Racing the clock -- and winning
By Craig Medred
A lot had changed since the first teams plodded north in 1973 with skeptics warning they would never make it to Nome. The top finishers that yearreached Nome in about 20 days.
That record stood for only two years.
Then Emmitt Peters, an Athabaskan from Ruby on the Yukon River, blew it away. He finished the third race more than 5 days faster.
''That's still probably the greatest (Iditarod) achievement,'' said Rick Swenson, who won his first race two years later and went on to claim anunprecedented four more.
Musher Rod Perry, who spent years of futile effort trying to win just one race in the 1970s, considers Peters' victory one of several "paradigmshifts,'' a fundamental change in the way people thought about the race.
Most of America knew what a hamburger was before McDonald's, he said, but it took that company's innovation in producing and sellinghamburgers to spark a fast-food revolution.
So it was for the Iditarod. Dick Wilmarth proved in 1973 that the distance could be covered. Peters showed in 1975 that it could be raced.
Peters was ahead of his time, said Cal Lensink, an Anchorage scientist who has plotted Iditarod performances. Lensink's computer spits out theresults of the first 25 races in the form of a standard, U-shaped performance curve, with huge improvements early on becoming ever less so. Peters'race is one of a handful that significantly deviate from the predictable curve.
''He jumped way up so early, which indicated there was a lot of room for improvement,'' Lensink said.
Peters had a strong team in 1975, and there was good trail most of the way to Nome. Over time, good trail became more and more the norm.
The improving trail, in turn, dictated the behavior of the mushers and the breeding and training of dogs, all of which combined to make the racefaster and faster.
Until 1980, on a generally slow trail, considerable time was spent camping. Mushers wasted hours that otherwise could have gone to dog care andfeeding.
''I didn't even carry a Coleman (stove) until 1979,'' Swenson said. ''I built fires.''
Even for the best woodsmen, fire-building is a time-consuming task, so mushers started experimenting with dog-food cookers, at first using Colemanstoves and white gas, but later switching to easy-to-light, no-maintenance charcoal and finally alcohol.
White-gas cookers were in widespread use by 1981 when Swenson shifted the paradigm again -- racing to Nome in 12 days, 8 hours and 45minutes. This was another off-the-curve performance, due mostly to checkpoint efficiency, better training and good trail.
Like Peters, Swenson set a record that stood for five years.
Then, in 1986, Butcher shifted the paradigm a third time with a change in race strategy.
Butcher began to run the race as a checkpoint-to-checkpoint dash. Her husband, Dave Monson, a former Iditarod top 10 musher, met her atcheckpoints, briefed her on how other teams looked, and guided her to waiting accommodations. With that sort of planning, both she and thedogs rested longer and better.
Butcher reached Nome in 11 days, 15 hours, 6 minutes. She took more than 17 hours off the Swenson record that had stood since 1981.
Over the next five years, with dog teams ever better trained and prepared, with checkpoint operations ever more efficient, and with the weight ofequipment cut to the minimum, she went on to win three more races.
Along the way, she set two more records and progressively whittled another 13-plus hours off the time. Butcher's string of victories still stands asone of the most impressive achievements in Iditarod history.
But it would fall to Buser to shift the paradigm once more.
That came in 1992 with the breaking of the 11-day barrier. Buser credits better dogs, but Swenson -- the only musher in Iditarod history to remaincompetitive through three decades -- contends a big part of the time savings came from fallout from Butcher's victory in 1986.
After she won that year, mushers upset about the assistance provided by Monson forced a variety of rule changes aimed at minimizing the edge tobe gained in villages. The eventual result was what the Iditarod called ''corralling.''
Mushers were prohibited from staying with villagers. Everyone was made to rest and camp in a "designated localized holding area'' at eachcheckpoint.
Buser said that leveled the playing field for him, paving the way for his first victory in 1992. Swenson said corralling led to faster speeds foreveryone by providing mushers easier and quicker access to dog food and race veterinarians, and better resting conditions for the dogs.
Led by Jeff King in 1993, five mushers took advantage of corralling to go under 11 days. Five more slipped under the bar in 1994, includingSwenson, who ran his first sub-11-day race.
Only 31 seconds off the mark was Doug Swingley of Simms, Mont. The sixth-place showing by the businessman from Big Sky Country was the bestever by an Outsider.
It fell to Swingley to push the race to the edge of the barrier the next year. His 1995 victory is listed officially as 9 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes and 19seconds, but the race had lost a full day due to a 1995 rule change. The Saturday start in Anchorage became purely ceremonial. The change cutout about 20 miles of trail between Anchorage and Eagle River, saving mashers an hour to an hour and a half. But that time is largely irrelevantgiven that Swingley took almost 11 hours off Buser's 1993 record.
Swingley succeeded with a mix of what had worked before: Fast dogs, even greater checkpoint efficiency, and refinements in equipment andstrategies for dog rest.
Swingley's victory left mushers wondering not how much faster the dogs could go -- everyone thinks the dogs can go still faster -- but how muchmore the mushers can take. Some of Swingley's time savings came by eliminating his own rest.
Many mushers believe this might be the real limit to how fast the race can go. How little can mushers sleep before sleep deprivation leads to lapsesin judgment that create their own time-consuming errors?
''They've really come pretty close to the margin,'' scientist Lensink said. ''There might be a little bit of improvement, a few hours or something, but Ithink we are going to have a lot of races that are won in more time than the existing record.''
© 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.
|Copyright © 1996-1998 -- Anchorage Daily News -- All Rights Reserved|
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