Evolution of the Iditarod

commentMarch 19, 2012 

The Iditarod is over for another season and the banquet has come and gone. Who was ninth, anyway?

The public may not know, but those of us who live and breathe dogs know who finished where, and how they got there.

The changes in our chosen vocation affect us at many levels. I would like to reflect on the evolution of running styles we have seen over the past 30-plus years.

Early on in long-distance racing, we rested our animals more than they ran. Joe May came on the scene in the early 1980s and showed us you could win with an equal run-to-rest ratio. Joe thought a team could run four hours, then rest four. It worked for him, but he tells me that it really beat him up physically.

The six-hours-on, six-hours-off schedule evolved from that. Maybe it was Rick Swenson who came up with that? If not, I'm certain he was able to work it to perfection.

Martin Buser arrived with his fast hound-dog crosses and set a record that took a decade to break -- by resting more than he ran.

Enter the Norwegians with the walking style -- walk slow and long to conserve energy. Rest is not quite as important when one slows the pace, because dogs expend less energy.

The walking style is what we have now. Drivers are refining that method and are winning with it.

Sebastion Schnuelle is an outspoken advocate of that method. Sab makes very good points when explaining his reasoning.

"There are more dogs that can do slow, it doesn't require as much athletic ability. Older dogs, ones that may have lost a step, can still be contributors in the team," he said. "There is a fine line. Slow means seven or eight miles per hour. Slower than that will put you behind."

There is little question that he is right. Look at the past decade.

In the early 1990s, there was a musher who competed in the Yukon Quest a few times who tried to walk dogs for long distances. He had little success. Maybe his feeding schedule wasn't quite right or possibly he didn't have the dog power that is now available. For whatever reason, walking long and resting short failed. It took a few more years before mushers got it right.

Teams have improved dramatically over the past 10 years. Our animals are faster, stronger and tougher. They require a bit more care than the dogs of yester-year and less able to handle extreme weather conditions and requiring more calories to meet the demands we place on them. However, many of the best drivers have learned to deal with these new challenges well.

Now, it may be time to take these super dogs we have developed to the next step.

Can they run? Buser ran the 18 miles from McGrath to Takotna in 1 hour, 47 minutes. The current trend is well over two hours for this short run.

I spoke with Martin some time back. "It's tough to go fast and rest long these days, you get behind early and feel like you need to stay up with the front," he told me.

Patience? Ed Iten had it 2005 when, trailing Robert Sorlie by nine hours at the halfway point, he stuck with his schedule. Ed came up short but made an impressive run at the front nonetheless.

Could some tough guy refine Buser's old schedule and make it work? Long-distance dog racing is a sport in flux. The ability to change a run/rest schedule by 90 minutes over a 10-day period can mean five places. Fast can do that.

Too many paddle-tracks on the trail these days, I am told. Too much lactic acid build-up, I am told.

I believe -- although when discussing this with other drivers, I don't get many positive head shakes -- that some year a fast dog yard will come to the Iditarod and shake up the present mind set. Sooner, rather than later, we will again see if Idita-dogs can run.

John Schandelmeier of Paxson is a lifelong Alaskan and Bristol Bay commercial fisherman. A two-time champion of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, he has written on the outdoors for several newspapers and magazines.

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