Mushers gotta mush, but the price for long-distance races is steep

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: February 5, 2018
  • Published February 5, 2018

John Schandelmeier’s dog team trains for the Iditarod, in part, by hauling wood for the family’s  home. (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

The Yukon Quest began Saturday in Fairbanks. The start of the Iditarod is a month away. What are the entrants in these 1,000-mile races doing today?

The Quest mushers are over their prerace jitters and happy as blazes to finally be on the trail. They are no longer worrying about how they might pay for their dog-racing addiction. The realities of their finances will set in a few days after the finish.

Iditarod mushers have the advantage of an extra month in which to figure out how to defray expenses. The Yukon Quest will bring some attention to the dog mushing scene and some of the interest may trickle down to benefit Iditarod competitors.

Make no mistake, running dogs is an expensive habit. Long races, such as the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest, are prohibitive for many.

The big expenses for Iditarod racers are the $4,000 entry fee, $1,500 to ship food drops, a couple grand in dog booties, and airfare to get the musher, dogs and a handler back home from the Nome finish line.

That basic $10,000 doesn't touch the dog-food expense (just for the race itself), the Anchorage and Nome housing and care costs, or any of the travel and miscellaneous items needed to prepare for 1,000 miles by dog team. $15,000 is the bare-bones minimum required to participate in the Iditarod. You might manage to complete the Quest for $10,000.

How do mushers finance their dog dreams? Some take out a mortgage on their home. A few ignore Christmas and other money-spending holidays. Most run up their credit cards and hope for good days to come.

The majority of mushers solicit some sponsorship from the general public, friends, family, businesses and race fans. People often ask, "Why should I contribute toward sponsoring an Iditarod team? Mushers do this because they want to, so why should I help pay?"

Let's compare the sport of dog mushing to the U.S. Open golf tournament. Golfers are also doing what they enjoy. Both sports provide entertainment to the public.

Companies may sponsor individual golfers because the company benefits from having a well-known name attached to their product or service. As a sport, dog mushing is tiny compared to golf. Only a small number of businesses would financially benefit from the sponsoring of a dog team. And yet a relatively large number of folks follow the progress of the Iditarod in order to participate vicariously.

The purse for the 2017 U.S. Open was $12 million dollars. The Iditarod purse is $500,000. U.S. Open golfers who don't make the cut receive $10,000. Iditarod finishers who are not in the top 20 get $1,000. The entry fee for the U.S. Open is $175, plus a $50 locker room fee. Top players are exempt from those minuscule fees. No Iditarod musher is exempt from the $4,000 entry fee.

To be sure, golfers have some costs associated with getting to and competing in the tournament. However, I seriously doubt those costs rival the costs of preparing a team to enter a long-distance dog race.

Spectators can watch golf on television free of charge. Fans pay the Iditarod Trail Committee to follow the race trackers or get a ride in a sled at the ceremonial start, but the mushers see none of that money. Collected monies go into the general ITC fund.

Without public interest there would be no U.S. Open, no Iditarod. The public supports the U.S. Open by the purchase of golf products from sponsoring businesses. Thus golf fans have the opportunity to watch some of the best in the sport compete against the course and each other.

The Iditarod is a little different. Mushing fans also have the chance to watch drivers and their teams compete against the trail, the elements and each other. But mushing spectators have one advantage — they can send a few bucks directly to their favorite competitor and know it will go directly to them.

It's easy to spend a hundred bucks taking the family to the movies for an afternoon of diversion. That kind of money can get 10 days of entertainment from a long-distance dog racer.

Dog mushers would rather not have to think of how to manage the finances of racing sled dogs on a 1,000-mile trail. However, that is today's reality. Long gone are the days when dried fish were cooked with oatmeal to feed the team. Today's teams require $60-per-bag kibble, store-bought beef and high-priced supplements.

Mushers might save a few bucks by forgoing the plane ride back from Nome and driving the dogs back home over the trail.

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