Iditarod officials decided Friday to retain a new rule allowing racers on the trail to use cell and satellite phones, rejecting a contingent of mushers who wanted to return to the communication blackouts of the recent past.
The Iditarod Trial Committee Board of Directors met Friday to review its 2017 race rules, including the new two-way communication rule, which it ultimately decided to keep.
The Iditarod board first approved the new rule in May, reversing the race's long-standing, outright ban on two-way communication devices, including cellphones, satellite phones and any electronics that can connect to wireless internet.
Board President Andy Baker, from Kotzebue, said safety concerns during the 2016 Iditarod prompted officials to initially create the new rule. He said that allowing the electronics would provide for a safer race next year.
But mushers who attended Friday's meeting told the board that permitting mushers to carry and use two-way communication devices damages the allure of the wild and remote 1,000-mile race to Nome. It also opens up opportunity for mushers to cheat discreetly by receiving coaching over the phone, they said.
"I am so concerned that this is going to create a huge atmosphere of doubt and speculation about mushers' integrity," said reigning Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey, one of seven mushers who spoke against the new rule Friday.
Seavey likened the new rule to forbidding giving drugs to dogs, and then not testing for drugs. Race officials will have no way to prove that mushers aren't using their phones to get coaching, he said.
Iditarod musher Rick Casillo, who scratched from the 2016 race, told the board, "I believe this rule is going to open a can of worms."
In the past, mushers faced penalties just for carrying two-way communication devices. Officials disqualified top musher Brent Sass from the 2015 Iditarod because he had an iPod Touch, a music-storing device that can connect to the internet.
But in the 2017 Iditarod, mushers can carry and use two-way communication devices for the first time under race rules, though they cannot use them to talk to the media. A separate rule says mushers cannot receive outside assistance. But mushers on Friday said it's impossible to know who is on the other side of a telephone call and to prove what that person is saying.
Cellphones work in many Iditarod checkpoints and satellite phones would work anywhere in the outdoors.
Wade Marrs, who placed fourth in the past Iditarod race, told the board that it could be hard to tell if someone was on the phone out on the trail or even at a checkpoint.
"Seeing someone on a cellphone in this day and age is almost impossible. They could have it on headphones, inside of their parka hood and you would never know it, never see it," Marrs said. "There's no way for me to tell if Dallas is on the phone if I'm standing behind him…"
"It wouldn't be illegal if I was on the phone," Seavey interjected.
"It wouldn't be illegal if he was on the phone," Marrs echoed. "I don't know what he's talking to or who he's talking to or what he's talking about. There's no way to enforce this rule."
Mushers laid out several scenarios that could lead to advantages in a race in which combating exhaustion is a major element. Mushers could call home and have someone talk them out of sleeping, or in the moments of stupefying sleep-deprivation, mushers could call someone for help with decisions about their dogs or about when they should rest and for how long.
A phone could also create a false sense of security for mushers, making them feel like they can just call for help if they get into trouble, said Anna Berington, who placed 40th in the 2016 Iditarod, just behind her twin Kristy.
Baker said the board members discussed the new rule for hours and weighed every angle. Concerns about safety on the trail trumped concerns about cheating.
Perhaps a phone could have helped during the 2016 race, he said, when mushers Aliy Zirkle and Jeff King reported that a snowmachiner had plowed into their dog teams. One dog was killed and several were injured. Baker said that if the mushers had phones they could have called for help instead of traveling in fear, alone, to the next checkpoint in Nulato.
"We want everybody to be safe out there and we feel like this will help that," Baker said.
Zirkle, who placed third in the 2016 Iditarod, said in an interview earlier this year that over her 20 years of racing she would have never thought about using a phone during a sled dog race, but this year's Iditarod changed her life. If she had a satellite phone, she said, she would have tried to call for help.
Baker, brother to Iditarod musher John Baker, said he expected mushers to have integrity and not use the phones to receive coaching or tips.
Iditarod Director Mike Jonrowe, husband to musher DeeDee Jonrowe, said mushers should practice self-policing and be sure to report to officials if they suspect someone is using a phone to cheat.
While the Iditarod board did not vote Friday on returning to a two-way communication ban, it removed a line in the new phone rule that said using a device for coaching would result in a disqualification. Baker said that was already listed in a separate rule.
After the meeting, Seavey, his Iditarod-racing father, Mitch, and Marrs said they were disappointed with the board's decision.
Seavey had created an online petition this summer that called for reform of the new two-way communication rule. He proposed ways to control the use of phones, including having mushers carry a phone in a sealed bag and having to explain who they called and why if the seal was broken.
Seavey said he would not carry a phone in the 2017 Iditarod as long as he felt the rule "unenforceable." If Iditarod directors decided that outside coaching was legal, then "that's now a new element of the race," he said.
"This would become one more aspect that the mushers would be obligated to try to maximize," he said.
Here is the full-text of the Rule 35, which allows electronics, and Rule 31, which prohibits outside assistance:
Rule 35 – Electronic Devices: A musher may carry and use any two-way communication device(s), including, but not necessarily limited to, a cell and/or satellite telephone. Use of such devices may not be used for any media purposes during the course of the race unless expressly approved in advance by ITC.
A musher may also carry an emergency locator transmitter (ELT), a Spot, or other similar satellite tracking device. However, activation of any help or emergency signal, including accidental activation, may make a musher ineligible to continue and may result in an automatic withdrawal from the race. Use of a GPS is also permitted.
Rule 31 — Outside Assistance: No planned help is allowed throughout the Race. All care and feeding of dogs will be done only by that teams' musher. All dog maintenance and care of dog teams and gear in checkpoints will be done in the designated localized holding area. A musher relinquishing the care of his/her team to leave the checkpoint and or village without approval of the Race Marshal must withdraw from the Race. Common resources available to all mushers will not be considered outside assistance.