Iditarod finish controversy brewing
Fifty years on from the first running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a Redington has finally won in a 2023 version of the event that underlined the present and echoed the past.
Ryan Redington, one of race founder Joe Redington’s grandsons, made it to Nome in 8 days, 21 hours, 12 minutes and 58 seconds – the seventh fastest time in Iditarod history – by starting the race relatively conservatively and letting the rabbits run.
Then he went into full-on racer mode on the Bering Sea coast and pushed his team to near its limit, some would argue beyond, to edge out 2019 champ Pete Kaiser, another rather conservative starter, by roughly an hour and 24 minutes at the finish line.
Redington finished with six very tired dogs left in harness and now a controversy is brewing about how they “looked.”
Kaiser managed to pull back much of a four-hour, 16-minute lead Redington had when he left the penultimate White Mountain checkpoint after the required, eight-hour stop there, but the Bethel musher didn’t have enough trail left to run down the man from the old Alaska mushing capital of Knik, where the Iditarod restart used to be staged just down the hill from his late grandfather’s home.
Kaiser had basically sealed his fate as runner-up in the village of Elim, about 125 miles from the finish line. On Monday morning, he pulled his team over and parked them there for more than five hours.
Kaiser had by then closed to within 27 minutes of Redington’s lead, but elected to let his team rest before starting the tough pull up and over a hill called Little McKinley, a high spot named in honor of the tallest in North America peak.
Now called Denali, it was for decades Mount McKinley.
Little McKinley is a fraction the size of the big-shouldered, 20,310-foot behemoth that looms over the Alaska Range, but it is a serious challenge for mushers and dog teams. The Iditarod Trail here climbs about 1,000 feet from sea level to the top in only about two miles to get over a ridge that rises between Elim, population 368, and the even smaller village of Golovin, population 163.
Iditarod veteran Aily Zirkle from Fairbanks described how her “super” lead dog ChaCha decided she’d had enough of Iditarod and quit on that climb in 2010. Zirkle had to load the dog in the sled and a tough climb just got tougher.
“An extra 40 pounds is a lot when the trail is over a 10 percent grade up. I had to run behind the sled most of the time,” she wrote. “On the very steep slopes, I had to occasionally push the sled to keep it from a standstill. I stopped the team periodically just so I could catch my breath. I pedaled, ran and talked to the team. We moved along – very slowly.”
A three-time Iditarod runner-up with seven top-10 finishes, the now-retired Zirkle finished 16th that year.
Little McKinley is one of those places where an Iditarod race can be won or a lot of time can be lost to chasing mushers. Kaiser decided his team wasn’t ready for the challenge and rested. Redington gambled his team could make it to White Mountain in a reasonable amount of time and pushed on.
He made it to the mandatory rest stop, but it was slow – 6.22 mph or a jogging pace of about 9 minutes per mile for the 45 miles between Elim and White Mountain – and it wasn’t pretty. The team’s struggles on the outskirts of the village are now the subject of some debate.
“Only six dogs were left to drag Redington to the finish (in Nome), with reports that he yanked on and physically pulled the visibly exhausted dogs to the White Mountain checkpoint,” the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was charging almost as soon as the race finished.
Such commentary from the radical animal rights group was to be expected, but PETA wasn’t the only one troubled. Thirtysomething Fairbanks musher Chris Parker – who is associated with the Last Frontier Mushing Co-op, a tourism business, in that community – took to Facebook to pen an open letter to Iditarod officials pleading with them to write a rule making it illegal to drag dogs out of checkpoints.
“The past few years have seen the vast majority of the race’s major sponsors cancel their support of the race,” he wrote. “This year’s winner received nearly half of the prize money that the first-place finisher received just a few years ago. This year’s race field was less than half the size of the previous years, tying an all-time low in race participation. The Iditarod has a massive public relations problem.
“The days of turning a blind eye are over. Anyone with a phone can record, reproduce and distribute any evidence of questionable treatment with very little effort. I don’t know how video of teams being dragged out of checkpoints hasn’t been posted all over the internet.”
Even some old Iditarod hands familiar with the long history of tired teams being dragged out of coastal villages, and well aware of the explanatory refrain that “they’re fine once they get moving,” were expressing some concerns about the public image in these days of a kinder, gentler, “it’s-all-about-the-dogs” Iditarod.
The whole debate was somewhat ironic in that Redington along with Kaiser was one of those running a more conservative pace early as the 1,000-mile race to Nome left the Willow restart only to run into a big warm-up in the Alaska Range, a not altogether unusual turn of events for Iditarod.
Meanwhile, the drivers who pushed their teams just a little too hard early – the rabbits of this race – restored the old idea that it is a curse to win the race to halfway. For most of the early Iditarods, the musher who won the halfway prize was pretty much assured of losing the race.
Through the first 18 years, Dean Osmar from Clam Gulch, was the only musher to win the halfway prize and go on to win in Nome and that 1984 victory was something of a fluke. The late Susan Butcher had the best team in the race, but she made a huge mistake at the Rohn checkpoint, then the favored place for mushers to take the race’s one, required, 24-hour rest stop.
Butcher at the time had a very complicated relationship with frenemy, competitor and eventual five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson. To summarize it briefly, she lived with a fear that Swenson was always plotting some new trick to beat her to Nome.
He didn’t beat her in ’84. But he did mess up her race, some believed intentionally. Swenson said upon arrival in Rohn that he planned to take his 24-hour break there. He spent a long, long time in the checkpoint making it look like that was what he was doing and then bolted. Butcher lingered a while longer, and then decided she had to give chase.
“She just lost the race,” Osmar observed at the time. He completed his 24; passed Butcher, Swenson and everyone else while they were sitting out theirs on down the trail; and never looked back.
A fast-chasing Butcher did close to within less than half an hour of Osmar’s lead by Nome, but like Kaiser this year, she ran out of trail.
Two years later, she’d win the first of her Iditarod victories on the way to becoming the dominant Iditarod competitor from the late 1980s into the early 1990s. The idea that it was a curse to be first to halfway wouldn’t really die until Montana’s Doug Swingley became the dominant racer as the old millennium was ending and the new one was beginning.
The curse returns
Swingley won four Iditarods and three in a row from 1999 to 2001, and it was his norm to be first to halfway. Since then, there have been a variety of other halfway winners who’ve gone on to finish first in Nome.
But the curse appeared to be back this year.
Race veteran Wade Marrs, who collected the $3,000 prize for being the first to halfway, was still on the trail as this was written, looking to be on his way to an 10th-place finish.
Reality TV star Jessie Holmes who grabbed the lead leaving the halfway point watched his team start to fall apart shortly thereafter. A 10.5 mph dog team at the start did less than 7 mph on the telltale, 30 mph run between the Yukon River villages of Anvik at Grayling, and it got worse after that.
Holmes kissed good-by any chance of victory on the Yukon, but by putting more rest into the dogs he did nurse them back into condition and finished a respectable fifth.
The story was worse for defending Iditarod champ Brent Sass who chased Holmes out of the ghost town of Iditarod at halfway only to go home not long after amid a whole lot of confusion as to what happened to him other than his team slowing down.
His fast-trotting team that started the race doing 12 mph was down to 7.77 mph on that Anvik-Grayling stretch of trail all the teams run without a stop unless there are problems. That fell to under 5.5 mph on the 60-mile run up the river to Eagle Island, but the speed there is sort of meaningless in that it is clear both Sass and Holmes, who did just over 5.5 mph, camped somewhere outside of Grayling after a long, steady, 60-mile push from Shageluk through Anvik and Grayling.
What else was going on with Sass was unclear. The Iditarod released a cryptic media statement when Sass dropped out saying the musher “didn’t feel he could care for his team due to current concerns with his periodontal health.” Sass later said he was in pain with “several cracked teeth.”
And then this emerged on his Facebook page:
“Unfortunately I had been sick the entire race with a bad cold, chest pain, body aches, sore throat all that progressively got worse as we traveled down the trail. I was giving everything I had to keep it positive and focus on my dogs so we could continued (sic) the race. Then 2 days ago some cracked teeth started giving me issues and over a 12-hour period turned into nearly unbearable pain.”
In between these two missives, Idiarod race marshall Mark Nordman weighed in with a comment on the Iditarod Insider, the Idiatrod’s self-covering news report, with a statement saying Sass’s “oxygen levels” were great and that a doctor was with him.
That started the predictable speculation, given the times, that Sass had Covid-19, but what was being said along the trail was that it was just a “very bad flu.” Getting much information out of Iditarod was difficult in that one of its cost-cutting measures this year was to get rid of its media-relations agency.
The race, the race
While all of this was going on, Redington was methodically maneuvering his dog team into position to make a run for it on the coast while Kaiser stalked him.
Redington, who’d rested his team for eight hours in Shageluk, and Kaiser, who’d given his dogs eight in Grayling, tore up the trail on the way to Eagle Island. They averaged, respectively, 9.35 mph and 9.69 mph into that checkpoint.
By the time the race turned off the river at Kaltag and started across the portage to Unalkleet on the coast, it was looking like a two-man race, and by the coast itself that was clear.
Sass was gone. Holmes had fallen back to 10th and was regrouping. Richie Diehl and Matt Hall were still in the hunt, but just didn’t appear to have the team speed of the two mushers at the front.
Redington’s team was still pounding along at 7.5 to 8.5 mph before he started cutting rest, which paid off with a victory under the burled arch, a victory the entire Redington clan has been dreaming of for a long, long time.
Whether it turns into a phyric victory because of the public relations fallout remains to be seen, but just as this report was being completed Bethel musher Myron Angstman, an Iditarod veteran, a former winner of the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race, one of the powers behind that Western Alaska event, the attorney for three-time Iditarod champ Jeff King, and a well-connected member of the state sled dog committee sent his opinions on the events flying into the tubes as the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, liked to refer to the internet.
“Two Kuskokwim 300 race committee members finished in the top three teams, and unfortunately were beaten by a racer who overextended his dogs in an all-out effort to win,” Angsman opined on the Angstman Law Office News.. “There already are negative reactions to the videos of that effort, and there will be many more. In a sport under constant scrutiny from critics, over-taxing a dog team to win is a bad idea.”
The Bethel mushers, on the other hand, had only overtaxed 43 percent of a dog team and 50 percent of a dog team as assessed by the dogs that Kaiser and Diehl had been forced to leave at checkpoints along the trail because they were either too tired to go on or too tired to keep up.
But then there were a lot of dogs getting dropped along the trail this year. Six of the top-10 teams dropped half or more of the 14 with which they started. And the dogs still in the teams on the trail weren’t going very fast at the end.
Redington’s 6.82 average speed from White Mountain to Safety appears to be the lowest on record for a winner this decade, and his team was considerably faster than that of top-10 finisher Mille Porsild whose team averaged 6.09 mph over the 55 miles to the race’s last checkpoint.
Holmes, by comparison, looked to have rebuilt himself a rocket ship after his earlier troubles. His dogs were back on form and trotting along at a nearly 9.5 mph average on the stretch run.
Forty of 50 years ago, a musher squeezing every last ounce of performance out of a dog team to win the Iditarod the way Redington did would have been commended. Now it is looking more like the same musher could be condemned.
The Iditarod, already facing a tough future, looks like it could be in for more.
Craig, I would like for you to update this article with some facts concerning Ryan’s slower run times. Not only did he go off course by approx 3 miles, the weather was a huge factor – you must know that by now. If you compare the analytics of the top three, tired dogs was not the only cause of a slowdown. As far as leaving WM is concerned, I watched many of the teams leaving and all seemed to have issues related to getting the dogs on the trail. Hunter Keefe in particular comes to mind. yea, he had to pull his lead dogs many a time to get them oriented to the correct trail. Their is more to the story and I would suggest you view post race interviews with Ryan, Pete, Richie and Mille.
Let’s keep the math simple
1200-mile race and our musher averages 10 mph between checkpoints.
That’s 120 hours of run time between checkpoints to finish the race. 120/24 = 5 days.
If we use 50% as the required rest time and the musher reaches Nome in 9 days, then he has 120 hours of run time, but only 96 hours of rest. The penalty added to his finish time would be 24 hours for an official time of 10 days.
The theory is the mushers would be motivated to find the best balance of rest and running to generate the fastest average speed between checkpoints.
To slow the race down, increase the percentage of rest time. Determining the best percentage for the race will require some research and can be adjusted with experience.
Race officials should have adequate communication to inform each musher of their total run and rest minutes at each checkpoint.
Years ago someone put forward a plan that would require all mushers to have a percentage of their time on the trail as rest at checkpoints. I can’t remember if it was 50% or some smaller percentage. If you finished without the required percentage of rest, penalty rest-time would be added to your finish in Nome until the required percentage was met. Mushers could take the rest only at checkpoints, but they would choose how much at each checkpoint.
The argument against this is that it would turn the race into a series of sprints, but at least the sprints would be with adequately rested dogs. The tactics would then revolve around the best resting and running strategies.
A chronic failure on the part of the “musher” and of all those who allowed him to continue with dogs like that.
Redington should be stripped of his “championship” and the ITC should resign en masse in shame, having failed to even abide by the very basics of statements it has made for years about commitment to dog welfare.
The idea of a purse or even kudos for the “best team” is a good one. The only flaw is it would require an ITC to firstly care and secondly know, what a good team is.
Only one word for this so called “win”. Disgusting.
Yes, defining ‘good’ is an interesting engineering problem, and the numerous mushers I have questioned have always returned with:’Who determines what is ‘good’?…’ My response is to ask if it would be better to have an extra prize of ten or twenty thousand dollars for a ‘golden kennel’ award or not? Extra money to the existing pot? So far, no ‘naysayers’ on that. And you know, anybody bucks-up could drop 20 K on the table without permission and steer the race onto a new course instantly. BOOM. Suddenly large dogs would be in fashion again(I call them ‘Hollywood dogs’, the race would most definitely slow down, and attitudes would take a turn for the better. Win win win.
I rode in the ceremonial Iditarod several years ago and learned then that in past earlier races, there were two dog teams per musher and the dog teams were rotated so no dogs were misused or died on the trails as has happened in more recent years.
If this is correct, why was that discontinued? Would it not be a good idea to return to that requirement?
I don’t know who told you that story, but it is incorrect. Maybe they were confusing it with earlier history when mail was relayed up the trail by dog teams that ran from roadhouse to roadhouse.
Leave the kid alone Craig and everyone else. Waking up dogs from resting anywhere after Unk is not easy on musher or dogs. Dragging dogs into checkpoints or out of checkpoints like WM is not the issue, so move on to dealing with positive changes that will make differences. But for God sake leave Ryan alone! He has worked hard and failed, as he himself owned, and made it to the finish line first. Get over yourselves.
“Dragging dogs into checkpoints or out of checkpoints like WM is not the issue”
Are you for real ?
Perhaps moving on and making positive changes would be the ITC making a rule against that. Yukon Quest did exactly that years ago, because it IS an issue.
Redington`s win is a massive loose for the Iditarod and for mushing. He should be ashamed of that conduct and so should anyone ignorant enough to support it.
Damn right “he failed” !
I was an avid race fan from 2012 until 2918. Went to four Iditarod’s, volunteered, and contributed to quite a few kennels over the years. I had some reservations about some of the incidents that occurred, but overall, I thought the race wasn’t that hard on the dogs that had been properly trained.
Finally, the antics of some, who I decided were of questionable character, turned me off the race. I no longer even follow it.
I didn’t know about the latest controversy, but if true, it shouldn’t have happened. Why doesn’t the race add another mandatory rest period on the coast especially after that long slough on the southern route.
P.S. I absolutely loved Alaska and the people I met there.
Mandatory rest periods don’t necessarily help much. They have a tendency to encourage people to cut rest elsewhere. That is largely what happened here. Redington cut rest and pushed for White Mountain knowing there was a mandatory eight hours there. The toll it took on his team was writ by how slow they were form WM to Nome, but he’d built enough of a lead with the tactic that he could hold on to win.
There are ways to fix this, but nobody seems all that interested.
Craig, how would you fix this?
Great article Craig! Thanks…..
We are aware of the cruelty required to win this race…the Irod will not last another decade.
Is there a video of this incident?
I’m told by a variety of people that they watched it on Insider, but I have yet to personally see a copy. I’d like to. There’s dragging, and there’s dragging. We just had a West Highland terrier die who’d spent the last three years or so being dragged. He was 18 1/2 and passed away naturally. I’m sure that dragging – he’d trot along behind in order to keep up on “walks” but he was clearly being dragged, added years to his life.
Craig, sorry to hear that your Westie passed away. I always enjoyed seeing him out walking – he was very jaunty!
Thanks. He had a good, long run, and being the little jerk he could sometimes be, he went out like a gentleman. Robbie was dreading the idea of having to take him to be put down though it was obvious the need was near. He was almost totally deaf, couldn’t see much, and was getting slower and slower.
On the evening he died, Robbie cut his walk to only about a quarter mile because he was reluctant, and when I came home and let him out later, he stood in the yard, then spun around a few times and fell over on his side like he was in Laugh-In skit. He got up ater, came in the house, and seemed fine, but later that evening had a little seizure.
We calmed him down, put him on his bed, and he went to sleep though his breathing was pretty ragged. We kept an eye on him while we watched a movie, and it was almost over when I noticed he didn’t seem to be breathing anymore. And he wasn’t. He went very peacefully.
Journalist like yourself would rather tell a story then report on the truth. The story of man dominating animal to his personal enrichment has gone on in AK for over 100 years. Why not try and obtain the footage so Alaskans can decide what “dragging” a dog out of the checkpoint looks like? Instead you fabricate tales of the past and ADN has Lisa Murkowski hugging Reddington at the end…
Hopefully there is more Tramadol for the dogs.
I wonder what would happen if a sponsor put up a decent purse for ‘best team’, a large prize, maybe 5-10 thousand dollars, for the team that showed the best relationship between dogs and musher, the emphasis being on consideration for the dogs’ welfare and the mushers as well, rather than the first to finish. My guess would be that the type of canine would change, the race running speed would change, and sponsorship dollars would pick up considerably. Change of focus might be a ‘game changer’.
Great idea! I will happily contribute to that and see it through to get donations for this award next year! I am appalled Ryan was allowed to finish the race after the incident. His dogs were so tired they started fighting each other. It’s the dogs that win the race not the Human. The sooner we get that the better things will be. It’s cruel and inhumane to push the dogs to the brink of exhaustion. Would you push a human like that in Football or basketball or baseball or soccer? This is when serious injuries occur and dogs die. They may not die on the trail but they will die soon because their bodies can’t recover. We also need to lay blame for this with the Veterinary team. It’s always been a well they are still standing, they aren’t in critical danger of death at this very moment. They can make it. The dogs’ welfare isn’t looked after well enough. It’s time we demand the dogs’ welfare is first and foremost. As a society we bitch about the cruelty the dogs suffer in this race but we haven’t done a good enough job of following through with protecting them from abuse! Let’s do better for them and effect change! My step father won the first Iditarod. He had passed now. God rest his soul. He loved his dogs!
Great to hear support for this idea. The purse is always a part of the discussion, and until now it rewards the fastest teams. Putting up a large purse for ‘better behavior’ would certainly change the focus of effort and the quality of life for all concerned. It would also de-stress the organizers of the event, and inject ‘good feelings’ and positivity back into this iconic event. When dogs were the main means of getting around not so long ago it was important that their welfare was of utmost concern. Otherwise you walked….Now should be no different. In fact, with all the ongoing testing by Veterinarians before, during and after race events, there should be a better understanding of canine health and needs than ever before!
With the dis-information being continuously pushed by some groups, against 5he use of dogs in sport, it is important to show how dogs and humans can work together and have fun too. I know that sled dogs want to go go go, otherwise they would not be selected as part of the race team to begin with. But every dog and human has their limits, and differing recovery cycles, and it’s up to the musher to make sure the team, and all its members, are good to GO, and if not, to wait until it is. The musher must be the best ‘dog’ in the team, must know what’s best for the team, and act accordingly.
Let’s put some money on THAT, and celebrate the changes!