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Online on the trail? Alaska's wildest sled-dog races cope with digital tech

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 22, 2016

Last March, Brent Sass stood on his sled runners, leaving the Tanana checkpoint in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. But instead of heading toward the finish in Nome like the other mushers, the 35-year-old turned his dogs around.

They were going home, back to Eureka, a small town some 90 miles away. Race officials had disqualified Sass — the fifth musher into Tanana and winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race weeks earlier — for having an iPod touch, a thin device that looks a lot like an iPhone, but one that needs a wireless Internet connection to send or receive messages.

Mark Nordman, Iditarod race director and marshal, said Sass was the first musher to get disqualified for having such a device, which could allow mushers to get messages from outside sources with race tips.

While Nordman said there's no proof Sass used his iPod touch as anything more than an alarm clock and music player, a rule is a rule: No Iditarod musher can carry or use a two-way communication device, including a cellphone, unless its provided by the race committee. Sass said he knows he messed up but he believes officials made an example of him.

"It was really no question because I did break the rule, as much as I did want to say that it was the stupidest rule on the planet," Sass said last month from Fairbanks. He said he can guarantee that mushers sent similar devices home after hearing he got disqualified.

"There's people who told me, 'Yeah, I got rid of mine,'" he said.

But the iPod touch isn't the first electronic device that has found its way into the Iditarod, as well as the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, and it likely won't be the last. It's just one recent example of how race officials and mushers have grappled with what role modern technology should play in a race meant to honor a timeless mode of travel.

"If you wanted this to be based on the historic serum run, we wouldn't have headlamps," said Jeff King, a 60-year-old four-time Iditarod champion. "We would have candles in our sled somewhere."

Two 1,000-mile races, two views

Sass said he knew he couldn't carry a two-way communication device. He read it in the rules and then he heard Nordman reiterate it at a mushers meeting before the race. Nordman warned mushers they'd be disqualified if they carried the devices.

"More than anything, it's just to keep the competitive nature of the event," Nordman said. He said it's not fair for a musher to have the ability to make a phone call or receive a message from someone coaching them through the race — letting them know what speed other mushers are going or telling them what they need to do to get ahead.

Plus, Nordman said, mushers should be focusing on taking care of their dogs. It's the dogs, he said, that ultimately drive how long and how fast the team will move through the Alaska wilderness.

Sass said he never thought about connecting his iPod touch to the Internet. He said he openly used it at checkpoints — setting alarms and listening to music. But by the time he reached Tanana, about 230 miles into the Iditarod, he was stopped by Nordman, who asked if he had anything that looked like a cellphone. Sass told Nordman about his iPod touch. Soon, his race was over.

"I was pretty upset about it," Sass said. "I was just kind of like, 'Did this really happen?'" It was costly too. Had Sass finished fifth, he would have earned $44,300 in prize money.

But while Iditarod rules include an outright ban on two-way communications devices, the Yukon Quest takes a softer approach.

The day after news broke about Sass's Iditarod disqualification, Yukon Quest officials published an online statement that said mushers can use the communication devices at the Quest checkpoints to update their websites and social media pages but they can't use them on the trail.

Marti Steury, Yukon Quest executive director, said that when mushers and their handlers post about the race on blogs or Facebook, it drives traffic to the Yukon Quest website, which got 1.95 million hits last year — most in February when the race took place.

"I was one of the people who helped organize the race in 1983 and we could only pray that someone outside of our trail route would have known about what we were doing," she said.

Steury said the Quest website gets a huge number of visitors who click over from the website of Aliy Zirkle, three-time Iditarod runner-up, and Allen Moore, the two-time Quest champion who placed third in this year's race. The couple's SP Kennel website featured a blog with regular stories about Moore's journey this year on the Quest trail.

As long as everyone has access to the Internet at checkpoints, Steury said she doesn't see it as a problem. She said some mushers have gotten into checkpoints and logged onto computers to video chat with students; others interacted with fans or posted videos if they had time. Some simply handed off video footage or cameras to handlers, who updated the websites.

However, Steury said, with many factors separating the Quest from the Iditarod, it's hard to compare the two races' policies. For instance, she said, the Quest has only nine checkpoints and less media following the race. Plus, much of the Quest's trail is accessible by road, so mushers' handlers can drive between checkpoints, grab video footage and update social media websites.

"Every group has to look at their particular situation," she said.

About the benefits of updating blogs or social media pages along the trail, the Iditarod's Nordman said the mushers shouldn't have the time and he wouldn't allow it "because there's no need for it."

"Their concern should be not about sending out information for the world, just to pay more attention to the team itself and enjoy the event," he said.

Nordman said he's OK with outside assistance that's available to all mushers at checkpoints, such as public displays of online maps that detail mushers' locations using spot trackers. He said mushers can use public phones to call home if there's an emergency but it should be in the presence of a race judge.

Still, four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser of Big Lake said he knows mushers carry cellphones and make calls along the trail, but with devices so small, it's hard for race judges to control. He also said he knows mushers sent cellphones and electronics home last year after Sass's disqualification.

"We're in a gray phase where the cheaters cheat and the mushers who play by the rules don't," he said. He said, at this point, he doesn't think mushers should have any access to phones — public or private — because someone on the other line could be coaching them.

Sponsors from social media

Sass said that when he returned home after the 2015 Iditarod he had thousands of Facebook messages and emails from fans lamenting the disqualification and encouraging him to keep mushing. He said he even got some additional sponsorship offers. A friend had launched an online fundraiser for Sass, titled "Attitude is Everything," that raised more than $15,000. Plus, Sass said he went on to speak publicly about sportsmanship at various conferences.

King described Sass as a "total class act" who handled the disqualification well. King has started 25 Iditarods, winning four. He said he has watched the race go through several evolutions when it comes to accepting technology. For now, he said, he supports the ban on two-way communication devices because they could allow people to feed mushers outside information.

He said he understands mushers wanting to update social media pages but he said that "the Iditarod has really put their heart into keeping their brand and their media theirs. It's their race and we're in it, and if you want to be in their race, you've got to follow their rules."

Sass said he believes everyone should be allowed to send out their own information. During the Quest he said he typically brings a camera so that at checkpoints he can hand off photographs and videos to handlers, who update social media pages. It's how he stays in touch with fans and attracts sponsors, he said.

"They follow me vicariously from their homes all over the world and in the end I feed my dogs with a lot of their support," he said. "So I feel it's a big obligation to reach out to my fans throughout the season."

But Sass asked whether the real reason the Iditarod banned mushers from Internet access was to boost subscriptions for the Iditarod Insider, a race website offering videos of the trail, checkpoints and musher interviews, alongside other coverage. Subscribers pay up to $33.95 a year for access, depending on what package they purchase. Packages for schools can cost more. Sass said that from a business perspective, he would understand the policy.

But Nordman said the rule was around long before Insider, which debuted as a subscriber-only website for the 2006 Iditarod.

Paul Gebhardt, who has started 19 Iditarods, coming in second twice, said mushers have told him that they would like additional communication options on the trail. Gebhardt, the musher representative on the Iditarod's Board of Directors, said he has asked the board for more webcams along the trail so a wider variety of mushers can share their stories — not just those in front of the pack and not just those in the back of the pack.

However, he said he believes the information needs to be "funneled through someplace. Not just, 'Everybody, here's your cellphone. Do what you want to do,'" he said. "That's my personal opinion."

Ryne Olson, a 27-year-old who has run both the Iditarod and the Quest, said she doesn't have a strong opinion on two-way communication devices on the trail. She could live with them or without them. She said her mother, who lives in Colorado, typically updates her website while she races.

"For me, one of the joys of mushing is being able to go out there and be totally disconnected from everything," she said.

iPod touch the new GPS?

King said he wonders if the Iditarod will one day accept two-way communication devices just as it has the required tracking devices and the optional GPS units.

In the 2008 Iditarod, as tracking devices were being tried out for one of the first times, Buser sent his on a plane ride. The 2-pound device was bugging him, he said, so he decided, "I'm going to pull a prank." Suddenly, Internet users watched Buser travel south at 130 mph.

"Nowadays, you can't do that. You might get DQ'd," Buser said. The Iditarod now makes all mushers clip smaller versions of the tracking devices onto their sleds so people can watch the race online.

For the first time in 2011, Iditarod race officials allowed mushers to hook personal GPS units onto their sleds so they could track their own speeds and locations.

An Anchorage Daily News article from the 2011 Iditarod was headlined, "Some like to use GPS, others disdain the technology." It reported that Lance Mackey, four-time Iditarod and four-time Yukon Quest winner, seemed "disgusted by the change."

Buser said he will likely carry an iPod shuffle this year, plus his GPS, which he said he also uses as an alarm clock. But King said his GPS drove him crazy as it oscillated between minor differences in speed.

"I'm going 6.2 mph, now I'm going 6.3 mph. I just want to stick my finger in my eye. I was so distraught over that," King said. "I would rather put my music on and listen to Marshall Tucker than see that I'm going 6.2 and then 6.3."

King remembered back to the first time Iditarod officials required mushers to carry tracking devices. He said he thought: "This is unbelievable. If I'm at a checkpoint, I'm going to see how fast (Rick) Swenson is going?" Now, he said, it's just the way the race goes, and in the end he can only go as fast as his dogs want to go even if he sees other teams far ahead.

"All you can do is feel bad about it — knowing what others are doing on the tracker isn't going to change what I do," he said.

Ultimately, Sass said the would prefer a more hands-off approach to the race. Besides, he said, mushers at the front of the pack likely wouldn't have time to update blogs or use two-way communication devices to check standings. Everyone's too busy taking care of their dogs and too exhausted to do anything else, he said.

"Why have a whole bunch of rules that we don't really need?" Sass said. "Let's keep it simple. Let's just let people run their dogs. I'm not saying no rules — but things like GPS and cellphones shouldn't be focal points."

What electronics are allowed, banned by Iditarod


• GoPro cameras

• Point-and-shoot cameras

• Any music device that can't connect to the Internet (like an iPod classic or iPod shuffle)

• GPS units


• Cellphones

• Satellite phones

• Walkie-talkies

• Night-vision goggles

• Any music device that can connect to the Internet (like an iPod touch)

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