Alaska News

To assemble a championship Iditarod dog team, a musher needs savvy -- and cash

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes – not that you won or lost

But how you played the game.

Legendary American sportswriter Grantland Rice said that quite a few years ago. Vince Lombardi hated the statement, but he coached football players, not a bunch of dogs.

How do the mushers who run the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race put together their teams? No doubt, the method in 2015 is far different from 1974, the race's second year. Forty years ago, most of the teams on the trail were intact before running the race was even considered. Today, Iditarod teams are assembled in a variety of ways.

Most competitive teams have a good number of dogs to choose from in their own kennel. A look at the top of the Iditarod field will show dog yards with at least 50 adult running-age dogs available to train. The kennel may also have puppies and yearlings, plus retirees.

Other kennels may not be quite as large, but the aspiring Iditarod contender will have good contacts from whom to lease or buy a few good dogs to fill holes in a race team.

But most Iditarod teams are composed of a preponderance of males. A few years ago, an Iditarod study showed that among the top 20 finishers, one place was dropped for every female in the team. Males generally have a better muscle mass to bone weight ratio than females, though, by all means, this is far from definitive.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a competitive Iditarod team is funding. The cost of feeding and caring for a single sled dog is approximately $750 annually. That doesn't include the cost of entering the Iditarod. Nor does it include the costs of buying or leasing dogs.

A few teams in the field are composed of dogs that individual mushers bred and raised themselves. (I am excepting large, well-funded kennels that can afford to breed and raise relatively large numbers of animals.) These teams are generally a bit farther back in the pack. Occasionally one or two sneak up into the top end of the field on the strength of a particularly good litter of puppies or an excellent training regime.

However, putting together a winning team of one's own group of pups is like trying to take high school basketball players from a single school and attempt to compete with a college team that has recruited from all over the country. There was only one LeBron James at his high school.

Back on the trail, Jeff King built a lead based on taking his 24-hour rest in Galena and making a smart rest stop at Huslia. He will have to look over his shoulder though, because, Burmeister, both Seaveys and Aliy Zirkle are behind him.

Martin Buser, who was running well, took a needed extra rest between Galena and Huslia, which has pushed him out of lead contention.

A couple of days ago, I was wondering what had happened to 2011 champion John Baker, when suddenly, here he is. John is right in the top 10 after two strong runs. He may not be rested enough to contend for the lead, but it's an impressive bounce back. At this point it's tough for a team to skip a rest stop attempting to catch the top of the field.

However, during the 2011 race, Ramey Smyth and Baker ran on two- and three-hour rests over the 260-mile stretch run from Unalakleet to Nome. And that turned out to be, at the time, the fastest Iditarod in history. But hundreds of miles away from the trail, it's almost impossible to tell what any of the teams really look like or can accomplish.

But when speaking of dog teams, I would tend to lean toward game designer Reiner Knizia's statement: "When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning."

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.