Which factor determines the success of a world-class team of athletes?
Is it an insatiable desire to succeed? Is it the benefits of a comprehensive training program? Perhaps it’s a truly unbreakable level of trust in one another? Or maybe it is an unrelenting focus on the physical and mental wellbeing of the team?
The reality is that, at the top level of any team sport you can think of, all of those elements play a significant part in achieving success. After all, to win a World Series, or a Super Bowl, or a Stanley Cup, you need to have that desire to succeed. You need to train. You need to trust one another. And you need to take care of your team.
It is no different in the Iditarod – the world’s greatest sled dog race, pitting teams of mushers in an annual race through the Alaskan wilderness. In the Iditarod, these crucial components all contribute towards the success of a musher and their team of dogs. The Iditarod is the pinnacle of the sled dog world, and it takes physical and mental endurance to withstand the inevitable obstacles faced in a 900 mile race in treacherous conditions.
When we visited Alaska to witness the Iditarod in 2020, we were fortunate to see first-hand the dedication required for these human-dog partnerships to succeed. The care and attention placed upon the dogs who participate in the Iditarod is of utmost importance to the organizers, veterinarians, volunteers, and naturally, the mushers themselves – one of the most important aspects of good teamwork in the Iditarod is recognizing the health and wellbeing of your team.
We wanted to dive deeper to understand precisely what steps are taken to develop these world-class athletes, in addition to getting more information on the level of care they receive during the race. For this episode, we spoke to a number of people, including mushers, veterinarians, and even the CEO of the Iditarod.
In this episode, you’ll learn about:
- The difference between a finely-tuned sled dog competing in the Iditarod and a regular pet dog
- How the Iditarod is a celebration of the passion and purpose of sled dogs
- The development of canine nutrition to improve performance
- How the Iditarod’s squad of volunteer veterinarians help to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the dogs competing in the race
- Misinformation and threats to the race from animal rights groups
The musher’s perspective
DeeDee Jonrowe is a world-class musher and one of the most well-known figures in the sport. Jonrowe finished as a runner-up in the Iditarod three times in the 1990s. She also won the award for Most Inspirational Musher in 2003, when she competed in the Iditarod just a matter of weeks after finishing chemotherapy following a breast cancer diagnosis.
Jonrowe explains what really makes a great sled dog, and how a musher builds a strong relationship with their team of dogs, enabling them to identify the dog’s physical and mental state. Above all else, mushers have a duty of care to the dogs they are working with, and Jonrowe highlights how this helps them to recognize the potential limits of their team’s capabilities.
As with any athlete, good nutrition can have a significant impact on performance. Jonrowe also covers the importance of types of food; how working dog nutrition has become a science in itself; and why mushers adjust their dog’s food intake based on a number of different factors.
The veterinarian’s perspective
When the Iditarod rolls around each year, a team of volunteer veterinarians assembles in Alaska. The team works tirelessly before, during and after the event to help ensure the safety and wellbeing of every dog competing in the race.
Veronica DeVall is one of those veterinarians. Her passion and love for animals is evident as she describes the hard yet rewarding work of playing her part in the Iditarod. DeVall’s experiences with dogs in the Iditarod even helped to develop her perspective on veterinary medicine as a whole.
Having worked on numerous Iditarods, DeVall has several memorable stories to tell. These dedicated veterinarians play an essential role in the running of the Iditarod – their invaluable contribution cannot be understated.
The organization's perspective
Rob Urbach is the CEO of the Iditarod. Prior to assuming this role in 2019, Urbach had worked as CEO at USA Triathlon for six and half years, and has over two decades of leadership experience.
Urbach could not have taken on the role of CEO at a more tumultuous time; the 2020 Iditarod coincided with the start of the largest pandemic for a century. The Iditarod was the last major global sporting event to navigate through COVID-19. Urbach was instrumental in constructing a Covid prevention plan for the 2021 iteration of the race.
In addition to the challenges presented by the pandemic, Urbach has had to deal with ongoing threats from animal rights activists to the very existence of the race. He talks about how misinformation can spread like wildfire, leading to false narratives.
With its unique place in Alaskan history – combined with amazing human-sled dog teams, strong organizational leadership, and support from dog lovers and sled dog enthusiasts around the globe – it seems like the Iditarod has a formidable base on which to build its future.