The Iditarod Rookie meeting held this last weekend was a wonderful opportunity for us rookies to meet other mushers, learn key race strategy, and ask questions to seasoned veterans. It was a great event and, even though getting there was a bit stressful for me, I had a fantastic time.
Aaron Burmeister made an excellent point for planning your race. When planning ahead, plan on how often you need to feed your dogs and how much. Food is the dogs equivalent of gas; if the dogs don’t eat frequently enough you are going to find yourself stalled out on the side of the trail.
Interestingly, Aaron stated that he thought that the race has been able to shorten from a 20 day event in the 70s to a 9 day event today was due, in large part, to dog food science advancing. The dogs are able to get more out of eating less because the kibble is such high quality. Because the dogs are eating less to meet the same caloric demand, they don’t need to digest as much. This allows mushers to take shorter rests. This is a really interesting hypothesis.
To be honest, when thinking about my run/rest schedule, I’ve always thought about it as that. When Aaron mentioned feeding however, I immediately realized that even though that’s not how I thought of my “rest” that is really the driving force behind it.
He reminded us that a 50/50 run rest schedule will always be one that gets you to Nome. The hardest run in his mind, he said, was from Shaktoolik to Koyuk because you can see the lights of Koyuk across the sea ice so it seems like the run takes forever.
In the end,Aaron said it all comes down to calorie consumption and that when a dog doesn’t eat to pay especially close to it. Although this piece of advice in particular isn’t new, I enjoyed hearing his thoughts on planning around feeding your dogs as well as his advice on trying different feeding schedules. Aaron is a huge proponent of trying everything in training rather than in racing. If you are experimenting during a race, he said, then you haven’t done your job training your team properly.
Katherine Keith took the stage with ease. She is one of those speakers who is just a delight to listen to. She spoke on the importance of having a champion mindset because regardless of where we plan on finishing, we are all champions. Iditarod is an event few can contemplate doing, let alone actually trying. Being one of those who will do it (and succeed at it) makes us champions.
Katherine reminded us that it is within our power to make the best race possible regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in. Remember, she told us, you are your own best asset.
Although things can be overwhelming, remember the power of positive thinking. Instead of telling yourself that you are doing your best, tell yourself you will find a way.
Katherine reminded us that planning to do something like Iditarod is very overwhelming so don’t be afraid to recruit helpers. Discipline and planning ahead are important to be successful but things will happen and it is ok to deviate from the plan. Each day is a new day and each day we need to be there both physically and emotionally for our dogs. The worst thing we can do out on the trail is lose faith in ourselves because our dogs will pick up on it. It is imperative to surround yourself with the best: the best dogs, the best (most upbeat people), and the best gear you can afford — because these things will all help your confidence.
I really enjoyed Katherine’s talk and will always remember that I will find a way, I won’t just do my best. What I took away from Katherine is that positive mental attitude does a lot to help you get down the trail and although it is often easier to sink into bad thoughts, we can’t let ourselves do that.
John continues off of many of the things his partner, Katherine touched on. John said that we must always remember that giving up is always the easier option. Our goal on the trail is to use the assets we have available to us to do the best we can.
John touched on the importance of being organized and having systems. After days on the trail, a musher becomes sleep deprived and even the most basic things become difficult. Have a routine. Review it. Write it down if necessary. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Whatever you can do ahead of the race in terms of preparing your gear, do it!
John reminded us that we must always have an open mind when evaluating our dogs. It becomes easy to rely heavily on one particular dog but don’t do that. The vets are your friends out on the trail so ask questions.
John continually came back to the idea that Iditarod is tough. We must learn to work through adverse situations and that wanting to give up is natural because it is the easiest thing to do. Iditarod is a special journey because for 1,000 miles you must consciously choose not to give up. You always have a choice and you always choose to keep going. This is why it is such a transformative journey for the musher and their dogs.
John also reminded us that we become so tired that your mind is capable of believing whatever you tell it. If you tell yourself you and your dogs can continue and you can find a way, you and your dogs will.
John’s lesson I thought was about how Iditarod is a race of mental toughness. We must be careful in our thoughts but also in who we surround ourselves with as their words and actions can also greatly affect us.
Greg Fischer: Iditarod Air Force
Greg Fischer came in and talked about the logistical side of the race, involving the countless bush pilots who help make Iditarod a reality. His talk was fascinating so I hope that I can do an entire post on it in the weeks to come. Suffice it to say, a lot of time is put in by about 25 pilots who help make sure we have our gear out on the trail, our dogs are getting where they need to be, and that race staff and volunteers have flights in and out of remote checkpoints. Very cool.
Will Petersen: Trail Sweep
Will and a group of his friends have been the Iditarod trail sweep since 2002. There job is to pick up the trail after the last musher had gone through. Honestly, it sounds like an enormous amount of work. My huge thanks to this wonderful crew. They pick up booties or runner plastic or other items that may have gotten left behind.
Everyone who is a trail sweep has lived in rural Alaska and has also lived along the race trail, so they consider it their back yard. Greg reminded us that it is very helpful if we clean up our own booties — who wouldn’t, I wonder, they are worth a $1 a piece — but I guess it happens
He also reminded us that Alaskan winters are no joke. Take extra food. Take extra gear. The first goal of any musher should be to stay safe regardless of conditions, the next goal should be to race.
I really enjoyed learning about the trail sweeps and am so grateful that their are wonderful people like Greg willing to volunteer their time to snowmachine the trail.
Stu Nelson: Chief Vet
Dr. Nelson gave a wonderful presentation on dog care and the role of vets during Iditarod. He went over signs that mushers should look for in dogs that if we saw would indicate we need to drop the dog. His information was quite valuable and I hope to expand upon it in a future post.
Andy Willis: race logistics
Andy was introduced as being the coordinator for race logistics. He didn’t say much but reminded us of important race dates. Sled trailers, if dropped, will not be the responsibility of the Iditarod unless they are dropped in a hub checkpoint, meaning McGrath or Unalakleet.
Iditarod communications employs some 200 race volunteers to help with the transmission of valuable race data. Comms reports on dogs and dropped dog movements and health, team positions, and volunteer logistics. There are volunteers from all over the world who help out in communications. Out of the 200 volunteers, some 50 volunteers are sent out on the trail.
We were also reminded to let our family, friends, and fans know that the race trackers are not the official statistics. Sometimes communication is delayed due to the remote nature of the checkpoints. Today, all updates are done via high speed internet but up until 2008 in many places HAM radios were still being used.
Dallas, obviously, knows his stuff. As the youngest champion and a three time champion at that, you listen to wht he has to say.
Dallas started off by saying that mid distance races, 200 & 300 mile events, are not a true barometer for measuring our team in Iditarod. In a mid distance race, you don’t live with the consequences of how you’ve run your dogs because the race stops and you go home. In Iditarod, you have to keep going and those small mistakes or things you ignored are what will get you at mile 700.
Dallas said that our goal should be to prevent issues from occurring. To do this, don’t go in to Iditarod with a racing mindset. Go into it with the expectation that you are traveling indefinitely and pick a pace that is sustainable for your dogs to run day after day after day.
When thinking of the race, even though it is 1000 miles, plan it as though it were a 1200 mile event. You may need the extra gas in the tank when you hit the coat in case their was a storm. You always have the ability to “turn the heat up” later on in the race, so don’t push early. Be conservative.
The first goal when running Iditarod is to finish the race. The second goal when running Iditarod is to do it as quickly as possible. Never lose sight of the first goal.
Dallas also talked about the importance of training like you will race and having all of your organizational systems in place. Have your gear set up now. Use it now. Develop your routine and practice it now.
One of the things I liked about what Dallas had to say was the importance of looking at each dog. One of his personal goals is to spend 3-5 minutes evaluating each dog every hour. By making a concentrated effort to do this, you can notice small problems right away and make the necessary changes.
The other thing I enjoyed about Dallas’ talk was the emphasis that he placed on taking care of yourself on the trail. Hydration is the best defense again sleep deprivation. Dallas likes Capri suns because they are easy to thaw in your parka and when they’re gone they are flat so are easy to carry. I’d never thought of this before and usually prefer Gatorade but will be giving this a shot.
In Dallas’ mind the most important thing about going into his 24 hour break is that his dogs eat right away so he can get good sleep.
Dallas was very well spoken and I definitely learned a few new things!
Kevin Keillor: Bureau of Land Management
Kevin Keillor presented on the National historic Iditarod trail. The Iditarod sled dog race helps gets the national historic trail, one of only 30 trails with this designation, in the public eye. Kevin talked a lot about the history of the trail, it’s development in the early 1900s and its use today in our dog race. I hope to write more on his presentation as I absolutely loved the history!
Until I get to that, check out our older blog post on the historic iditarod trail.
On the second day of the meeting, we went to Vern’s facility. He was a gracious host and has a beautiful homestead. Vern’s advice was to rest early on in the race and running under your team’s training level. Good dog care is what helps develop and maintain speed throughout the race. Although every team looks good on day 1, your goal should be to have a good looking team on day 10.
Vern said we should send out between 1750-2000 pounds of gear on the northern route.
Al was a rookie last year. He reminded us that there is no reason to skip on our personel gear sent out to checkpoints so make sure to send lots of gloves, hats, socks, and neckgaitors to each checkpoint. You can always reuse them next year.
Al got sick during last year’s race and was grateful that he had brought along antibiotics. He suggested we have a supply for us and for our dogs.
I know a Wade quite well. He and Travis have been friends for a long time. Wade was very well spoken. He advised going slow in the beginning of the race and then feeling out your team. He also recalled his experience in 2009 when he got stuck in Eagle Island for 50 hours due to a massive storm and urged us to pack extra food for our dogs then we think we will need.
If we are hauling food from checkpoint to checkpoint and decide we don’t want to carry it anymore, offer it to your dogs first. Even if only one dog eats the snack, it’s better than it goingn wasted.
If you have to scratch, Linwood said its almost always the driver’s error. Linwood felt ok saying this because he has scratched several times and all but one were due to him running his dogs incorrectly. Linwood advised that the key to finishing the Iditarod is a willingness to abandon your predetermined expectations when things go wrong. Adaption is important.
Deedee advised training with the fear we will use and to always carry extra fuel and heet.