Tired Iditarod dogs could be seen to look ‘exhausted’
Yet again, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has a public relations problem because people have noticed the esoteric little race across the least peopled parts of far-off Alaska.
This is the danger of asking to be noticed. It’s great if people see you the way you want them to see you, but it can be the opposite if they see your imperfections.
At this moment, Iditarod is under fire for pushing the idea that it has been pushing for several years now that the “Last Great Race,” as it bills itself is, “all about the dogs.”
Due to exhausted-looking dogs at this year’s finish, the race is being hoist upon its own petard as the old playwright William Shakespeare put it long ago.
“‘Tis the sport to have the enginer hoist with his own petard,” he wrote in Hamlet, which means, according to Oliver Tearle, an English doctor of English, that it would be “good to see the schemer (i.e. Claudius, Hamlet’s villainous uncle) defeated by his own scheme. Hamlet’s metaphor is military in flavor: an ‘enginer’ (similar to ‘engineer’) is a maker of engines, including bombs, so the sentiment is that a maker of bombs would end up being blown up by his own bomb.”
The Iditarod lit the fuse on its own bomb with the “all about the dogs” claim when really the race, like any other race, is mainly about winning. The people who are “all about the dogs” don’t win the Iditarod.
They enjoy an interesting, 1,000-mile trek across the wilds of Alaska with their best friends. They are doing the Iditarod.
Doing the Iditarod and actually competing in the Iditarod is the difference between a pleasant, summer hike to the top of Seward’s Mount Marathon and hanging it out there in the Mount Marathon Race, which always leaves people dirty and exhausted, regularly leaves some bloody, annually sends some to the hospital, and has resulted in the death of one.
The only difference – and it’s a big one – is that the 1,000-mile Iditarod is the 3.1-mile Mount Marathon times 322.58. Whether the dogs in the racing teams enjoy going to Nome more or less than the dogs in the trekking teams, however, only the dogs know.
None of which is going to stop any human from passing judgment on what he or she thinks the dogs know.
Sara Oliver, a “content provider” as propagandists are sometimes now called, for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims her organization has “damning footage of the 2023 Iditarod winner, Ryan Redington, dragging his visibly exhausted dogs during the race.”
The dog team in the video is definitely having problems finding the trail. The dogs clearly are tired. And Redington does go to the front of the team and pull them here and there to guide them back on the trail.
Whether they are “exhausted” is something Oliver has no way of knowing, and the veterinarians who looked the team over in the White Mountain checkpoint didn’t think so.
Still, from the outside looking in through the eyes of the average American, about 80 percent of whom are today urban residents, the video might look a little like the Bataan Death March, sans the execution of the stragglers, and you don’t take your best friends on a Bataan Death March.
Just to be clear, before going further, the Iditarod is not at all like the infamous death march. The dogs that fall off the pace are not shot because of their failure to keep up; they are dropped at checkpoints along the trail where they are generally well cared for and, if necessary and in some cases it is, nursed back to good health.
That said, the Iditarod is not the “all about the dogs” fido lovefest it has tried to make of itself in recent years. It is, at the competitive level, a very, very demanding race for man (or woman) and beasts.
Eyes of the world
Any demanding competition involving animals is obviously never going to sit well with the progressives of the animal-rights world who think everyone should treat their dogs as members of the family, vegan members preferably, and not just “companion animals” or, God forbid, “pets.”
But there are some simple, old dog lovers – some of them even mushers or the spouses of mushers – who have long been troubled by the sight of dogs being pulled into and out of checkpoints along the Bering Sea coast about 700 miles into the Iditarod race.
A lot of dogs are tired by that point and sometimes need some help getting going. Someone just now discovering this aspect of Iditarod is akin to someone just now discovering that stock cars regularly crash in NASCAR races.
Stock cars have been crashing in NASCAR races since the start, and so too with dogs being dragged out of coastal checkpoints.
The dogs in the teams truly racing are tired by the time they get to the coast because they’ve been running hard for days and, in many cases, getting too little rest. This takes a toll on any animal.
The handful of humans known to have abused themselves in human ultra-endurance events (you girls know who you are) will well understand what the author is talking about.
Sometimes it’s hard to get up and get moving again after the stiffness sets in during a rest stop, but you invariably feel better when you do. Still, you might on occasion need a bit of a kick in the pants to get going.
I confess to having had friends literally drag me back onto a trail or two, and I have, please forgive me, been known to drag others. One friend and I once feared we’d killed a dragee on an attempted one-day march across the North Slope of Alaska from the HulaHula River to the village of Kaktovik.
He was lagging all day, and when we stopped for a break to cook some hot soup and drinks he passed out or fell asleep (it was impossible to tell which) in a small creek while we were firing up the stove.
Given how quickly this happened, we thought for a minute he might have died, but we managed to rouse him, thankfully, and death march him to the shores of Kaktovik Lagoon where we gave up for the day and made camp.
A good night’s rest helped our dragee, but not all that much. When pushed too far, recovery becomes hard for both humans and dogs, a subject we’ll get into deeper shortly.
In this particular case, if there’d been a checkpoint, we would happily have dropped our companion. But there was no checkpoint, so we paddled our packrafts across the lagoon, deflated them, packed them up and endured a dreadfully slow hike across Barter Island to Kaktovik because he hadn’t recovered all that much.
It was a little like the 60-percent trudge of Ryan Redington’s dog team from White Mountain to the Iditarod finish line. The 11 mph runners he’d been riding behind at the start were worn down to 6.5 mph joggeres for the final 80 miles.
I can personally attest to the validity of the old mushing observations that “a team is only as fast as the slowest dog,” and I can add that nursing that slow dog along by cutting the pace of travel almost in half can’t be much fun for the faster dogs.
I can’t know for a fact that dogs think the way we humans do, but having witnessed the final miles of a bunch of Iditarods, it has always seemed to me that the dogs still in good shape at that point, especially those which have been to Nome before, sense that the finish line is near and want to get there as fast as possible.
Iditarod critics would, admittedly, never understand this any more than your average Iditarod “fan” who tends to be as disconnected from reality as your average animal-rights activist.
The fans like to believe every second of Iditarod is nothing but fun for the dogs. That’s delusional. The Iditarod is a difficult endurance event that puts a heavy demand on the canine particpants.
The demands are written in the numbers. The top-10 teams average 10.57 mph on the first leg of the trial Yentna, and they were down to 7.59 mph on the penultimate leg from White Mountain to safety, according to the Iditarod’s data.
The trail crosses the Topkok Hills between the latter two checkpoints. So it is more difficult than the relatively flat river. Plus the legs is a little longer, but those sorts of speed losses as the the team of fifth place finisher Jesse Holmes would attest.
His team did 10.37 mph from Willow to Yentna, and 9.43 mph from White Mountain to Safety. That 9 percent difference can probably be attributed to the terrain. (More on Holmes and his race later).
Terrain doesn’t explain Mille Porsild’s team which went from 10.33 mph at the start to 6.09 mph from White Mountain to Safety.
“Shih Tzus can run at an average dog speed of 6 mph,” according ot the Canine Bible. Shih Tzus are 9- to 16-pound Chinese lap dogs.
Porsild’s 69 percent drop in speed is the sign of a team with the wheels coming off, and things just got worse after Safety. The team’s speed from there up and over Cape Nome to the finish line was 3.61 mph.
Redington’s 5.74 mph average for that last leg is blistering by comparison. The word “exhausted” would be better applied to her team than to Redington’s.
Who knows how the dogs felt about it.
State of mind
Anyone who has done any kind of human endurance racing will tell you, no matter how much they love endurance racing, there are high moments when everything feels great and low moments that you just try to struggle through in the hope things will get better.
Jacques Boutet – an Anchorage cyclist, runner, paddler, climber and more – used to joke about it by describing a runner caught by the French Foreign Legion while crossing a desert and subjected to torture.
When the torture stopped and the Legionnaires told the runner to speak, his only words were “how far to the next checkpoint?”
Every honest dog driver I’ve ever talked to has admitted watching Iditaord dogs go through much the same ups and downs that humans do. More than one winner has talked about what a miraculous experience it is to watch a team that in the midst of the race, for inexplicable reasons, seems to get stronger and stronge instead of weaker.
The former champions all know that if they could bottle that and serve it as an elixir before every race, they’d win them all. But you can’t bottle it.
Which now directs his discussion back to the Iditarod of 2002.
Big Lake’s Martin Buser, a three-time Iditarod champ, that year set a record time of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds. Twenty-one years later, it remains a very fast time.
It would have put Buser third this year, about an hour and 40 minutes behind Redington and only 10 minutes behind runner-up Peter Kaiser, the 2019 race winner.
Had the Buser of 2002 been in the race of 2023, it would have made for a damn exciting finish given that Buser’s 2002 team closed on Nome at an average speed of more than 9.3 mph.
Compare that to the barely over 6.8 mph Redington was doing on the final leg to the finish this year. Kaiser, who was doing just under 8.9 mph, made up almost three hours on the leader in the 80 miles between the penultimate and mandatory rest checkpoint of White Mountain and the Nome finish line.
Think of how much faster Kaiser might have gone if pushed by a team like that of Buser in 2002 or, for that matter, this year’s team of Holmes.
Holmes provides a textbook example of the difference rest makes. He led the race out of the halfway point at Iditarod this year only to sputter on the Yukon River before recognizing he was pushing his team too hard.
He subsequently shut the dogs down for a nearly five-and-a-half-hours in Kaltag – about an hour more than Redington – as the race turned toward the coast, and then decided that wasn’t enough and shut them down for a long time again on the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet.
His team spent at least another five hours resting somewhere along that 85-mile stretch of trail heading out from Kaltag to the coast, and he fell from among the race leaders to the 10th place musher.
In the process of doing all this resting, Holmes also got his team back, and they were again rolling .By the mandatory, 8-hour rest stop in White Mountain, he had moved up to sixth and his team was getting faster rather than slower.
He’d easily wipe out Kelly Maixner’s better-than-two-hour White Mountain advantage on the way to Nome, take a big bite out of the four-hour lead of Matt Hall in front of Maixner, though Holmes couldn’t catch the latter, and finish behind a team smartly trotting down Front Street rather than a team looking very tired if not exhausted.
This a much better look for Iditarod than worn-out dogs wandering into town and then almost falling asleep on the podium. This is also the look the eight-hour mandatory rest requirement at White Mountain was supposed to ensure.
There are, admittedly, those in the world of endurance sports who would argue that success is measured by pushing to the point where you cross the finish line with a completely empty tank of gas, but even in motorsports, drivers try to leave at least enough fuel in the take for some sort of victory celebration if only a tire burnout.
So what to do to fix this vis-a-vis the Iditarod?
For years, Iditarod has tried to deal with the issue with race-ordered rests. The 24-hour stop came first, then a requirement for a four-hour pause in White Mountain.
When that proved too short for some teams to fully bounce back, the time was extended to eight hours. In 1983, prior to that jump eight hours, front-running, veteran musher Terry Adkins from Montana famously had to have his team flown out of the Topkok Hills after they quit on him, and he couldn’t get them going again.
Along with doubling the rest stop in White Moutain years after that, another rule was written later still requiring a mandatory stop of eight hours at a checkpoint along the Yukon.
How much these mandatory stops benefit the dogs is hard to say. As some mushers, among them five-time champ Rick Swenson, have noted, adding mandatory rest stops sometimes only encourages mushers to cut rest to rush to their mandatories.
What would surely be better for the dogs is more rest distributed evenly over the race. This wouldn’t be hard to do, and almost everyone agrees rest times equal to run times are, at a minimum, much easier on the dogs.
Since Buser’s win 20 years ago, the Iditarod has pretty much been an eight and half to nine-day race unless weather slows it down. Iditarod could simply require a minium of four and a half days of rest on the trail before departure from White Mountain, where teams could be held to mee the minimum if they hadn’t done so.
The easiest way to implement as system like this would be to require mushers take their rests in checkpoints where they already sign in and sign out. This would have the added advantage of allowing veterinarians to get a good look at the dogs in each checkpoint and drug test them, which is something the Iditarod used to do with some regularity but has backed away from.
The downside to such a requirement is that it would encourage mushers to run their teams longer than they might want on the several sections of trail longer than a somewhat standard 6-hour run of 40 to 60 miles.
Since the teams are now all tracked by satellite while on the trail, a better solution might be to log moving times and stopped times in a computer, which would allow mushers to rest between checkpoints, which some prefer.
Then, however, one would have to trust the technology, and not everyone trusts the technology.
Whichever the case, dumping the existing mandatory stops in favor of a rest-time requirement would significally alter how the race is run.
Shaking things up in this way might make it more interesting, too, as mushers started trying to figure out what strategy most likley to achieve victory in an event that has become faster in recent years by going slower.
Tortoises and hares
When Buser first broke nine hours in 2002, he was towed up the Yentna River and into Skwentna by a team doing nearly 14 mph, and he wasn’t alone with such fast dogs.
The rest helped their dogs preserve their speed. On the telltale, nonstop hop from Takotna along an old mining road that goes up and over a big hill to end in the now-deserted Ophir mining camp near halfway into the race, Buser’s team averaged better than 16.5 mph and the teams of Ramey Smyth, Jeff King, Jon Little, Mitch Seavey, Sonny Lindner, Swenson and more were even faster, according to Iditarod records.
The Iditarod has become a grind-it-out affair. Mushers have learned that they can go faster by slowing the pace at which they travel, but making up for that by taking rest away from the dogs.
No wonder five-time champ Dallas Seavey was so hot on hauling dogs in a tagalong trailer behind his dogsled to allow him to rotate rest for dogs in his team, a practice that ended when dog-hauling trailers were bannned.
As his dad, Mitch, a three-time champ, later described the dog-hauling strategy, it centered “around the run/rest rhythm employed by each team. Run a while, rest a while. Rest too much and you get left behind. Rest too little, your dogs get tired, you go too slow – and get left behind.
“Imagine this from the perspective of a dog near the bottom of the team roster for athleticism. Say her team is running six hours and resting five hours. This less athletic dog needs a little more rest, (or) she gets more tired as the race progresses. But, then I give her a ride in the sled for two hours. That gives her a full seven-hour rest and only a four-hour run. She feels like a new dog, and that may be the difference she needs.
“So, whether it was decisive or not, hauling dogs was a part of the six-year period when Iditarod winners were (all) named Seavey.”
Doping might also have helped a little. A dog given tramadol, a drug found in Dalla’s dogs in 2018, would likely rest better, especially late in the race when even dogs start to get stiff and sore at times.
Tramadol – a synthetic, opiate-like pain killer – is a drug long favored by professional cyclists in their “finish bottles” of fluid, but is now banned. A 2021 pharmacological review of the drug’s use in that sport concluded it was unclear whether tramadol worked as a performance-enhancing drug but noted that “there is a wealth of literature on the effectiveness of tramadol in the therapy of musculoskeletal pain.”
Tramadol is generally considered to be less effective in dogs than in people, but any drug that relieves discomfort would make it easier for a dog to rest.
Mitch’s description of run six hours, rest five also pretty well defines where the Iditarod is at these days. There is no wonder so many dogs look so sleepy when they get to Nome.
Whether that is a good look is something Iditarod really needs to think about, but change is hard.