About Gwynn's first Alaska adventure and her grand plan for a very special book. It will be about the incredible female mushers who run the long endurance races and their fabulous dogs without whom none of it would be possible! Smooth trails and good runs, ladies, to your and your canine partners. Please visit my Go Fund Me page to help this project! It's at www.gofundme.df04r0
This was shared on the Idita-Support FB group and I pass it on since most of my readers here will not be seeing that. Very thought provoking and a bit worrisome to me. Note it was written by Danny Seavey, older brother of Dallas and son of Mitch, and he was a commentator this year. Indeed this letter raises some very serious questions and issues. Clearly some think the ITC went overboard and did not think it through! Because of the duration in terms of time and distance, the Iditarod and the YQ are unique and create issues for which there are no comparable situations to compare or use as an analogy. In a lot of ways the Iditarod has gotten too blasted big and way too commercial; this may carry the seeds of its destruction, at least as the event many know and love. All change is not progress!!
Iditarod Allows Coaching (and cell/sat phones) - Delivers Final Blow to Small Kennels.
The Iditarod voted last week to allow mushers to carry cell and satellite phones on their sleds. Race officials said the goal was to use technology to improve musher safety after three mushers were threatened or attacked by locals on snow mobiles between checkpoints last March. Race Marshall Mark Nordman stressed that another rule would be added soon to prevent mushers from using phones to post to social media, or talk to members of the media, as it may compete with the paid Iditarod Insider news source.
Allowing phones seems innocent enough, and many have felt it inevitable given the rise of technology. GPS was allowed after several mushers were discovered using GPS enabled wrist-watches. The race realized it couldn’t enforce a ban, and the technology could prevent mushers getting lost.
The big difference is that allowing cell phones allows coaching, and therefore is the biggest rule change the Iditarod has ever made. If this rule stands as written you won’t recognize the race in 5 years. Here’s why…
Most competitive mushers will tell you that the hardest part of the Iditarod race is dealing with sleep deprivation. Dallas Seavey (my brother) broke the Iditarod record this year with a time of 8 days and 11 hours, and slept only 15 hours during the whole race. Just keeping their eyes open is difficult, dragging themselves out of a checkpoint on 45 minutes of sleep takes determination that would inspire Sisyphus, and making intelligent, competitive decisions is nearly impossible. There are only three mandatory rests in the Iditarod. The mushers get to choose when, where, and how long to take another 14-15 rest breaks. Mushers often have to make these decisions with a brain that can hardly function, and very little information about their competitors, the trail ahead, or the weather. Further, as I’ve written about in depth before, sleep deprivation leads to a negative outlook. Mushers often see the problems or weakness in their own teams, but not others. Dallas Seavey’s main strength - and one of the main reasons he’s won four of the last 5 races - is his ability to remain positive and competitive even when things aren’t going his way.
If mushers are allowed to communicate with their home bases, they will receive coaching. Mitch Seavey (my dad) and I mastered the art of coaching in other races that allow handlers at checkpoints. We won the $100,000 All Alaska Sweepstakes and several other major races by providing information, and having a well-rested coach making decisions. Mushers routinely complain about the Norwegian ‘media’ teams having hour-long chats in Norwegian with their teams in checkpoints. Had Noah Burmeister placed better this year, he could have been penalized for his brother Aaron coaching in the checkpoints. So it happens, but Nordman usually tries to keep it in check.
If unrestricted, both Mitch and Dallas Seavey will have snow machine crews running in advance of their teams by 12 and 72 hours. Those crews will call Dallas’ wife Jen and I, and we will know every bump in the trail, and what the weather is going to do. We will have people monitoring the GPS and time sheets, and know exactly where every competitor is, and how fast they’re moving. We’ll have unbiased assessments of how their teams compare to others. Both mushers will call home a few minutes before arriving in each checkpoint, and get a competition rundown, and we will help them decide where and how long to stop. They’ll call again halfway through each stop, and we’ll discuss dogs and the trail ahead, which dogs to drop, and what to do for dogs needing care.
A great example would be the Koyuk checkpoint in 2016. Most advanced fans knew Dallas would go right through the checkpoint and rest further down the trail. Mitch would have known if he’d slept in the past week, but instead was caught off guard when Dallas went through. Mitch went from right with Dallas to several minutes behind, and would never see him again.
Similarly Aliy Zirkle would have known Dallas was coming into Safety in 2014, and have been ready to go when he arrived. As it was, she left Safety 19 minutes behind him, and arrived in Nome 2 minutes behind. A satellite phone there almost certainly would have given us another woman champion.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this. Dallas himself rode a snow machine from Nenana to Huslia days before the 2015 Iditarod just for the scouting report. A 1000 mile snow mobile trek a few days before the race takes a toll on a person, but it paid off when Dallas and Aaron Burmesiter were the only two teams confident enough in the trail to push to Huslia to take their mandatory 24 hour breaks. Brent Sass was disqualified from that same race for talking on an iPhone, because he could have been receiving assistance.
What if a musher drops an item of mandatory gear, or loses a boot? It's a lot easier to replace if you can call your team and have one waiting at the next checkpoint. Support crew are already allowed to ship items ahead, but by the time a musher makes it to the next stop, messages home via the judge, and waits for the post office to deliver to the next checkpoint, it's not something you can count on.
Five minutes after he heard about the rule change, my dad texted and asked if I would be his coach. He continued, “I don’t like this, but I intend to take full advantage of it.” How far can it be taken? Should Mitch have a guy on a snow machine tailing Dallas at all times? Those two are already discussing a truce to prevent from going too far.
Finances already play a big role in the Iditarod. Well-funded teams have a major advantage, and given the meager prize and sponsor money Iditarod mushers receive, being able to earn upwards of a quarter million a year is essential to building a winning kennel. This rule will drive that number even higher, necessitating a team of people and machines during the race. Handlers may not be able to actually feed and bootie the dogs, but it’ll be a pit crew in every other sense. This rule spells the end for small kennels, the Nick Petits and Wade Marrs’ of the world. The guy and their dog team racing to Nome because they like the wilderness and dogs better than people.
Further, there is no way to prevent the mushers from posting on social media. Maybe they can't upload a photo, but they can talk. Will my dad be penalized if I post something he says over the phone? What if a handler overhears something and posts to their own page, can he be penalized for that? Clearly it will be an unenforceable rule.
I wish the Iditarod would do more planning and research before making these types of decisions. Paul Gebhardt, the musher representative to the board had previously proposed only emergency communication with race officials through the spot trackers. That seems like a sensible suggestion. Gebhardt was unable to attend the meeting, and didn’t know what the rule said until after it passed. No one contacted Mitch or Dallas, and unfortunately this looks like another knee-jerk reaction without a lot of input. When MLB makes a rule change, they try it in the minor leagues and see what happens before they implement a major change. I hope the Iditarod at least asks the current champions and their own analysts (Yours Truly) what this will mean.
From what I have learned via the Facebook Idita-Support group and a few other places, things are in quite a fluid and changeable time with the Big Race. They have just repealed the rule about mushers not carrying cell phones or other comm devices. The rule had resulted in Brent Sass being disqualified early in the 2014 race. There have been rumors others did carry things and were not found out but that is just hear-say. At any rate, it will not be legal,
I can see both pros and cons to this. Certainly family and friends can keep mushers apprised of where other mushers are in the race and what is going on; that can be both an advantage and at times possibly a hindrance. In the long run, it probably dies not matter because each musher and his or her team must run their own race in their own best way. Paying too much attention to what others may be doing seems to have proved the opposite of an aid in the case of Brent Sass in this last race when his dogs went on strike at White Mountain after he pushed to try to keep up with the flying Seaveys. I guess time will tell.
As for me, I am on schedule to fly out of El Paso on June 22 and arrive in Anchorage that evening, before sundown since it will be one day past the summer solstice. I will again be met by my frieind Bill and perhaps spend the night at his home in Anchorage--if he has not completed a planned move to Palmer by then, in which case we'd go on up there. I will rent a car this time and will attend the ITC annual meeting on June 25th. I do not intend to try to speak there and will basically keep a low profile officially. However, I will meet Helen Hegener and also try to catch up with Deedee Jonrowe and some other mushers. Since the same day is also when sign ups for the 2017 race start, quite a few from the Wasilla/Willow region do show up. If possible I will try to set in motion a plan to go up in the fall and stay at one or more kennels and work for the privilege of listening and learning in the early parts of the fall training season.
Jody Bailey, another female musher I am following and somewhat in contact with, posted on her FB page a link to a new list where people seeking handler and helper jobs with kennels can get connected with kennels needing help. While I do not think I can commit to a six month stint right now, I am not ruling out that possibility and will certainly be checking this list a lot! Mostly they are looking for young people who hope to parley this experience into becoming mushers themselves but some might be willing to take on an aging aficionado who is not afraid of work! I can hope.
Anyway that is where we're at as of today. Keeping on keeping on and watching Aliy's progress via her SPK blog as she recovers from her foot surgery. I can imagine what a pain it has been to her to be partly immobilized and "foot-decapped" for close to two months but it was necessary to be able to continue her career. She has kept her wonderful humor and shared some fun things to include pictures of the two 2015 fall litters as they grow past the six month stage and start to look like big dogs. They are going to be awesome and amazing!! Of course Ginger and her Surfiver brothers are going to be really starting to work this fall, no doubt running in some of the shorter preliminary races and perhaps one or more even making the YQ or the Iditarod next year!
Here is Ginger with Aliy a few weeks ago. Love that dog and of course Aliy!! Isn't that a sweet picture? Aliy has sucha great bond and rapport with all the dogs but some are more affectionate than others. Seems Ginger is a love bug.