught with an iPod Touch, a device capable of two-way communication. Two-way communication devices were at that time illegal in the race, but there was no evidence he ever used the device to communicate with anyone.
Sass fans went apoplectic over the decision, and his hometown newspaper, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, took up the cause in the belief he’d been punished for a mere technicality. Publicly, Sass played nice, but some believed he was stirring the pot behind the scenes.
How much any behind-the-scenes activities by Sass and others had to do with the Iditarod later dropping the ban on two-way communication devices is hard to say, but the ban was gone by last year when Sass won his first race with long-distance coaching assistance from friend and fellow musher Mike Ellis.
After the race was over, Sass confessed to Alaska Public Media that he carried a satellite communication device with which to contact Ellis “who I had been in touch with for a good portion of the race, giving me updates here and there.”
When Sass’s team got blown off the trail while crossing the Bering Coast hills between Unalkaleet and Shaktoolik and the musher ran into problems getting them untangled and back on the trail, he messaged Ellis for advice. Ellis warned, Sass told APM, that “‘Dallas is 11 miles behind you and moving, so get your ass in gear. Get out of there.’ I’m thinking, ‘God, I gotta get out of here right now.’ Because I didn’t know what it was gonna be like on the coast.”
The Iditarod rulebook at that time still contained a standard stating “Outside Assistance: No planned help is allowed throughout the race,” but nothing was said about the coaching. Some mushers complained privately, but none of them raised a public stink even though what Sass and Ellis were doing looked awfully similar to what Butcher and husband Dave Monson were doing in 1986 before the so-called “Monson rule” was written specifically to prevent such coaching.
But no one said anything publicly.
How much of the silence involved the gag rule and how much simply reflected the changing nature of the top Iditarod mushers over time impossible to say. The breed had, by and large, gone increasingly PC in the years since a very public war of the sexes between Butcher and Swenson came to an end.
Mr. Nice Guy
Almost all top mushers now try to hone a nice-guy, nice-gal image so as to avoid any possibility of alienating sponsors, friends of sponsors or even potential customers. Many mushers, like the Seaveys, are in the tourism business, and when you’re selling sled dog rides to visiting tourists, it would not be good business to potentially upset the fans of other mushers. Those tourists might then want to take their business elsewhere.
A fan of “Cat in the Hat” musher Neff, who has a sizeable fan base despite his checkered mushing history, might, for instance, decide to avoid a sled dog ride with a tourism business run by a musher known to have been talking smack about Neff’s dog care. It would be better to maneuver behind the scenes to get Neff banned.
Whether this had anything to do with Neff being kicked out of the Iditard about halfway through last year’s race for reasons that remain unclear is hard to say, but it could have. It is worth noting he was later told he couldn’t enter this year because a review panel of unnamed mushers disapproved of his participation.
Neff has a history of dogs dying in races, as do some other mushers, and got in a heated battle with the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, the state’s other big endurance event, over who was responsible for one of his dogs dying during the 2018 running of that race.
With the specter of “animal abuse” hanging over the race since the 1990s, dog deaths and the mushers associated with dog deaths are something Iditarod officials try to avoid as best they can given that the race has long been under fire on this front.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), an animal rights group, first tried to shut down the Iditarod late in the 1980s. Butcher at the time tried to broker peace only to have everything blow up when one of her dogs died during the 1994 Iditarod, reportedly of heart failure.
It was the fourth Butcher dog to die during an Iditarod race. Two were killed when a moose stomped through her team before Duane “Dewey” Halverson arrived to shoot and kill the moose in 1985. And another died in 1987 reportedly due to hemorrhaging caused by liver lesions.” That death helped fuel the doping rumors of the time given that the medical literature says such lesions “have been attributed to the use of anabolic steroids.”
When HSUS launched a full-on assault on Iditiard after the ’94 dog deaths, race sponsors started jumping ship, and the race struggled to find new ones and retrain what old ones it could. But the organization eventually beat back HSUS-driven efforts to put an end to Iditarod and by the 2000s had secured major sponsors in the form of Wells Fargo Bank and Cabela’s, one of the country’s biggest outdoor gear retailers.
For a time, Cabela’s featured a whole line of Iditarod-related outdoor gear endorsed by King, but apparently did not find the Iditarod/King association a highly useful marketing tool and pulled out as a major sponsor during the recession of 2009.
Wells Fargo held on until 2017 when the radical animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) picked up the cause started by HSUS. Wells Fargo then, too, bailed.
In the wake of the bank’s departure and with other sponsors skittish, the efforts of new Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach to accommodate the demands of PETA turned into an ever bigger disaster than the efforts of old CEO Stan Hooley to end run HSUS by focusing on Alaska sponsors and the hoped-for profits from Iditarod-produced coverage of the race.
The race had high hopes that with the arrival of the internet “Iditarod Insider,” a streaming service, could produce big revenue, but that never happened. There just weren’t enough fans willing to buy in. The few hundred thousand dollars or less collected from those purchasing the Insider package appear to have barely covered the high costs of covering the remote race.
Meanwhile, Urbach’s later effort to make friends had just the opposite result with PETA. It labeled a meeting with Iditarod CEO a sham and vowed to intensify efforts to pressure Iditarod sponsors to bail.
A subsequent Urbach-led effort to increase Iditarod revenues by getting into the business of cryptocurrency and NFT appears to have been an equally big failure. The “Iditacoin” venture sold as a way to “generate funding not only for staging the historic race, but for animal welfare grants and financial support for the rural communities that share the heritage and tradition of this great race” quickly parted ways with Iditarod and spun off into something called Dogatopia.io.
Dogatopia.io – a different entity from a similarly named and successful doggie daycare franchise – is still soliciting “memberships” with the promise that “early sign-ups are rewarded with DGZ tokens!”
DGZs – ie. “DogeZone” tokens – were today reported to be trading at a value of $0.00000012.
The Iditarod is now struggling on all fronts – financing, participation and fan interest – and its biggest marketing problem in these times might be that the race has become increasingly boring. Going faster might appeal to the top mushers, but going faster without the threat of risk is just nothingness.
There was actually more drama to the race in the old days when the rabbits went out too fast and everyone waited for the wheels to fall off, but with PETA now prowling the Iditarod sidelines no one wants to even think about that, let alone talk about it. The most obvious reason for Neff being booted out of the race last year was that his team was the second to arrive in Ruby on the Yukon River after having made the 70-mile run from Cripple almost an hour and a half faster than Sass, the then race leader.
Though race officials officially claimed at first that Neff’s sudden disappearance came “in conjunction with Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman,…due to their concern for his race team,” the reality was that Neff was forced out.
Alaska’s News Source, an Anchorage television station, later quoted Nordman admitting that “you know for the best interest of his dogs and Iditarod and the sport, it was time for him to leave. If he didn’t scratch, I would disqualify him.”
Nordman also suggested but didn’t specifically say, that Neff’s dogs were in bad shape. Fellow mushers and others who saw Neff’s team in Cripple have been skeptical of that assessment, saying the dogs looked in as good as shape as most and better than some, and the team’s run time to Ruby certainly didn’t reflect that of a faltering team.
Neff’s dogs made it into Ruby more than an hour faster than any of the other teams in the top five at the time. There were legitimate reasons to be concerned Neff might be able to stay with the race leaders to the Bering Sea coast and even have a chance of contending for victory.
With PETA prowling the Iditarod sidelines, and a variety of other advocates of “companion animals” questioning whether it is acceptable to put dogs to work, the Iditarod didn’t need another rabbit-like Neff going out too fast only have his team quit farther down the trail – not a good thing given his reputation – or worse yet win the race.
The Neff affair did add at least add tiny bit of drama to the 2022 race, the other bit coming from Sass going off the trail and getting his team tangled and then claiming involvement in a “harrowing” event wherein his team “just tumbled down off the trail into the abyss” as the musher told American Essence.
The weather was without doubt crap, as it often is in winter in the Blueberry Hills north of Unalkaleet, but there is no abyss there. And though the wind was blasting snow sideways across the hills, as is often the case, the conditions weren’t bad enough to prevent Sass from filming video of his dogs getting coated in snow.
Plus he did have the comfort of knowing the “Insider guys,” as Sass described them to Alaska Public Media, who had been following the race leader along the trail by snowmachine were nearby and monitoring the situation.
There might have been a better story in Matthew Failor being forced to shoot and kill the moose trying to attack his team earlier in the race, but Failor was not among the front runners and the incident involved an animal dying, which would not sit well with the PETA crowd.
Alaska’s now handout-conditioned media used a video from Nordman to cover what happened with Failor. Nordman blandly explained that the musher had to “take action to defend himself and property.” An Alaska newscaster then explained that “though this doesn’t happen often, it has happened before on the Iditarod Trail.”
A better account of what happened didn’t emerge until a week after the race when Failor talked to his old, hometown newspaper back in Ohio, but that story failed to capture the full drama of the situation confronting Failor. A significant number of people have been seriously injured after being attacked by moose in Alaska, and the animals have stomped to death both people and dogs.
Nowhere was it mentioned that Failor had plenty of reason to be panicky when he met that moose on the trail either. An unarmed Failor had earlier in the winter ended up with a moose in his team while training near Willow. With the animal stomping on dogs, Failor waded into the fight armed only with a knife and managed to kill the moose with it before any dogs died.
Given that incident, there was a good reason he slipped a 10mm handgun into his sled bag when he later in the year headed up the Iditarod Trail, but mushers being forced to shoot moose in order to protect themselves and their dogs is another thing on the list of many things it’s probably not a good thing to talk about in a new Iditarod trying to appear animal friendlier.
All of these things have turned the Iditarod of today in something of a slow-moving, four-legged NASCAR on snow – despite all the efforts to speed things up – without crashes or driver disputes and only the occasional storm to liven things up. Lacking any real weather issues, Dallas Seavey in 2021 set a new Iditarod race record of just over 7 days, 14 hours in a real ho-hum affair that saw no less than seven teams break the 8-day barrier.
It was fast, but not Formula 1 fast. It wasn’t even Tour de France fast where there is always the potential of cyclists going just a little too fast and crashing.
The Iditarod’s speed is a weak selling point in a marketplace that equates entertainment with action, drama and personalities. The Iditarod is increasingly short on those things. The action is slow. The real drama is often downplayed. And the Iditarod’s last big personality was plain-speaking Lance Mackey with all his human failings. He sadly died in September at the age of 52.
Sass and Dallas do get some credit for trying to amp things up, but the latter’s claim to believing he was second while getting the winner’s treatment in 2014 just sounded phony. And it didn’t help that the claim was coming from a one-time “reality TV actor,” given that reality TV has become the definition of phony.
Swingley and the various Norwegians did bring some Alaska-against-the-world intrigue to earlier Iditarods, but they’re now gone.
Then again, from a marketing standpoint, it might be that none of this matters. It is possible time has just passed the Iditarod by.
The world has changed immensely since the race began in 1973 with the Information Age just beginning to blossom. There were no laptop computers then and no internet. Video games were in their infancy – does anyone even remember Pong? – and the thought of a phone you could carry with you anywhere was still more dream than reality.
The first cellular phone call was made in 1973 with a brick-size Motorola DynaTax. The phone wouldn’t be widely available in the marketplace for another decade and then at a price of $3,995 – the equivalent of $11,728 in today’s dollars.
The thought of a relatively inexpensive phone that would fit in your shirt pocket – let alone a communication device you could use to take photos, send text messages to friends, surf the internet and even play sophisticated video games – wasn’t even a dream yet. How much technology changed everything and everybody along with it is sometimes now hard to comprehend.
So-called “esports” played on computers today dwarf the Iditarod in both popularity and prize money.
“Crowds roared with excitement at Laval’s Place Bell as they watched their favorite professional gamers compete at the world championship of Rainbow Six Siege – a video game created and developed in Montreal,” Global News reported at mid-month. “The winning teams of the tournament receive a grand prize of U.S. $3 million – a record sum in the history of eSports Quebec.”
And this was just one of many esport competitions. The website Esport Earnings reports that various esport events paid out more than $227.6 million in prize money last year. The combined purses of the Iditarod and all of the rest of the sled-dog races in North America last year didn’t amount to $1 million.
The top esport player, Jing Jun Wu, a 27-year-old American, is reported to have won almost $1.8 million in 2022.. More than 500 players are reported to have earned more than $87,500 for the year.
Sass collected $51,798 for his Iditarod victory the same year.. The Iditarod has yet to announce the purse for 2023, but the winner could be less than in 2022 given the race’s ongoing financial struggles. And the field for this year’s race – now down to 33 teams – is the smallest on record, smaller than the 34 teams that set out on the first adventure up the trail in 1973.
The Iron Dog snowmachine race, which ended in Big Lake on Saturday with Tyler Aklestad and Nick Olstad the winners, this year sent more competitors – 42 – up the Iditarod trail in its “pro class” which races the 1,000 miles to Nome and back again to Big Lake. Another 39 riders went to Nome in the “expedition class,” making the Iron Dog field well more than twice the size of that for the Iditarod.
Meanwhile, the human-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational, which started today, sent close to 100 fat-tired cyclists, runners and skiers north along the trail on Sunday. Most of them are going only as far as McGrath, about 350 miles north of the Iditarod’s traditional starting point at the old community of Knik, but this year there will be almost as many of them – 27 – trying for Nome as there are dog mushers going that far.
Times change. Sporting events, like all things in this world, adapt or fade away.
The people really interested in going fast now have the Iron Dog, and those mainly wishing to test themselves against the wilderness in the way the old Iditaord BOP crowd did have the Invitational, which can be done at a fraction of the cost of the Iditarod.
What’s left for the Iditarod? The romance, maybe? The thing to which the Iditarod has paid the least attention in its quest to go faster and faster.
Categories: Commentary, Outdoors
It’s interesting that you touch on the PED issue.
A quick search only brought up this article when I typed in “Susan Butcher, steroids, dogs”.
1. I once (quite a long time ago) spent Thanksgiving dinner with a well known Iditarod musher. When I brought up the subject of hearing that Susan Butcher was juicing her dogs, he went on a lengthy discussion (rant). Some of the nicer things he said was “Sociopath, Scumbag #1 (actually changed it to #2 behind Dave Monson). He said she stole money from honest mushers like himself with a systematic program of giving her dogs PED’s developed in association with Dave Monson.
-He purchased a bitch from Susan that in his words was the “Arnold Swarzenegger of female dogs” hoping to use her in his breeding program. Unfortunately, she never produced any pups and he gave the dog away as a pet. Later in life the dog was experiencing health issues. An operation revealed vestigial testes in this female dog. The vet commented, “Oh, another Susan Butcher dog.”
-This musher also went on to say at one point during a race he had settled his dogs on straw next to the veterinarian’s tent. Later he overheard them discussing what to report about one of Susan Butcher’s dogs that died in harness on the trail. He said they eventually decided to report the dog died due to “liver failure”. It seems this was not a “one off” and there was some form of cover up.
2. My daughter’s mother is native from Unalakleet. Her grandmother told me Susan Butcher was quietly told to retire from the Iditarod Race due the the fact she was suspected of “giving her dogs drugs”. This is at the point where she said she was retiring from mushing to concentrate on a family. I didn’t pay this much attention until I raised the subject to the above musher. My daughter’s grandmother’s was friends with Rick Swenson and I’m assuming that could be the source of her information. He often stopped by their home on his way through Unalakleet during the race and requested her caribou stew. Unalakleet is an important check point. The people know many of the mushers and their family and spouses often stay there during the race. The information could have come from another source.
3. I brought this subject up to another musher I met one time and he said this is common knowledge among mushers.
I’m sure the Iditarod wanted this issue to quietly go away and later instituted the drug testing of the dogs. I’m surprised they still closely associate their brand with her name.
Donald: I heard those rumors and suggestions for years. I never reported them because I could find no solid evidence.
That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if the rumors are true. It was a different time. The Iditarod didn’t just randomly start testing for drugs in the Butcher-Swenson era. It started for testing for drugs because a lot of mushers thought the race leaders and winners were juicing their dogs with something more potent than the caffeine (a known PED) for which the late, great George Attla was famous.
And Butcher did have a dog death due to a liver failure, as did some others. Veterinarians investigating 23 dog deaths from 1994 to 2006 later reported that “although certain fish may contain organochlorines that are also capable of causing hepatocellular necrosis, exposure to levels sufficient to cause liver lesions seems unlikely. The cause of hepatocellular necrosis in racing dogs requires further investigation.” (https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/232/4/javma.232.4.564.xml)
Anabolic steroids, which is one of the drugs you would give dogs if you are seriously interested in juicing them, have been linked to hepatocellular necrosis. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9331524/)
Now, as to Susan’s personality, as someone who had a long and sometimes difficult relationship with her, I would question the suggestion of sociopathy. I’ve known a few sociopaths, and I’m not sure she met the standard. Buy there is a lot of grey there.
Susan was every bit as focused on winning as Lance Armstrong, and everyone knows the Armstrong story. If you Google him up, you’ll find a lot of debate about whether he is a sociopath, psychopath, narcissist or other.
That said, I’ve never seen anyone suggest that Armstrong’s old lieutenant Floyd Landis, another doping cyclist, is a sociopath, and Landis, who was raised as a Mennonite boy, once offered among the better rationalizations for doping:
“Here’s the facts; somebody is going to cheat…and I’d rather not be the guy getting cheated. There is no good scenario.” (https://nyvelocity.com/articles/interviews/landiskimmage/)
The Iditarod, sadly, has never been very up front or honest about any of this. That its anti-doping program, which is weak at best, has never publicly revealed it caught anyone other than Dallas Seavey doping also says much. And everyone also knows how the Seavey story ended.
Iditaord made it go away by deciding his team had to have been sabotaged by someone even though there was no investigation of possible sabotage and absolutely no evidence of sabotage. In other words, the Iditarod’s answer to the problem was to shove it all under the table, which would leave any sensible individual wondering what else might be hiding under the table.
I thought long and hard about spiking your comment here given the sensitivity of talking about what the late Susan Butcher, an Iditarod legend might or might not have done long ago, but there is a legitimate discussion to be had about Iditarod doping past and present whether the Iditarod wants to entertain it or not.
Thanks so much for responding Craig. Your response demonstrates your expertise and extensive research on the subject matter.
I fully expected a non-response (“spiking” as you put it). It is indeed a touchy subject. These are rumors, and that is all they are. As you pointed out, there is no solid evidence. It has just bothered me that the state and Iditarod continue to lionize someone that could quite possibly have been the “best cheater” of her era. It was something that I felt has never been brought to light and could be a major embarrassment if concrete evidence had ever surfaced.
As to the definition of sociopath, I have a Wildlife Biology degree. Such terms are beyond my scope of education.
Well, if you’re familiar with Iditarod, you probably already know there’s been some cheating that has gone on over the years. It almost never gets reported. Mushers might talk a lot of smack among themselves, but they almost always adhere to the omerta in talking to the media.
And now, of course, there’s an official gag order to keep in line anyone who might want to say something to the media.
That’s a pretty epic write up, Craig. A lot to unpack there. Out of curiosity do you have any insight on why so many “big name” drivers such as the Seavey’s failed to enter the race this year? I’ve been out of the loop for a few years developing properties, kind of lost track of the world with everything going on.
Hope you’re doing well my old friend:)
Expense. Effort. Age. Frustration. Too small a lifestyle. Changing lifestyles as with everyone else. There are a lot of reasons.
I imagine all that has an impact on a broader sense, but with that said I just read a puff piece on GQ that Dallas’s pr team set up, definitely didn’t sound like a guy looking for a change in lifestyle. Look how many mushers bent over and meekly took it when the ITC mandated the jab as a precondition for participation. If you weren’t going to draw the line there you aren’t going to draw it anywhere
And yet, I don’t see Dallas out there on the trail.
Running a sled dog business where others do a lot of the work but you get to jump on the runners behind a nicely trained team when you’re not doing other things sounds like a pretty nice lifestyle to me. Hell, if I had access to it I’d stop typing now and go run the dogs.
On the other hand, there’s Burt Bomhoff’s simple reason for why he finally threw in the towel: “I realized I couldn’t even half a glass of wine with dinner because it might distract from the fact I needed to go out and run those dogs.”
Here’s the sporting events I have available to watch on tv during the actual start of the Iditarod:
Women’s college basketball
Men’s college basketball
Men’s college hockey
Major League Fishing x 2
NFL scouting combine
PGA old guy golf
World professional skiing
It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon and the start of the Iditarod. I checked my tv to see the actual start…25 minutes to go and it’s nowhere to be found on tv.
Let’s get to the point: The Iditarod needs to go with cumulative elapsed time between checkpoints. However, it will be based on a checkout time deadline – no leaving the checkpoint after a certain time but it will be possible to skip a checkpoint when you are before the deadline.
I think it worth noting-
If you shorten the trail the cumulative time will generally be less.
Since baker set the traditional trail southern route record in 2011 no winners have come within 10-12 hrs of his time on that route. Not even seavey .
Yes odd years show 7+ days but the route was not comparable. They turned around at Iditarod or ran an abridged Iditarod or some stupid thing.
Also of note – dougs 95 record 9 days 2 hr was on a trail very roughly 20 miles longer than baker’s route as he started in wasilla = approximately a 3.5 hr longer race time.
So technically bakers record would need to even be adjusted to roughly-8 days 20 hr
No winner except baker has matched dougs 9 day 2 hr southern route run .
All winners have been hours behind his pace .
It is very clear bakers record stands . He is the only winner on the true south route with a sub 9 day race. (8day17 hr?) Unless you include doug due the reduced distance baker ran ( 3 hrs ) = 8 days 23 hr
Also of note is joe runyan was baker’s primary advisor even sharing lucrative sponsorship agreements at times. Down to point of him being on the trail ,hand in hand during racing or on the phone ( baker had many other advisors that year on the trail im told) . Doug was bakers #2 advisor at his beginning to build the teams.
Runyan was also dougs advisor. When runyan quit Iditarod doug bought his leader.
Those 3 incredible drivers ,business men and idealists worked together to help create bakers team the seaveys to this day have not matched on the southern route.
Through advice and financial arrangements sweat blood and a few divorces.
Would have been interesting to see bakers best team race the seaveys best team
Id wager baker the win due bakers hardy northern breed versus seavey hounds.
They both had advisors first hand on the trail working diligently to effect the outcome. Staged at nearly every checkpoint or on a phone.
So it would have been relatively equal regarding what was at play except baker was not athletic and nearly 100# heavier than seavey which makes his record absurdly inconceivable.
Seaveys in an attempt to match baker’s record efforts refined their dog carrier and rotation. Some of their dogs never run the whole trail.
They may or may not have introduced chemicals.
Yet that might’ve been even amongst those champions.
I would argue brent sass is the personality who could break bakers record as it would take some reckless insanity. Sass has in spades. Combined with an unbelievable dog team hardened by a cold northern fire of repeated tempering and genetics of past champions.
Still it seems the true southern route is a great equalizer which may bend the greatest will.
Who will emerge victorious in 2023 !
Good luck to all racers
Some good points there, my man. I plead guilty to leaving out some of the finer elements. It was a macro, not a micro look.
There has been a lot of behind the scenes assistance over the years, some of it highly questionable. I would hope Runyan wasn’t advising Baker in 2011, since Joe’s involvement with the race that year was supposed to be as a reporter for the Alaska Dispatch: https://www.adn.com/iditarod/article/iditarod-2011-too-close-call/2011/03/15/
But yeah, I’ve heard the rumors, too. The relationship between Doug and Joe was well known although I don’t recall the latter giving the former all that much advice during the races Doug won. The Seaveys, for their part, not only did all you mention, but set up a pretty good intel network, too, which is why it was to their advantage to lead opposition to the use of communication devices – cell phones or text – on the trail.
Intel on the trail ahead can be, as you know, highly useful as can someone with a clear head when you’re in the fog of sleeplessness. I could have used the latter a few times in make landful in sailboats. Navigation can get pretty effed up when you”ve gone without sleep for a long time.
As for drugs, only thing is can be clearly said: There was a reason the Iditaord introduce a drug-testing program in the first place. It wasn’t just to spend money of which the race didn’t have much. And drug testing is expensive, which might explain why Iditarod does a pretty low-grade job of it.
True and interesting.
Only an abridged input .
You are certainly accurate regarding lots diverse past outside assistance by many champions/ contenders.
The drug testing program was essentially a nothing burger since there was never random testing in the off season during training. It was easy to stop steroids two weeks before race and run clear.
That showdown between John and Ramey is probably the greatest display of hardcore long distance racing I’ve ever seen. Still get chills thinking about it. Harm and I would stay up all night when those guys were on the coast, following it moment by moment. We were both pulling so hard for Ramey on that run. As epic as it gets imo.