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Speed, sleep deprivation and safety: Time to make today's Iditarod a stage race

Craig Medred
An exhausted Jason Mackey rests at the Nikolai checkpoint on March 4, 2014. Columnist Craig Medred says given the sleep deprivation and subsequent judgment lapses that plague mushers on the trail in today's Iditarod, it's time to consider switching the format from ultramarathon to stage race. Loren Holmes photo

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Hugh Neff from Tok has made the claim he nearly died on the trail this year, in part because of weather and in part because the Iditarod Trail Committee didn't respond when he pushed the button on an electronic device meant to summon help.

His claim that "I could feel my body dying," coupled with his girlfriend's understandably emotional response that "My guy was on his way out of this world when they found him around 6am and left another few hours he would not be here with me now," has touched off off a firestorm of different debates in social media.

Most -- aside from those that arise about how the media covers anything these days -- center in one way or another on the issue of Iditarod safety and the responsibility of the mushers to take care of themselves versus the responsibility of the race to rescue them.

One thing that has become clear in all of the back and forth is that the Iditarod today is not what the Iditarod was when it began in the 1970s. The late Joe Redington from Knik, five-time champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, and neighbor Sonny Lindner, who finished fifth this year at age 64 and promptly announced he was done with the race, had Bush skills that enabled them survive in Alaska no matter what.

The Iditarod was, to them, all about racing across the wilderness. Year by year since the first race in 1973, however, the Iditarod has become less and less about getting across the wilderness and more and more about racing. The degrees of change might well have been illustrated best this year when plywood bridges were built to span open water on Dalzell Creek.

Plywood bridges. That was an Iditarod first. Now needs to come another.

The Iditarod Trail Committee needs to accept what the event has become and change the format from long-distance marathon to stage race, where mushers run from point A to point B, get adequate rest in the checkpoints there, and the winner is eventually decided on the basis of accumulated time between the various checkpoints.

Anything less is inherently unsafe. The pace of the Iditarod has now become so fast that the race leaders get almost no sleep between the start and the finish. By the Bering Sea coast, they are horribly sleep deprived, and there are piles of studies indicating sleep-deprived people do not think clearly.

Neff was obviously not thinking clearly when he headed out onto the ice of Golovin Bay this year and ended up trapped with a stalled dog team only 5 or 6 miles from the village. He should have seen in Golovin that he might have trouble getting to White Mountain and parked in the village.

And Neff wasn't the only one not thinking right. He just took it to the nth degree. Race leader Jeff King wasn't thinking clearly either when he decided, as he told Alaska Dispatch's Suzanna Caldwell, that he should "anchor down and calm himself and the dogs in hope that a little rest would get them all back on track."

A well-rested King would not be thinking that. He was in an extremely bad place to rest, and late in the race, with the winds howling, a dog team that stops often decides it's going to stay where it is. Old Iditarod veteran Terry Adkins once had to have a team flown out of the Topkok Hills not far from where King stopped after the dogs shut down and didn't want to move for more than a day.

A seasoned and experienced veteran of the Alaska backcountry, King would not make the decision he did if well rested. But being so experienced, it is interesting to note that he stayed with his team only long enough to realize he'd made a mistake and was in danger. He then started hiking to the Safety Roadhouse and was almost there when he was picked up by a snowmachiner passing on the trail.

Not all Iditarod mushers have the background of experience that enabled even a sleep-deprived King to realize he was in trouble and needed to move to save himself. Most, in fact, might these days lack this vital experience.

It is not their fault. It is a result of how the race has changed. The mushers of today no longer train the way Swenson or the late Susan Butcher did by taking their dogs on lengthy wilderness camping trips across the wilds of Alaska. Butcher and Swenson, who had a bitter rivalry and won nine victories between them (Swenson, five; Butcher, four), trained for wilderness conditions and ran 11- and 12-day Iditarods.

To have any hope of winning today, mushers need teams that can do the race in nine days or, as illustrated this year, less. They need speedy teams, so they train for speed. And the training changes everything, including the way the mushers themselves think.

The mushers of today are different than the mushers back in the day, and they have different expectations. Some of them, after the beating they took on bad trail in the Alaska Range, have confessed they are no longer trained or prepared to deal with such conditions.

Back in the day, there were still trapline teams entered in the Iditarod. The dogs would stop and stay when told. They would walk if necessary. There was a bond between man and dogs no longer seen. Such a thing is now rare, although it has been rumored young Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the fourth-place finisher this year, might have had such a old-fashioned team.

There are reports, unverified at this point because Ulsom could not be reached, that the 27-year-old crossed the especially rough stretch of trail between the outpost cabin of Rohn and the village of Nikolai on the north side of the Alaska Range with only six dogs pulling his sled and 10 others jogging along patiently behind on a long leash.

Such would be a wise move on a trail where going slow was sure to cause a lot less damage to sled and musher than going fast. But whether what is said of Ulsom is true or not, the point is that few if any teams in the race these days are trained to perform like anything but a pack of banshees.

Built for speed and hard to stop

Today's Iditarod dogs run like hell. "Whoa" has become a command that doesn't much matter. Most of the dogs just keep on running when the musher yells "whoa." "Whoa," which once meant "stop," has become more of a command to "stand still" after the musher manages to get the sled stopped with the brake, drag mat or whatever else proves necessary.

On the groomed trails on which all of the mushers of today train, this is fine. It is, in fact, key to being competitive in an Iditarod that has become all about speed. A competitive musher doesn't want trained dogs so much as he wants running dogs -- dogs that worry about going fast all the time instead of worrying about listening to orders.

Usually, this is works well. The modern Iditarod Trail is well maintained by trailbreakers on snowmachines. Sometimes they even pull a groomer out in front of the leaders so they can run on trails like those at home..

Largely because of a lack of snow, the trail this year was nothing like the groomed trails on which mushers now train, and the result was chaos. The worst of it came in the Alaska Range, where mushers were injured and sleds smashed, but it reached its apex on the coast, where Neff's team stalled on glare ice and nobody came to save him.

Neff claimed he nearly died and started hawking a soon-to-be book about his experience on his website. Former musher Sebastian Schnuelle from Yukon Territory, Canada, promptly took Neff to task, or "Sebashed" him, as Neff's girlfriend, Nicole Faille, artfully put it in a colorful turn of phrase.

"...For a Nicole Faille or Hugh Neff to accuse (Iditarod of) letting Hugh almost die out there is out of line. It was Hugh's own personal choice to not rest at any of the available places. He knew he was down to 8 dogs. To rest 1.30 hrs in Elim is a risky move in the best of conditions with a large team. It gets even riskier with a small team. It is outright foolish to do with a small team in bad weather," Schnuelle wrote.

"And than (sic) he passes by all of the available shelter. After all, those safety cabins are there for a reason, and than (sic) once he hits the wall, he does not know any other way out than to press a button. How about doing what Aaron Burmeister did with one bum leg and walk to shore with your team? How about retreating to Golovin with the wind in your back? There are choices. And than to demand and accuse ITC of not reacting quick enough is uncalled for, specially in the middle of the night?"

Schnuelle, in his Facebook post, failed to disclose that he worked for the Iditarod as a blogger covering the race this year. So he has some bias. But most Iditarod fans probably already knew that.

And Schnuelle was on the trail this year on a snowmachine in weather much like that encountered by Neff. During the race he wrote this:

"...Bluntly: I am not crazy enough to snowmachine back out there in those winds. I was pretty worried about my own safety yesterday. I am not traveling in a group. I am alone. If I have an issue out there, I have a real issue. No dogteam to snuggle up with, no sledbag to crawl into. I often could not see marker to marker. Going back out… naw thank you I pass.

"...It would be foolish to go back out there trying to cover the story, never mind putting extra stress and strain on ITC resources. And also bluntly, most of us had gotten next to no sleep neither."

If Schnuelle was worried about going back on the trail because of his lack of sleep, which is something that influences judgment far more than physiology, what about mushers who've gone for days without sleep? Are they in any position to make sound decisions?

It is easy to say Neff should have shown better judgment, but was he capable of better judgment? Did he, or his friends and associates, even have the background of experience from which to make the kind of decisions that need to be made in and old-fashioned Iditarod?

Here's what Myron Angstman, a lawyer from Bethel, an Iditarod veteran, and an organizer of the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race, had to say:

"In this situation, I would hope that Neff's family and close friends were up all night on the phone seeking help. Had they called me, I would have been. I would have had several suggestions. I personally have called villages like Golovin and White Mountain with urgent late night requests to help in situations like this. Maybe not the first call, but by the tenth call you might find a kind soul who would don winter gear, find some gas, and head out. Maybe because they remembered a relative who froze to death in the same area."

Angstman is right about all of this, but what he leaves out is that this is old-school thinking. He's an old guy. Follow the chatter in social media on this story, and you'll find a lot of old guys siding with Angstman and Schnuelle. They're not big fans of pushing a button and expecting to get saved.

A generation gap?

Modern-day Americans, on the other hand, are all about getting saved. The young generation has a different view. The ideas of self-sufficiency and individual responsibility are fading. Young folks have been raised by a nanny society. They're buckled in, helmeted and protected.

They expect it. And they furthermore expect that when they call for help, somebody is supposed to come. The time has come to accept the new reality and do something to make the Iditarod safer.

Yes, there might be alternatives to a stage race. Some are talking about even more stringent qualifying standards, although the qualifiers were never really meant to protect against something like what happened to Neff. They were meant to cut out the bumblers who might become stories as they stumbled their way through the Iditarod.

The Iditarod big guns always and mightily resented sharing the spotlight with the cheechakos. They devised a set of qualifiers to put the Iditarod out of a reach of a lot of them. The Rick Swenson who finished 10th as a rookie in 1975 would never be able to get into the Iditarod today because of the high cost of meeting the qualification standards, which have done little to improve the skills of the back-of-the-packers.

All the qualifiers have done is make for a smaller field with the people of marginal qualifications being rich folks instead of poor folks. The qualifier path is a dead end.

There's really only one way to make this race safe if that is what Iditarod mushers and fans want, and that is to make it a stage race like Wyoming's International Pedigree Stage Stop. The Stage Stop is a nice race, and it doesn't end with disputes over who the race organizers failed to rescue or who the race organizers hurt by allowing a race on a trail so bad.

The mushers of today can't handle the conditions common to the old days. It's time for the Iditarod to face the reality that the Iditarod mystique is based on a reality long gone. 

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