Contested in remote, inaccessible places, long distance dog mushing is a hard sport to follow.
Often, it's hard to tell who's actually leading a race due to the idiosyncrasies of start-time adjustments, mandatory layovers, trailside camping, and general musher sneakiness. And the unknown is part of the sport's appeal.
Nowadays, with mushers carrying GPS units and real-time media coverage, following the race is easier. Still, how do you tell who's really doing well and what is going on between checkpoints?
Here are a few clues that dog mushing junkies will use to decipher mushers' strategies:
Run times are the most important tool to compare competitive teams
This may seem obvious, but it's tricky because mushers periodically stop along the trail to snack their dogs, adjust gear or switch dog positions. But there are a few runs that almost all top teams make with few or no significant stops.
Call them "marker runs."
By comparing times on the marker runs, race observers can accurately gauge the strength and speed of various teams. The best marker runs are Nikolai to McGrath (48 miles), Ruby to Galena (50 miles), and Unalakleet to Shaktoolik (40 miles). Some also look at the 18-mile McGrath to Takotna stretch, but typically that's too short to be meaningful. On those stretches, the musher with the fastest time usually has the better team. I especially like to look at the Ruby-to-Galena time because it is usually well after the musher has taken his or her mandatory 24-hour rest and is a relatively flat, easy section. Differences of even 15 minutes run time between top teams on this section of trail offer a lot of insight into which team is doing well.
Remember, Iditarod rules say mushers must sign into every checkpoint, but are not required to sign out (except for timed mandatory layovers). This allows mushers to sneak out without having to notify any race official or fellow competitor. Iditarod checkers have become adept over the years at recording out times, but informed observers should understand that those times are usually an approximation.
GPS data found on Iditarod Insider can be used to doublecheck out times. This explains why mushers occasionally have unusually long reported rest times before suddenly "appearing" at the next checkpoint 50 miles down the trail even though the official race statistics show them resting at the previous checkpoint.
Dont be fooled by reported traveling speeds
A competitive team cannot be gauged by travelling speed. The biggest rookie race watcher error is to track stated speeds -- THEY ARE ALL WRONG!
The Iditarod website posts speed based on a math formula of distance over time, the problem is that the distances are mostly wrong due to annual changes in trail routes, historical vs. true mileage, etc. Even GPS tracking units' stated trail speeds are inaccurate due to the stop/go nature of the sport and grade changes along the trail.
On the downhill section from the Blueberry Mountains to Shaktoolik mushers may reach 12-14 mph; 5 miles later they will be lucky to do 6 mph into the inevitable headwind on the spit. Average trail speed is not a good indicator because it does not distinguish between time running and time resting. It is unbelievable that so many long-time Alaska journalists continue to use run speed as an indicator of team strength.
Run time trumps all.
All competitive mushers lie about the strength of their team; some are better liars than others
Mushers bluff each other about the strength or weakness of their team in hopes of distracting their competition.
When Lance Mackey says his team needs a rest, he is usually hoping to trick other mushers into stopping their teams for a break, too. By the time the other team's booties are off, Lance is out the door and back on the trail. The best way to decipher the true strength of a team is to ask mushers how they're doing.
Mushers who say they're tired, sore or depressed are often driving dogs that are tired, sore or depressed. Musher anxious to get back on the trail are mushers to be reckoned with.
Due to the layout of mandatory rest stops, mushers are not truly racing head-to-head until after Kaltag, the last of the Yukon River checkpoints almost two-thirds of the way into the race. After Kaltag, race observers can finally see which teams are truly in the lead.
Nowadays, most top mushers make the 90-mile run from Kaltag to Unalakleet in one long 10-hours-plus run. With fewer and fewer mushers stopping along the Norton Sound coastal checkpoints, run times become even more important to gauge teams' relative strength. Beware any team that's 10-20 percent slower along the coast. Usually, that is a very bad sign that can lead to a race-ending scratch.
Other race resources
In addition to Alaska Dispatch, there are many resources to follow the race nowadays: Iditarod.com is free and best for official times; Iditarod Insider is a paid service which gives viewers real-time GPS information, videos and race analysis; there are many musher Facebook and website pages with insightful analysis mixed in with the inevitable speculation, rumor mongering and personal bias (my personal favorite: Aliy Zirkle's SP DogBlog; traditional TV and radio (APRN for example) media does a good job of live start and finish coverage with interviews, but lack the constant stream of trail information and updates that true mush-a-holics crave.
Zack Steer, a five-time Iditarod finisher, is sitting out this year's race as wife Anjanette takes the kennel's team to Nome. He owns and operates the Sheep Mountain Lodge with Anjanette and 2 young boys. Zack will bring a competitive racer's analysis to this year's Iditarod coverage. Zack maintains a small kennel of racing sled dogs, who are much happier to be taking Anjanette (100 pounds lighter than Zack) to Nome this year. Follow Zack's race analysis at Alaska Dispatch.