how to win the Iditarod

I typically like to write my own posts. Once in a while something shows up that is so good I feel I need to share it. This is a long post by a member of mushing royalty (Mitch Seavey.) It may not be for everyone, but I think it’s a great read for those who want to know more about professional mushing.

Photo by Clark Fair, Mitch Seavey at 2017 Tustumena 200
Seavey’s IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours is with Mitch Seavey.

How to win the Iditarod (by someone who never has)Lately it seems you can’t get online without your blood pressure rising, but whether you preferred Obama or Trump, the Quest or the Iditarod, from a bird’s eye view life is pretty dang good. We still live in the greatest country on earth (I may be biased), my wife still loves me, my kids eat three meals a day, we sleep soundly, and it’s a beautiful day. We just often focus on the one thing that is wrong rather than the nine that are great. Same goes for mushing.

Here’s how I see it…We’re two weeks from the start of the Last Great Race. Dallas Seavey has revolutionized mushing, and keeps breaking his own records. Mitch, despite qualifying for senior discounts, is right there with him. Aliy Zirkle proved she’s got the bloodlines and kennel program to stay at the top when her second generation of young team rocked into Nome in 3rd last year. Peter Kaiser is a young guy from the village who won the Kusko again, and Wade Marrs continues to improve. That’s the top five from last year’s Iditarod. I have tremendous respect for each of these awesome individuals, and could write a glowing article about why each of them will win this year. I only stop at five for the sake of brevity; anyone into guys will tell you #6 Joar Ulsom is the best looking of them all.

What each of these mushers has in common is a true connection with their dogs. They are in tune with each individual dog, and mush accordingly. Dogs are not machines. There aren’t specs, no little meters with red warning indicators. They are individuals, as different as people. How fast can a person safely run a marathon? How many days a week can you jog? The answer is different for every person.

To maximize a dog team, you have to know what each dog is capable of, and then train it to meet that potential. You then have to race that dog according to how it was trained. If a dog excelled at 10 miles an hour for 52 miles with 4 hours rests in training, then that’s what you can expect of the dog in a race.

Anything else will have inferior results, regardless of whether or not it works for another team. If either Dallas or Aliy ran the other’s run-rest schedule, they would fail because that’s not what they trained their dogs to do. Then you have to see what’s actually happening on the race. If you trained at 9 miles per hour, but the team is running at 8, something is wrong. You need to find and correct that problem. Otherwise you’d better back off or risk further damage. Same if the team hits 12 mph, all those same bells go off. “This is too fast; hit the brakes before the wheels come off!!!!”

A good mechanic doesn’t need a tachometer to tell when an engine is over revved or missing on a cylinder. We’ve seen what happens when teams are run beyond their abilities; they certainly don’t win. The fastest way to Nome is picking a maintainable pace.The beautiful thing about the Iditarod is you can’t get away with asking too much of a dog team. Well trained sled dogs are incredible. They will gladly give you 100% all the time. But they can’t give you what they don’t have. Great mushers know what the dogs are capable of, spread that over 1000 miles, and make adjustments as needed.

As spectators, it’s often hard to tell how well a team is doing. If Team A is running 12 mph, and Team B is running 10, who’s doing better? To find the answer, you have to look deeper. Often you’ll find that Team B is intentionally slowing to the correct speed for those dogs.

One of the best indicators is to watch how a team’s speed changes over the course of a race. This is easily done using the history function on the GPS trackers. If Team A took off going 12mph and is now going 9mph, that’s not a good sign. If Team B took off going 9mph, and is still going 9mph, that’s great. For the first time in Iditarod history, both 1st and 2nd place held the same speed over the entire 1000 miles last year. Unsurprisingly, Mitch had the fastest time ever posted on the last 300 miles. When a team finishes at the same speed it leaves the starting line, it’s clear that team was raced within its comfort level.

Savvy mushers don’t care what place they’re in until the finish, and savvy fans don’t look at who’s winning at the halfway point, rather who’s maximizing their teams’ potential. To understand the devastating competitive effects of a team slowing down even slightly, we need to do some math.

Over the past seven years, the average margin between 1st and 2nd place is just over an hour. It’s 77 miles from White Mountain to Nome. If team A can hold 9 mph from start to finish, that last run will take 8 hours and 33 minutes. If Team B held the same 9mph until White Mountain, but then slows to 8 mph for just that last run, it’ll take 9 hours and 37 minutes, or just over an hour slower. That’s the average margin of victory in ONE MILE PER HOUR ON ONE RUN.

You can do the math over a longer stretch of trail, or with a larger speed drop. The sheer length and competitiveness of Iditarod highly incentivizes running a schedule that allows the team to finish very near the same level that they started. Strategically carrying dogs is another huge part of this equation. Since each dog is an individual, what’s best for one isn’t necessarily what’s best for another, even littermates on the same team. So Dallas, Mitch, Jeff King and others have managed to further customize the run/rest balance by carrying dogs to help balance those differences.

If a dog starts to get a little tired, give him a ride for a couple hours and you have a fresh dog. Run him four more hours into a checkpoint and he needs an airplane home. The entire Iditarod can be customized to each individual dog. While I’m on the topic, team size is a grossly misunderstood aspect of racing.

Everyone’s heard the saying ‘you’re only as fast as your slowest dog,’ but it’s still easy to assume that a bigger team is faster or in better shape. It actually works the opposite. Imagine 16 dogs raced the Iditarod without the sled behind them, and for the sake of argument, ignore pack instinct. Since some are naturally faster and stronger than others, they would spread out, and eventually one would get to Nome first.

Therefore the fastest team size is one dog. You could list the dogs in order from strongest to weakest, with the finishing time getting progressively slower with each added dog. The same is true once you add the sled, but since more power helps pull the sled, the optimal team size is somewhat larger. The exact number could be argued, but Dallas has made a pretty good case for the number seven.

Dropping a dog means nothing more than ‘this team can run faster without the slowest dog.’ The closest example is a pitcher being pulled from a baseball game. Once dropped, the dogs have the full force of veterinarians and volunteers to care for them until being reunited with their team at the end. I have been to Nome a lot of times. My first trip was two months prior to being born. I have never seen a dog team win the Iditarod that wasn’t in good shape at the finish.

I have never heard anyone say, “So and so won, but they did it by pushing their dogs too hard.” Doesn’t happen. Someone may try, but they won’t win, or even come close. So whatever happens between now and Nome, I can tell you that the first musher to arrive will be the one who did the best job of maximizing their team’s potential, catered to each individual dog.

That team will be the best cared for, best run, and that musher will know every dog intimately. That’s something to be celebrated. So I hope you enjoy the Iditarod, I will. Danny SeaveyGiven the spirit of this post, I will delete any blood pressure-increasing comments.

Photo by Clark Fair, Mitch Seavey at 2017 Tustumena 200

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