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Dawdling dog mushers: When is it time to boot the slowest Iditarod racers?

Craig Medred
Musher Marcelle Fressineau rests in the Rohn checkpoint. Fressineau has been toward the back of the pack during much of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Loren Holmes photo

As the leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race sped west along the surface of the frozen Yukon River Friday in the quest to be first to Nome, there was a race of another sort going on almost 200 miles back in the upper reaches of the Innoko River country.

There, in a long-dead mining district known as the Inland Empire, a gaggle of teams at the tail end of the Iditarod pack were racing to survive.

It is a little-known fact that teams that cannot keep pace in the Last Great Race are regularly -- usually politely, but not always so -- asked to abandon the adventure. Usually, it is because they are judged to be in violation of dreaded Rule 36, the "competitiveness'' rule. Sometimes it is because race managers simply decide the conga line of mushers is stretching too far back from the Bering Sea coast toward the Iditarod start line in Willow. 

Space physicist rockets down trail

Rule 36 used to set limits. It dictated "a team may be withdrawn that is out of the competition and is not in position to make a valid effort to compete. If a team has not reached McGrath within 72 hours of the leader, Galena within 96 hours of the leader or Unalakleet within 120 hours of the leader, it may be presumed that a team is not competitive. A musher whose conduct constitutes an unreasonable risk of harm to his/her dogs or other persons may also be withdrawn."

The last team at the back of the race on Thursday -- a team led by 31-year-old Yvonne Dabakk, a space physicist from Norway -- hit McGrath about 69 hours behind the leader. She did not linger long before scooting off to Takotna, where she caught up to another pack of tailenders and passed them.

By Friday afternoon, Dabakk was safely ahead of the curve, so to speak. She had put five mushers behind her, and race officials are not known for asking the fifth-to-last musher to quit. Or, for that matter, asking a group to abandon. There is safety in numbers, both literally and figuratively.

Literally, race officials believe mushers traveling together at the back of the Iditarod chain are in less danger, and thus they are given a little more latitude when it comes to Rule 36. Figuratively, there is always safety in numbers. 

Five people asked to quit the race are sure to put up more of a fight than one, poor, tired, isolated musher. Canadian Hank DeBruin, an Iditarod finisher last year, fell victim to the lone-musher dilemma in 2010. What exactly transpired that year will never been known.

Race marshal Mark Nordman said he called the then 47-year-old rookie on the telephone in the Yukon River village of Nulato simply to check on how DeBruin was doing after a slow run up the river from Galena. DeBruin said Nordman leaned on him to quit and told him that if he didn't do it in Nulato, he'd be stopped when he hit the Bering Sea coast at Unalakleet. DeBruin threw in the towel, though he was far from happy about it.

On Friday night, 22-year-old Elliot Anderson from Wisconsin, a dog handler for four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser, was in the DeBruin position. He was waiting out the race's one mandatory 24-hour stop in the ghost town of Ophir with the pack and its safety hours ahead of him on the trail.

And the rules have changed since DeBruin was ousted, despite the fact he was within the 96-hour window. Now, according to a revised Rule 36, a "team may be withdrawn that is out of the competition and is not in a position to make a valid effort to compete. The Race Marshal may consider, but is not limited to, weather, trail conditions and the overall pace of the race when invoking this rule. A musher whose conduct constitutes an unreasonable risk of harm to him/her, dogs or other persons may also be withdrawn."

In other words, the race marshal can pretty much pull a musher from the competition for any reason.

Would race officials boot a Buser driver?

Anderson does have a couple things going for him. One is that he is driving Buser's puppy team to Nome, and in the Iditarod, it is a demonstrated fact that there are rules and then there are rules. A rookie musher from Canada lagging on the trail is one thing; a musher running the upcoming dogs of a four-time Iditarod champ is another.

On top of that, Anderson has been posting strong run times. His team did better than 9 mph on the jump over the big hill between Takotna and Ophir, indicating he might, with luck, be able to rejoin what cyclists would call the "gruppetto'' or "autobus'' at the back of the race.

This is a group moving just fast enough to try to make the race-ordered time limits. Dabakk was with five other mushers in their own little Iditarod gruppetto on Friday night. 

Between Alex Buetow, a 25-year-old from Fairbanks now working as a dog handler for Iditarod veteran Jake Berkowitz at the front, and Iditarod veteran John Dixon, who ran the race 14 years ago, at the back, there was a time of only about an hour separating these mushers as they began the march over the bleak, black spruce barrens on the way from Ophir to the outpost of Cripple.

With Buetow and Dixon -- a Fairbanks-based operations supervisor for BP, the oil and gas giant -- were Dabakk; Marcelle Fressineau, a 59-year-old adventure outfitter from Switzerland who now calls Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, home; Tommy Jordbrudal, a 44-year-old Norwegian guide who came to Alaska when his wife took a job as a visiting researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; and Monica Zappa, a 30-year-old student in Wisconsin who gave that up to become a dog handler and commercial fisherman in Kasilof.

Zappa has a master’s degree in geography and has begun work toward her Ph.D. Between her and Dabakk, who has a Ph.D. in plasma and space physics, this gruppetto clearly makes up for what it might lack in dog power with brain power.

Whether all of them are cagey enough to hang on to finish in Nome remains to be seen.

Iditarod 2014 has been marked by a high dropout rate that reached 15 mushers Friday night. Ramey Smyth from Willow, the 2011 race runner-up and a nine-time top-10 finisher, was among the mushers who scratched from the competition Friday.

All told, only a dozen dropped out of the race last year, and two-thirds of those came at the halfway point or beyond.

Record number of scratches?

The record number of Iditarod scratches was 24 in 2007, another year with little snow along the trail. That led to bone-breaking crashes before the race hit Nikolai in the Interior, similar to what happened this year. Along the way, there was a storm that made things worse. Several teams got lost on the way to Rainy Pass and eventually had to quit.

There was a big field in 2007. Eighty-two mushers started that race. Only 69 started this year. It is possible that if things continue as they have been going, Iditarod 2014 could set a new record for scratches.

A number of mushers still on the trail have confessed they are dealing with significant injuries that resulted from sled crashes while crossing about 80 miles of snowless country north of the Alaska Range. Aaron Burmeister from Nome tore up a knee and is basically continuing on one leg. Buser has a badly swollen ankle.

Others are dealing with dog issues. Smyth said he dropped out because his team was sick. Mushers Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof and Hugh Neff from Tok are down to eight dogs each after being forced to drop equal numbers of sick or injured dogs at checkpoints along the trail. Mushers need at least six dogs in harness to finish, and Gebhardt and Neff are barely halfway through the race.

Whether they can hang on remains to be seen. The same can be said for those at the back trying to keep up. For logistical reasons -- it is expensive to keep checkpoints open -- the Iditarod has become a race that gets wrapped up a little sooner every year.

In the 1980s, Iditarod was an 11- or 12-day race in which the last entrant got about three weeks to make it to Nome. By the 1990s, it was a nine- to 11-day race with the red lantern musher given about two and a half weeks to reach the end.

By the 2000s, the time for the winner had settled in the nine-day range, but the time for the back of the packers kept shrinking. They were getting just over two weeks to finish in the mid-2000s. Now it’s under two weeks.

Christine Roalofs from Anchorage, the red lantern finisher last year, made Nome in 13 days, 22 hours, 16 minutes. The time would have won any Iditarod prior to the 1980s. 

And going faster doesn't make The Last Great Race easier. It just makes it harder.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.