Driver or top athlete?
By Craig Medred
The summer of 1996 found Iditarod contender DeeDee Jonrowe pounding the streets and trails of Anchorage and the Susitna Valley. A couplemonths earlier she had finished fifth in the state's most famous sled dog race.
It was her ninth top-10 finish in nine years, but victory eluded her. Looking back on the '96 race, Jonrowe decided that she might be the weakestlink in the team.
Butcher and Swenson proved themselves to be strong links. Between them, the two mushers own victories in nine of the 24 Iditarods to date.Martin Buser of Big Lake and Jeff King of McKinley Park account for four more.
More than half the Iditarods ever run have been won by this small group of four people. What do they have in common as athletes?Not much at first glance.
King and Butcher are relatively small: 5 feet, 6 inches and 135 pounds in her case; 5 feet, 9 inches and 145 to 150 pounds in his.
Swenson and Buser are more average. The biggest musher ever to win the Iditarod, Swenson stands 6 feet, 1 inch and weighs between 190 and200. Buser, at 5 feet, 10 inches, weighs between 170 and 180, though both try to hold down their weight during racing season.
Both believe that weight is a significant handicap in the Iditarod, and height only compounds the handicap. Swenson, for instance, needs a longsleeping bag and large clothes. That adds ounces, even pounds, to the weight of the gear in his sled.
Short, small-boned people have an advantage not only because of their weight but because of the weight of the gear they haul in their sled,according to Soldotna musher Dr. John Nels Anderson, who in the past has argued for weight handicapping.
''My mushing partner, Tim Moerlein (the 1985 Iditarod rookie of the year), stands 6 feet 4 inches and weighs 215 pounds,'' Anderson said. ''He is aformer member of the U.S. National Cross Country Ski Team and stays in great shape. However . . . he has stopped mushing because he knows hecan never be competitive because of his weight.''
Weight is an especially difficult issue for Iditarod mushers because, while they do not want to be heavy, they also do not want to be skinny. Fatreserves are important for Iditarod mushers, according to Dr. A. Allan Turner of the University of Alaska Anchorage Arctic Sports MedicineProgram.
''Some people are still going into the Iditarod too thin,'' Turner warned in 1988 when the university was studying Iditarod mushers. ''They needsufficient stored body fats. Once they get into competition, they're going to deplete their reserves, which means they'll start burning proteins. That'swhat happens to people who are starving. And when you're starving, you don't think too clearly.''
Something else makes thinking hard for Iditarod mushers, too: Sleep deprivation.
Swingley, who holds the Iditarod speed record, believes that the ability to function well over the course of a week or more with little or no sleep iswhat really separates Iditarod winners from losers. If there is one area in which Iditarod mushers might be considered great, Swingley said, this is it.
''We would have to be at the extreme upper level (of what is possible), because I think this is what makes us great competitors,'' he said. ''I don'tthink you can do anything about it. If you're good at it, you can be a competitor.''
Cardiovascular fitness, the forte of marathon runners, helps people deal better with the stress of sleeplessness, but Swingley thinks there is muchmore, both psychologically and physiologically, to it.
Some people have a gift for going without sleep, and some manage to find ways to overcome their need for sleep.
Rick Mackey, a musher who has struggled with sleep problems over the years, overcame them to win the race in 1983. At the village of Shageluk,about three-quarters of the way into that year's race, he was a basket case. Checkers had a hard time waking him after a brief nap. He headed outonto the river with other mushers and promptly got lost for hours.
Most of the group with which he had been traveling gave up and faded from contention, but Mackey got mad. He pulled into Kaltag, about 270miles from the finish line, cussing race officials, the race and the course. He was so angry he seemed to forget the need for sleep.
His behavior almost magically went from fumbling to focused. He caught mushers Eep Anderson, Larry ''Cowboy'' Smith and Herbie Nayokpukon the Bering Sea coast, passed them and went on to win.
Did emotion push him through the fog of sleep deprivation to victory? Possibly.
Do other factors help? Probably.
''You take a look at Lynn Cox,'' Turner once noted. ''There's a gal who trained a great deal (to swim from Little Diomede to Big Diomede Island in33-degree water), but she went to great lengths to develop an insulating layer of fat. You have to if you're going to maintain a good (body) coretemperature.''
The issue of body fat would seem to favor women, who naturally accumulate more body fat than men no matter how hard they train, and olderpeople, who find it much easier to accumulate body fat than young people.
Yet no one over the age of 50 has ever won the Iditarod. There have been leaders that old, but they have never been able to hang on all the way toNome.
''We're always pedaling and pumping and pushing the sled around corners as much as we can,'' Swingley said, ''and just being on your feet thatmany hours is difficult. I can't look ahead and see myself at 50 years old being able to do what I do now.''
If the physical demands don't take their toll, he added, the mental stresses certainly will. It takes intensity and focus to win today's Iditarod, and thatintensity might be the hardest thing for an Iditarod athlete to maintain.
Butcher, one of the most intense and focused in Iditarod history, got out when she couldn't sustain it.
So did former champ Joe Runyan, a good friend of Swingley's.
''Runyan flamed out,'' Swingley said. ''In reality, he flamed out the year he won (1989). His intensity was fading then.''
Runyan, a serious runner and another among a cadre of seriously fit Iditarod humans, finished second the next year. He dropped to fifth the yearafter and kept falling farther back until he retired.
Great athletes are defined by the win column.
By that standard, the Iditarod has known at least two great human athletes: Swenson and Butcher.
© Copyright 1997 Anchorage Daily News -- All Rights Reserved -- This article appeared originally in Iditarod 25: Tales from the Last Great Race, published as a special section to the Anchorage Daily News on February 23, 1997.
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