Iditarod Episodes

Short Notice

Imagine you’re an athlete competing to be at the pinnacle of your sport. Perhaps you’re a swimmer, a sprinter, a pitcher, or a quarterback. 

You dedicate yourself to honing your craft. You learn the skills you’ll need to succeed. You spend time mentoring underneath one of the legends of your sport. You work hard – you know that it isn’t your time yet, but it’s just around the corner. Maybe in a year or two.

And then, you get the shock of your life – it turns out that just around the corner isn’t next year. It isn’t the year after. In fact, just around the corner is actually four days away. Four days. You have four days to prepare for the biggest event of your career. You have to mentally and physically prepare yourself to take on a gruelling marathon in less than one hundred hours. How will you handle the challenge? 

This might sound like the elaborate plot of a Hollywood movie, but in the 2020 Iditarod, this is exactly the fate that befell Sean Underwood, a twenty-nine year old musher who was born in Atlanta.  

Underwood was mentoring under Jeff King, an Iditarod Hall of Famer and four-time winner of the event (1993, 1996, 1998, 2006). When King had to undergo emergency surgery in the week leading up to the 2020 Iditarod, he nominated Underwood to take his place in the race. 

What followed was a remarkable story, as this rookie musher entered his first Iditarod with just a few days to prepare. In this episode of A Life of Dogs, we speak to Underwood about his first experience running in the Iditarod.

Underwood’s introduction to mushing

Born in Atlanta, GA, Underwood moved to Alaska in 2015 after graduating college. He spent time living with his aunt, uncle and cousin, working with them to fish commercially for sockeye salmon on Kodiak Island. His aunt and uncle were friends with Jeff King – a legend in the mushing world. Underwood started working at King’s Husky Homestead, where tours are offered and visitors can witness sled dog training in action.

sean underwood mushing in 2020 iditarod

After spending time working at Husky Homestead doing a variety of tasks, Underwood gained experience and learned how to control the sled and the team of dogs. Then, when King suffered a back injury just a week before a 200 mile sled dog race, he asked Underwood to step in. That wouldn’t be the last time Underwood would take King’s place in a sled dog race at short notice. 

The 2020 Iditarod

After King’s unexpected surgery just a week before the Iditarod, Underwood discusses how he found out he would be competing and prepared for the race with just a few days’ notice. He explains the emotions he experienced in that period – from those few days before the Iditarod, to how he felt during the ceremonial start in Anchorage.

sean underwood up close

Being a rookie in a race like the Iditarod is daunting enough, let alone with just a few days to prepare. It is a sled dog race unlike any other, both in terms of distance and duration. Underwood talks about the conditions he encountered on the trail – and how it was actually a pleasant surprise compared to what he expected.

In addition to the physical exertions of the race, the Iditarod is also a race of strategy. As a musher, you have to strategically manage the pace of your dogs, plus decide in advance which items to send to specific checkpoints. Underwood describes how King’s experience of the Iditarod (remember, as King was intending to run the race himself, he had been the one to decide which resources were going to be needed and when) helped him during the race.

Underwood’s incredible rookie story doesn’t end in this episode. As Underwood and his dog team reached the coast and approached the finish line, there was one final twist awaiting him in the Last Great Race On Earth. We’ll bring you the conclusion of this thrilling story in one of our upcoming episodes.

sean underwood at start of iditarod

Be sure to check out Underwood’s website at mushsean.com, or follow him on Instagram @keepcalmmushsean.

A special thanks to Sean Underwood for participating in this interview. All photos on this page are credit to Sean Underwood and used with permission.

We would like to thank our episode sponsors.  Be sure to visit them to learn more and show them your support.  Without their continued support our podcast wouldn’t be possible.

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Podcast Transcript

Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.

A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two, Episode Six (S2, E6)
Episode Name: Short Notice

Host
Jason Purgason

Guest
Sean Underwood

Duration
1:03:08

Broadcast Date
October 26, 2021

Sean: What I was kind of the verbal agreement between Jeff and I was that he would pencil me around the 2021 Iditarod. And so I got back from that race and I was like, alright, I can kind of just close through the rest of the winter. You know, I’ll just help Jeff get ready for the Iditarod and then when he leaves, it’s fun to work with the puppies and explore our little area here in Denali.

 

Jason: It was Sunday March 8th. A seasoned team of sled dogs danced in anticipation. The crisp snow crunching under their paws as they await the signal to begin. It’s the 48th annual Iditarod, and they know that just around the corner, an epic journey awaits. Standing on the sled directly behind them is Shawn Underwood, a first time Iditarod musher as he awaits nervously for the last great race to begin. Just four days ago, this young man from Atlanta, Georgia, learned that he’d be running this pack of dogs over 1000 miles across the frigid Alaskan wilderness. But sometimes, you don’t choose your fate, fate chooses you. From A Life of Dogs, I’m Jason Ferguson and this is Short Notice.

 

Narrator: Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise, effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canin visit them on the web at royalcanin.com and by Highland Canine Training the industry leader in professional dog training solutions and premier canine education. Highland Canine Training offers turnkey solutions for everyone, from pet owners to law enforcement and military organizations. Learn more at highlandcanine.com.

 

Sean: My uncle on my dad’s side live up here and they’ve been here for 40 years. And most of that time have been commercial fishing up here. And I, at that point in my life in 2015, I recently graduated college and had some wanderlust and wanted to see some new places. And I like seeing places where I might have some kind of connection. And they can show me maybe the more authentic version of the place that they live. And so I thought about Alaska, and my aunt and uncle who I was really not close with, because, you know, you’re just so far away and such different lifestyles. So I called them up and asked about their life and what they’re doing. And my dad had suggested that they probably, he didn’t know much, but he said they might need some help fishing. You know they’re getting up there in age and even though you’re not experienced, it would be might be helpful for you to learn something from them this summer. And so I called them and they got me a job. And I spent the next two summers up on Kodiak Island, set net fishing for Sockeye Salmon commercially, with my aunt and uncle and cousin. And it was like the most eye opening experience for me. I mean, it was the most wild adventure. And for them, it was just like a pretty slow summer. But for me, it was like living off the grid. You’re drinking water out of a creek catching your own food and no cell service, no roads, the only way to get to this cabin was on a float plane. And that closest village was across the bay and there was one person in that high school in the village. It was 50 people living there, it just was the craziest, most amazing summer and it kind of began my love story with Alaska. And they happen to know Jeff King, he is the guy I’ve been working for it for last few years. Because their daughters worked here with Jeff’s tourism business. And the more time I spent up in Alaska, the more questions I asked about winter because I knew that summer, it was pretty challenging living here in the summer on Kodiak specifically. And I liked the challenge of the winter even though I’ve never even experienced more than an inch of snow for the six hours that it stays on the ground in Atlanta once every five years. So I started asking about winter and they brought up their friend Jeff and how he ran the Iditarod and won the Iditarod and they have a couple of his dogs and so I got in touch with him and he hired me to kind of help around the property and I got paid a minimum wage. And then once training the dogs started it was kind of downgraded to give me a place to live and a little bit of cash for groceries and that’s kind of the standard for your barrier to entry into the mushing world is you just got to be okay with not really getting much money, but they let you in by giving you a place to stay and showing you the ropes. And it kind of just snowballed from there. Just finding yourself at the right place at the right time.

 

Jason: This is Sean Underwood, one of last year’s rookie Iditarod mushers. In this episode, we will learn about his unique story. Unlike many Iditarod mushers Sean did not spend years preparing to run this race. 

 

So when did you start with Jeff?

 

Sean: 2016 August, and I ran my first race about six months later. And that would be a pretty quick trajectory for most people in the mushing world. Some people will just pay big money and run their first race in the same amount of time. But I was really just planning on being there to help out. Scooping the dog poop and harnessing the dogs and taking them on some easier runs where there would be as little complications as possible. And then I started showing, I guess, a little bit of competence in the guy — me and my co-worker were working for Jeff, he tweaked his back, he was going to run a race but couldn’t go and then I just took his place. And I ran a 200 mile sled dog race. And it was kind of a similar fashion to how I ran the Iditarod. I found out I was going to run the race, like one week before I ran it. And Jeff gave me his best team and just said, don’t get caught up in the race, just pretend like it’s a training run. You know how to run the dogs, you know how to feed the dogs, don’t run them too fast and you’ll be fine. And that’s what we did. And they did awesome. And it was a really hilly race and I got to get my first Iditarod qualifier. I didn’t even really think about the Iditarod, I was just thinking, well, this is going to be cool race. And then I got to the races office and they said, hey, this is an Iditarod qualifier. Do you want us to write your name down and send this information to the Iditarod? And I was like, I mean, I don’t really think I’m planning on running it. And they’re like, well, if there’s even like a .01% chance that you would think you would run it, you should just do it anyways. And I did. And then ever since then I kind of had that seed planted in the back of my mind, like how can I get to run this 1000 mile race that I probably have no idea what I’ll be getting into.

 

Jason: The Iditarod isn’t an event for the faint of heart. And in order to qualify, it is necessary to demonstrate that a musher and their team has run enough races throughout the year where it will be safe for them to partake. So you obviously had to have a few more qualifiers. You got to get what 750 total, I think it is or something like that. So how did you end up with those races? And how did they come about?

 

Sean: Well, the first winter, like I said, I got the Tustumena 200 which I don’t even know if that race is happening anymore. I got to see the Iditarod start and watch Jeff be that big time celebrity that he is in Anchorage. And then the summertime we do tourism, tell stories about the winter, show off the puppies. Next winter I came back. And this time, part of the contract for me being around was that he would pay for me to run the race in exchange for me training the dogs. And I signed up for this time with a little bit more planning. I signed up for the Copper Basin 300 and it’s known as the toughest 300 miles in Alaska. I really wish I would have read that part of the website. Man it was really — it started my birthday weekend January 14. That’s like three weeks after the winter solstice. It’s the dead of winter, it’s dark. And this race was kind of similar to the weather of the Iditarod in a lot of ways, which kind of helped me prepare for it a little bit better. But it was like really warm 20-30 degrees most of the race and snowing the whole entire time, every single yard. And it was just so slow. And it felt eternal; it was just made the 200 mile race look like a little blip. It was a really challenging terrain, super hilly, really long, long runs. Most of them were over 65 miles long. Usually I wanted to be somewhere around 50 to 55 and then take your rest and do it again. Anyways, half the teams in the race scratched because of the [inaudible 10:51] conditions and we finished like 20 something out of 50 teams that started and it was just a really fun experience where I really felt like, that’s the first time I understood how incredibly talented the dogs are. When you think that they’re probably getting a little bit tired — when that thought first gets into my mind, they’re not even close to getting tired. They’re just getting a little bored more than anything. And then it’s your job to take care of that for them and take care of them. And they did an incredible job. And it was young, there were young dogs, they’re like all 2; and the first time I went they were all the veterans. So that was another element where it made it a little bit more challenging when you have a bunch of dogs that have never raced before. Anyways, that was my second winter. And then this year was my third winter in Alaska. I took a one year between those two winters. And I worked with another musher down in Central Oregon, who also ran the Iditarod but I didn’t get to race that winter. And I came back here and I got to do my final qualifier in February. And the Copper Basin I knew was a really hard race. There’s a few 300 races around here and I wanted to take the most challenging one just to be a little bit more prepared for whenever I do get to run the Iditarod. And to me it was the quest 300 that always sounded challenging. The Quest 1000 is often referred to as the other 1000 mile race. And it’s not as popular. This path has many mushers in it. But it’s a tough race, it’s got half as many checkpoints in the same distance. And it’s a month earlier in the winter. So probability wise, it’s going to be colder, and it’s definitely going to be darker. And the 300 is just the first 300 miles of the 1000 essentially. So that race happened in February. There wasn’t too many entrants in it, we finished I think, like, seventh or something I thought of like 20. And that race was my first experience in a race dealing with the extreme cold, it was an -40 at the coldest, and maybe we get up to zero in the heat of the day, and everything in between. But the dogs did so much better with that cold than they did with the 30 degrees in those previous races. And our speed was the fastest I’ve ever travelled with that distance. And they just did an awesome job. And I just felt like I really, at that point, walked away from that race feeling like I kind of know what I’m doing when it comes to the 300-mile races. I don’t know how to win them, but I know how to get to the finish line efficiently and that kind of made me feel like alright, next year I’ll be ready for the Iditarod and that was kind of the verbal agreement between Jeff and I was that he would pencil me and around 2021.

 

Jason: Sean had been planning to remain at the kennel while Jeff mushed in the race. A turn of events right before the race however, rapidly changed everything.

 

Sean: He got a life-threatening illness with his intestines and so he had to go to the hospital to get an emergency surgery. Typically you’re not allowed to let somebody replace you in the Iditarod with that little notice, but if it’s a health scare or unexpected circumstances, they kind of make a judgment call on it. And he had a list of two or three people, I was one of them that he wanted to take his place. And the reason he picked me is because I’ve just been working with the dogs, I knew them all already. And I knew most of the dogs since they were less than a year old, the other two candidates didn’t but they had ran the Iditarod before. So, it was kind of an interesting decision and he was confident he made the right one and I still think he did. So does he. And four days before the race started, he called me from the hospital bed and said, hey, man, I had a really rough night and I’m not going to be able to run the Iditarod anymore and I want you to take my place. And I was like, just right now I’m getting the chills thinking about that moment. I was in disbelief. I thought maybe he was maybe still under the feeling the effects of anesthesia. And maybe it was — should I really take this with a grain of salt maybe. And I heard from the race committee that night, that it was official. I spent the whole day kind of questioning it. And then I got a call from the head Iditarod guy. He confirmed it and then I started frantically getting all my things together. But it really was just me being a little bit stressed out. It really was just simple as grabbing my parka, my mitts, my boots and I’m pretty much ready to go. Because Jeff had already packed up all of the gear that’s sent out to all the checkpoints. I mean, I helped him with that but that Job was already done. All we needed was a body on the sled that knew what they were doing and I just needed to get my human gear that I needed in the sled and ready, which was really only a few hours. And then I got down to Anchorage. Now you got microphones in your face and cameras in your face and it was a little bit new to me. But I’ve always been kind of someone that likes to talk. This has already been a pretty one-way conversation but the race start was incredible. And it was a really emotional weekend for me. Especially before, you know they have the two starts the ceremonial and the official restart as they call it. And the morning of the restart, we were driving from Anchorage to Willow and I was just crying like overwhelmed. And I don’t know, I knew I could do it, I just was like, holy, holy crap, I’m about to run the Iditarod. There’s nothing in between — that’s it, we’re doing it in a couple of hours. And off we went and once you left that start line it was just the most relief I could have felt, because those four days were just really overwhelming. And then you get out on the trail and a calm and quiet kind of takes over. And it’s just you and your dog team and things get a little simpler.

 

Jason: So it seems like you’re you didn’t really even have time to sort of process this whole thing until — so when did it really set in I’m running the Iditarod. 

 

Sean: It was the morning of the restart. I mean it set in a little bit like those four days but I just don’t think it did 100% set in. I was like okay, alright, running the Iditarod. And you know I said the words and I guess I accepted it to a degree but it was that morning drive on Sunday that I was just overwhelmed with emotion and I couldn’t believe it was happening and I don’t know, it just really hit me hard and was a very exciting morning. I got there to this parking lot and the Iditarod analysts, just like watching a basketball game on ESPN you got your journalist and you got your former NBA player telling you about what to expect from tonight’s basketball game. Well, same thing for the Iditarod. They got a couple of guys that are kind of talking about what’s going on in the race and he came up to me immediately and he had run the race before and he saw just like tears rolling down my face. And he was like, this is the part of the Iditarod that no one really knows about it because you don’t get to see that. You know, and I got it myself did a quick interview and then I started packing and unpacking my sled like five times, just to try to figure out what the best way to do it was. Libby Riddles came up to me, she’s the first woman to win the Iditarod and she was there. She saw my sled and it was just super bulky and I could barely close to zippers. She was like, wow, you’re packing the kitchen sink there. And I was like, I don’t know, I just figured I’d bring more and then I don’t need it I can always just send it home. But yeah, it was a crazy morning and it was dumping. I mean, it was just huge snowflakes and it’s snowed several inches that morning. So yeah, I was very excited.

 

Jason: After the ceremonies are over, and the excitement of starting wears off it’s just a musher and their dog team. Along with their thoughts, their next job is to run through the Alaskan Arctic more than 1000 miles to the finish line. Although weather during the Iditarod has been milder in recent years, the conditions of the 2020 race proved to be as wild as the events that follow. Stay with us as we continue to tell Sean’s story.

 

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Sean: Yeah, it was the best winter that race has had in a while. To my understanding there was a lot of concern among the mushers and the race committee, I mean, there are people out there snowmobiling down the trail, making sure it’s safe and also at the same time packing down the snow to make the trail just that much better and quicker. And they said that it’s as wide as the snowmobile, there’s no room on either side, and it’s just four foot plus walls of snow on either side of the trail, and that there wouldn’t be any places to pull over and park your team if you’re planning on camping out; because you can camp out anywhere you want whether it’s on a checkpoint or not. And so people were going to start using their snowshoes to pack down the snow and that used to be kind of a regular thing you did in the early Iditarod days but nowadays no one uses their snowshoes. Really at all, it’s almost completely unheard of. And that was part of the panic attack that I was having was like, what am I going to do a part of my team. There’s going to be nowhere to pull over and what is everybody else doing and I was kind of asking around and it was all, just another reason to get worked up. You get out there and the trail was like, the first 40 miles were pretty soft and bumpy and a lot of snow. And, you know, it was almost kind of I thought it was perfect timing. If you’re going to give me a snowstorm, make it be on day one, because the dogs have rested for three or four or five days with very little exercise, and they’re just screaming to go. And it’s too much power, but the reason that you have that many dogs is because you got to plan on sending some home, so you have to kind of bring the bench with you. Which means early on, when those dogs are pumped up, man, you’re standing on the brake, because it’s just not in their best interest to be going 15 miles an hour down the first 100 miles. You’re going to just blow them up and they’re going to go home before you get halfway through the race. So the snow kind of slowed the team down, it slowed the trail down and I didn’t have to stay on the brake as hard at least. And by the time we get to mile 50, the trail was pretty hard-packed. And I was in the middle of the pack, there’s a bunch of mushers in front of me, they packed down the trail, there’s snow machiners out there, it’s a big party, the Iditarod start and people travel down the trail and set up tailgates or trail gates. And passing your hamburgers and beers, serve sodas or whatever and there’s a lot of traffic. And by the time we got to the sections of trail that we were concerned about, they were as good of a trail as you could possibly ask for. It’s a ton of snow to set your hook in and there was places you definitely could not park your team, for sure, but there was as many places where you could. And it was I mean, I think I got lucky.  I’m thinking next time I run this thing the trail is no way going to be as good as it was because we were going through these sections of trail that are the notorious Dalzell Gorge, and the happy river steps that you hear so many crazy stories about people having gnarly crashes. And it was like, it was just fun mushing, there was no real danger that I ever felt in there. I mean, I was like alert level 100 knowing that this is the section this is where you really got to pay attention. But you know, it ended up being just a really, really fun 20 miles, but it wasn’t like I came out of it bruised and battered. And that was because there was a bunch of snow. So yeah, it ended up being really good conditions those first 400 miles — So those first 400 were fantastic and this trail was fast.

 

Jason: So in that early part, you end up having to go — through the race you go over two different mountain ranges. In the early part, you got to go over the first one. What’s that like for you? What’s it like for the team having to climb up and down to mountain ranges two get to Nome? 

 

Sean: The mountain ranges, I mean, I’m thinking Alaska Range is the mountain range. You know, that is the one that we live in here in Denali, and it’s got some gnarly mountains. You’re thinking, oh, man, this is going to be insane. And then it ended up being maybe not as challenging as the rest of the hills that the race brought you. But it’s early on. And I think that the change in terrain — to me the dogs for me and my team, they just never got tired. I was running a very conservative schedule, being a rookie, even though I had a team that is capable of winning, I didn’t feel comfortable running that kind of schedule. So they were like never — I mean, I remember getting the checkpoints and there’d be a couple of dogs on my team. If you’re running the race competitively, they get to the checkpoint and they go to sleep like instantly because they’re ready to take a nap. I got dogs that come to the checkpoint and they’re playing with each other and wrestling and I’m like, well you should be conserving your energy for something besides wrestling with one another. And one of the competitors looked over at my dog team while they’re resting and was like dude, what are you even doing here? You should be going to the next checkpoint, that team is not tired. Anyways, the point is, what I end up fighting more than the tiredness of the dogs, that’s not really happening at all. What’s happening is when you run on a river for 50 miles, and there’s nothing besides just a river that pretty much stays the same. They are like just moving and they like kind of zone out and they get a little bored, and maybe a little lethargic. But when you’re going through that Alaska Range, they are not lethargic, that’s part of the danger of it is they get so excited that go going through the mountains and up and down the hills, that the more technical the trail gets, it seems, the harder they pull, because they’re excited to go around to turn. I mean, you’ll see their ears perk up whenever they see a bunch of markers that signal that there’s a turn. They’re like, oh, a turn, maybe we can knock coach off the sled. And the Alaska Range was just such a blast. It was like that moment in the race where I felt like, I was actually like an athlete because you really had to steer the sled around. And then you get out of the range, and you got a bunch of river miles ahead of you and you kind of get a break from that technical riding, and then it’s a completely different challenge, which is just totally mental for you and for the dogs. And we got on to the Yukon River and it was just like, there’s this snowstorm that really slowed down. I mean, it was basically the storm that 20 plus teams dropped out of the race, because the storm just made the conditions really, really slow. And people were going like five miles an hour because there’s just a bunch of wet heavy snow. And you’re going on Yukon River man, I swear, I know it’s a river but sometimes it felt like it was uphill. And it’s just a mental, like, it’s a dark place for some reason. I don’t know — that’s why we train the way that we train with our dogs. We take them out on the frozen rivers around here, or to the Denali Highway and the trail is really not that exciting. So the dogs have practiced the monotonous trail, and they know to be ready for it. So they did great. But you know, the hills to me, were the when the dogs performed the best because they get excited, it’s almost like they’re saying, finally a challenge. And then they really, really excel and perform for that challenge. And then when we go on the boring parts of a trail, that’s when they kind of take a break mentally, maybe even a little bit physically and they’re just kind of like running. And you can just tell they’re like checked out. And that’s almost kind of something that you want them to do because they’re getting a little bit of rest while still moving. Just mentally they don’t really need to like be on high alert.

 

Jason: They say that a journey of 1000 miles begins with one step. Well what is traveling this distance actually, like when you have no human company or entertainment?

 

Sean: You know, you get to a point where you’re so tired that — I actually like went for a hike last night or two nights ago. And it was like we went on a midnight hike and we got back at 3am and I was just like kind of a shell of myself for the rest of the day, even though I really wasn’t that crazy of sleep deprivation. But just not as good of a conversationalist. Because just like my brains just got this little square to operate in when I don’t get my six plus hours. And when you’re out there you’re getting maybe three hours a day. Sometimes more, sometimes less. And your brain just doesn’t have the energy to like be doing anything more than concentrating on the trail and on the dogs and everything else is just off. And the only time I’d be in my head is when I’d look at a dog and see some minor marginal change in either their body language or the way that they’re running. And be thinking, okay, what’s going on with that dog. Let’s look at the stare at this dog for the next hour, or 30 minutes or whatever, and decide, should I give this dog a break and ride with me in the sled or just looks fine, he just kind of look bored and needs to get to the next checkpoint. And those are the kinds of things where I play head games. Because I had one instance where I was at a checkpoint and one of my dogs didn’t eat, which isn’t terribly uncommon. And usually 95% of the time, I just bring the food with me. Well 100% of the time I bring the food with me and 95% of the time, they just eat the food an hour later, and they just needed to get up and move around. It’s kind of like when you wake up from a night asleep, you don’t really want to stuff your face full of food five minutes after you woke up. You want to go get a cup of coffee and read the paper and then maybe get some food in you. But this dog didn’t eat and then I started moving and he wasn’t pulling. And to me, he’s the best dog on my team. He’s not a good lead dog but I mean, the energy that he brings is better than being a lead dog. And he wasn’t pulling. And I’ve never ever, ever seen him not pull. And that’s when you get in your head, you’re wondering, alright, what’s going on here? Is this just me, like getting a little bit too neurotic about the dog, or is this actually like warranted that I am worried about this dog. And I just went ahead and turned around and sent the dog home. And you know, a lot of times, you think you see something and you don’t. And other times you were like, I don’t think I’ve seen anything and there was something. And those are the kinds of things that you’re getting in your head because it’s not obvious. And that’s why it’s so important to have somebody that’s really experienced on the sled or somebody that’s really experienced with those dogs in front of the sled. And that’s the head games for me, it’s figuring out what the dogs need. Even just like the timing of feeding them, and then what you’re feeding them and how you’re feeding it to them, those little things can make or break the next 100 miles or 50 miles or whatever. If I don’t feed them in this 15-minute window, then they’re not going to eat for the next three hours. And how are you going to prep the food in only 15 minutes? Maybe I should just give them a snack and feed them later. So those are the things that get in my head is how can I best care for these dogs and everything else you don’t have the energy to be thinking about anything else but you and your team.

 

Jason: You talked about the plan and I know you said the drop bags that already been sent out and you’d helped with that part of the process, but seems like a lot of the mushers to some degree, send certain things to certain checkpoints because they to some degree have a little bit of a plan in their head of you know, I’m probably going to take my 24 here, I’m probably going to take my 8 there, I’m probably going to do this, I’m thinking we’ll be expecting this here. So I’m going to pack this way and drop this and you know [inaudible 39:01] I’m going to put this at the cot, I’m going to put this here, I’m going to put this there. You didn’t really have as much control over that, because basically we’re prepping for Jeff to run the race. So how much of an impact did that have on you?

 

Sean: You know, the good thing is that Jeff had — I mean, he’s always been an individual thinker. And that’s why he’s won this race is because he likes to think outside the box. And I think one of the things that I’m not really sure what every other musher is doing, but he told me that he sent the exact same thing as far as dog food goes to every single checkpoint except for two. And those two checkpoints were the two places that he was considering taking his 24 at. So as far as the dog food went it was pretty much I knew what I was getting and was it huge? And then I think some of the human food that was always a surprise, you know because he ended up getting some of the local restaurants to make some to go meals and then we — what are those things —  when you put them in the plastic and you suck the oxygen out? What am I thinking of? 

 

Jason: Like vacuum sealed?

 

Sean: There we go. So yeah, all those vacuum-sealed meals and they were like so good. There was like enchiladas that were just like the size of my head. Then a big thing of chilli and he had Rubin’s set out and vacuum sealed. I was eating like royalty out there. And, and then he had a bunch of snacks. What I found awesome was the, like sleeves of KitKats that were eight little to two-fingered KitKats. At one point I had like, like four sleeves of KitKats in my sled and I was like, what am I going to do with all these KitKats? I got to give them to someone, so I was just like handing out KitKats to mushers and they were oooh, I love KitKat. It wasn’t problematic but there was like certain things, little tiny comfort things that were put in there that are not essential that were huge. Like he put a hand towel in a lot of the checkpoints so that when I was messing with all that raw dog food, I could just kind of wipe my hands off, he had plastic gloves also for going with the fat that you’re putting in these meals, it gets stuck everywhere and you can’t wipe that off very easily. And my buddy he gave me a pair of insulated slippers. And I was like dude, insulated slippers. Are you kidding me? He was like, dude, you just put your boots in front of the fire, let them dry out. And you can wear the slippers out if you need to go check on the dog team in between your nap time or your time you’re feeding yourself. That was like one of the most amazing things, being able to take your boots off for like six hours. And then walking around in these slippers, I was like — everybody else is walking around their boots and I was just like, man, if they only knew how comfortable my feet are right now. So some of those little things that you don’t really need, but they help you kind of just enjoy a little extra comfort out there. But yeah, it ended up being not a huge deal. But, you know, it was definitely a little bit of surprise and kind of like opening up a Christmas present at each checkpoint, wondering what’s going to be in there, but it was pretty consistent.

 

Jason: 58 teams ran in the 2020 Iditarod. With so many contestants following the same trail, it is difficult to imagine that a musher could find themselves completely alone for hours at a time. But how often do they really find themselves running alongside other teams?

 

Sean: I was talking about this with my brother the other day. He was like dude, when I was following your tracker it looked like you were just like buddy buddy with musher A and musher B. You guys were always just as close to each other. Are you guys like traveling together, like you see each other? He asked me the other day. 92% of time I did not see anybody but there was occasional times where I remember like on the way to Old Woman’s Cabin and Unanlakleet, me and Riley were within sight of each other for a while. And then at night, especially on the Yukon River where you can see for like 15 miles ahead and behind you, you can see those headlamps, but they’re just like these distant lights. And some people don’t even travel with headlamps especially if it’s a full moon, you can really see pretty well with all the white snow everywhere and I remember Martin Boozer passed me early in the race, I was like drifting off to sleep. The first two nights are like the worst nights for sleep deprivation. Because you’re like, just kind of getting into this weird rhythm. At least I was, some mushers just live that schedule. It’s pretty extreme, but some mushers just live the mushing schedule so they’re used to it by the time the race starts, but I wasn’t doing that. And so I was drifting off to sleep and then I like wake up because my dog team was like about to pull the sled from underneath me, because the dog team was right next to them and Boozer just passed me without a headlamp in the dead of night I was like, huh, pretty cool. Anyways… What was the question, I kind of got side-tracked?

 

Jason: Yeah, talking about how often you saw other mushers, ow often you were on your own. 

 

Sean: Generally they weren’t within sight, but at nights you see the headlamps. And every now and again I was kind of close with a musher. Riley and I were, that’s to me that one moment, I remember where we were going through this section of trail that was so frustrating. The dogs were ready to run fast, but the trail was like, really mobily. You couldn’t really get that momentum going, because it’s one of those things where you get the, you can get up to nine miles an hour once it’s up there, the dogs just kind of got to run in front of the sled to keep it going. But when you’re going up like this and it’s flat, but it’s just the way that the snow machines pack it down and drive on the trail, it just creates this undulating Lushness Monster humps on the trail, or whatever. And it just was like, we were so stoked leaving that checkpoint, because our teams were finally fast after that snowstorm. And then we get to this section of trail, and so Riley’s right behind me, and he’s like dude, I don’t think I’m going to pass you. And I’m like, you sure you don’t want to pass me, you’re kind of on my ass here. And he’s like, no I think it’s not a good idea. And so we travel for an hour, and he’s still on my butt. He’s like, you know what man, I think I’m going to pass you and it was really narrow trail, he passes me. It’s kind of a little bit of a kerfuffle and then off he goes. Like 20 minutes later, he turns around, and he’s like dude I shouldn’t have passed you. And I’m on his butt now and he’s like — so now I’m behind him, and I’m on my break. So basically, it’s like always, the team that’s behind the other team is the one that’s going faster, and then you get out in front of the team. And now they don’t have anything to chase. And the team behind you is now faster than team — so it’s kind of we were switching back and forth all the time. And there was no right answer to it, you know, but yeah, you see them out there for sure.

 

Jason: How much night-time traveling did you do? What’s that like?

 

Sean: I mean, 50:50 night-time and daytime. I was aiming to travel at night, more than during the day because of how warm it was. The daytime, the sun is devastating to the trail, not dogs, but it’s just like you going for a run in North Carolina at 4 pm in July. It’s just not the best idea. You can do it, but your runtime is not going to be as fast and you’re going to be a lot more tired running two miles at 4 pm than you would at 8 am. And same with the dogs. If you leave a checkpoint at 11 and you run until 6pm that is just not the best-case scenario. You can do it. But if you can avoid it, your team is better off. So I spent a lot of time running at night. I actually kind of like it. I don’t know, there’s just a — especially when the moon was out man. When we went through the Alaska Range. The moon was like full moon, I did not need a headlamp. It was blowing hard, but it was clear. And I tried to take a picture of it, my crappy phone didn’t pick up the little light that there was but man it was just like you could see all the details of the mountains and it was gorgeous. I like traveling at night and then you get to the checkpoint and the sun is rising, and you feed the dogs and now the sun’s up. Or now the dogs are out there taking a nap in the heat of the day, sunbathing and you can just see it, they just look like this is like the most like deep deep sleep that they’re in and I too am ready to take a long nap as well. But yeah, it’s not that bad. You have your headlamp on and you can keep it on low and if you see something off in the distance that looks like it could be a moose, you turn it on high, it ends up being just a bush. But the Yukon River definitely was pretty rough. Like monotony wise and again, you ask any musher if monogamy is your biggest problem, you’re doing great. But it was just like impossible to stay awake. There was some sections of trail where I just sat down, and I buckled myself in and was like, I’m just going to sleep. And the dogs don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not like there’s like a Spaghetti Junction of trails out there, it’s just the one trail for the most part. That’s what we did and I liked it at night.

 

Jason: Alaska is the largest state in the US, covering a landmass of approximately 663,300 square miles. Alaska’s size, combined with its low population means that much of its natural land remains untouched. The Iditarod trail cuts straight through the center of it. And this 1000 mile trail enables mushers to see a significant amount of Alaska’s incredible natural beauty. So what is the scenery actually like? You sort of mentioned scenery a bit going through the Alaskan range, I think the trails portion of Alaska that not a lot of people have seen nor ever will see, what’s it like taking in the scenery from the beginning to end there, day and night

 

Sean: Yeah, it’s awesome man. I mean, because it just changes so much, a lot of the races are like out and back, so you’re kind of doing the same thing twice. This one’s just A to B. And so you’re always seeing something new. Going through that Dalzell Gorge, I remember, like you’re really in the mountains but you’re like in the valleys. And you like turn a corner around a mountain and you’re looking ahead, and there’s just this massive mount wall of mountain in front of you, massive walls on either side and I’m looking like, where the hell is this trail going to take us? There’s nowhere to go. And you just keep going and going. And then there’s just this little valley that’s like, 10 feet wide, and the trails in the middle of it, or your side hilling on the side of a mountain and you’re just like, who was the guy that was thinking this is probably the path of least resistance? I mean, how do they even have the guts to attempt to make it through this section? I mean, I went into this race and I didn’t even really know the order of the checkpoints. I’d get to one checkpoint and I would be like what’s the next one again? And then you get to the next checkpoint, you’re like, okay, so the next two are the Cripple and Ruby? Okay, cool. And so I was like, learning the trail. Even the names of it and the distances, I didn’t know. I remember going in the race and I was like Jeff, dude, what’s the move here? I mean, what’s that do between Cripple and Ruby, when it’s 75 miles? Should I just push through, or split it into two runs and camp in the middle. And he’s like, dude, by the time you get to mile 500, you’re going to be an expert. So don’t worry about that. Just get through that first few days. And it was true. It’s just like, you just get so in tune with everything. But yeah, it was just gorgeous. And it’s crazy to think that there are these people living in these villages that are just insanely remote. And the lifestyle is just totally unique to anything I could ever dream of and I think one of the most beautiful sceneries I saw was leaving and entering into 54:31 New Otto and you’re just like on I’m not sure which river but the river was poorly covered in snow. So you’re just like are on ice on top of a river sliding around, and a little bit out of control, but somewhat in control. And there’s just like the sunlight was out, and it was hitting the mountains like early in the morning. And it was just the last run before you leave the Alaska Range. And it’s just this big moment, kind of where you’ve conquered this incredible rugged terrain. And it was just something that I don’t even have any like proof that I did. I just didn’t bother taking out my camera, because I can barely keep it charged and then it gets cold on. I have a crappy little droid and it just — so I just soaked it all in and it was just such a beautiful place and at night you can’t exactly see everything but you know what the stars are out it’s pretty spectacular and again those full moon nights, those first four nights of the race, the ones that were clear it was just is awesome. I would go hours without putting my headlamp on during those nights. It was pretty special.

 

Jason: Yeah, I’ve been to Alaska a few times. And I find it difficult to articulate, pretty hard to describe.

 

Sean: It’s the scale man it’s like, so massive and so fast and such an abyss of land.

 

Jason: Even people who have visited Alaska multiple times continue to be astounded by its beauty. Names such as North to the Future, Land of the Midnight Sun, and America’s Last Frontier, have been part of Alaska’s identity for years, lending to its reputation as being something wholly unique. This lush, Arctic paradise, of indescribable splendor is home to one of the greatest sled dog races that the world has ever known. It was the final section of the race and they were closing in on the finish line. But something changed as Sean and his dog team reached the coast. In a wilderness as wild and unexpected as Alaska is, it can be easier to get into trouble than out of it.

 

Sean: I mean, the Coast alone, you know that right there I could write a book about it. You think the coast you think flat, windy. And one of those is right, it’s windy, but it certainly is not flat. I don’t know what you’re referring to as like the second mountain range, but there’s just like several mountains throughout the coast. And I didn’t really get the memo on that. So I was very surprised at the challenges that that Coast brought, were different than I expected. The wind was relentless. And fortunately it was warm. So it wasn’t like I was cold necessarily. But the sleds getting blown off the trail and the dogs are pointed back on the trail. And it’s just a little bit more physical for the musher and the dogs.

 

Jason: Sometimes you just end up in the right place at the wrong time. As one group of 2020 Iditarod mushers learned the hard way. Sean, unfortunately, was one of those motors. Stay tuned to learn what happened by the coast in one of our upcoming episodes. 

 

I want to thank you for joining us today. In hearing rookie Iditarod musher Sean Underwood’s unique story. Although Seann’s unexpected entrance into the Iditarod world may have transpired on short notice, his mushing legacy still has a long way to go. Be sure to stay tuned to our next episode for another amazing story of adversity from veteran musher Matthew Failor.

 

Matthew: But his tightness in his muscle wasn’t going to heal in that short timeframe. So I sent him home in the third checkpoint. So quickly down on dogs within the first day and a half, from 14 to 12. And that was the writing on the wall, just small little nicks and dings and…

 

Jason: Be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you don’t miss any of our upcoming episodes. And be sure to check out our great stories from season one. For even more content, visit our website atalifeofdogs.com. If you enjoy our stories, be sure to give us a five-star rating and share our podcast with your friends. This episode produced by Jason Ferguson. Story, Stasha Dempson. 

 

We leave you with this episode with a bit of sad news. Earlier this month, Alaskan legend a music icon Hobo Jim Vossos passed away after a battle with cancer. As a tribute, we leave you with his song Where Legends are Born.

Peak Performance

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
iditarod sled dog team

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.

dee dee jonrowe iditarod musher

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.

Iditarod Veterinarian

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.

Iditarod last great race

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Podcast Transcript

Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.

A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two, Episode Five (S2, E5)
Episode Name: Peak Performance

Host
Jason Purgason

Guests
Various

Duration
1:09:48

Broadcast Date
September 8, 2021

Female Narrator

Support for a life of dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canine, visit them on the web at royalcanin.com. And by Highland Canine Training, the industry leader in Professional Dog Training Solutions and premier canine education. Highland Canine Training offers turnkey solutions for everyone, from pet owners to law enforcement and military organizations. Learn more at highlandcanine.com

Speaker 1: 

These dogs they’re well taken care of, they are the elite athletes. They have to be to get there. Yes, physiologically, these dogs, you know dogs out of any species are incredible.

Jason: 

The Iditarod, for 49 years, this iconic race has stood as the pinnacle of dog sporting events. A team of dogs and human musher courageously brave the elements for days, traveling over a thousand miles over the Alaskan wilderness in a partnership like no other. They must diligently withstand storms, obstacles and wildlife; constantly pushing forth to make it back home and across the finish line. This is not a feat for just any team of dogs or any musher. Both the dogs and the people who partake in the Iditarod are incredible athletes, they must perform at their best, both mentally and physically. What kind of dog does it take to embrace such a challenge? And what goes into developing an athlete capable of doing so? From A Life of Dogs, I’m Jason Ferguson and this is Peak Performance.

DeeDee:

I started racing the Iditarod for my rookie year, my first year in 1980, when I was living in Western Alaska in Bethel actually where last year’s champion Pete Kaiser is from. And my goals — I’ve done a lot of winter travel but I haven’t done much with dog teams. I’ve owned dogs all my life, but I hadn’t actually had them in teams. So my goal was to just travel across the state of Alaska because it was just thrilling. And with the way that I most enjoy, which is dogs, I just love being with dogs and having, not a million dogs, but having numerous dogs that have tasks to do. I mean, training dogs is my passion. And I was a biologist out there for the state of Alaska at the time. And so I would train at night and on the weekends. And then, back in those days we didn’t have any qualifiers. I mean, the race was only eight years or eight years old at the time, and this year was it’s 48th running. And when I went out, I have to say,it was overwhelming, it’s probably the best thing to say. It just seems like such a monumental task and the best advice I got from anybody was you take care of your dogs, and they’ll take care of you.

Jason:

This is DeeDee Jonrowe, a world-class musher with an impressive record. She is a three-time runner up in the Iditarod race and possesses the fastest time ever recorded for a woman finisher. She has completed the race over 22 times with her dog team, as well as other sled dog races all over the world.

DeeDee:

When I started that race in 1980, I had never finished a long-distance race nor had any other dogs in my team. We were all rookies. And I just became focused. I mean, the one thing I knew how to do was feed dogs and take care of and talk to, and be around dogs. As far as knowing as much sports medicine as I know about them now, I wasn’t even a clue. Most of that wasn’t even thought of. But I entered that race in 1980 and ended up — there were 36 scratches that year. And I ended up finishing 24th and meeting for the first time Martin Buser who finished 22nd right in front of me with a purebred Siberian team. And that was his rookie year and we became friends. We didn’t know each other as well as we do now, but we became friends out there. I can never forget, he was feeding the dogs in White Mountain and we’re all fixated on trying to make sure they get hydration and that everything we give them is plenty moist enough. And his Siberians were saying I don’t want that stuff. And he poured it out on the snow and they gobbled it up. And he goes, these silly dogs think the whole world is a big dogs dish.

Jason:

Just as Martin Buser dogs demonstrated, Huskies are born to love the snow. But what really makes a good sled dog? What is the magic ingredient that separates a dog from a successful Iditarod athlete? Deedee explains.

DeeDee:

They’re bred for function and they’re bred for purpose. So these are dogs that are bred because they’ve got a good digestive system, they’ve got good insulative properties, they’ve got good feet, they’ve got a mind for it, they want to please. They’re really dogs that are wanting to run and pull. The biggest thing is if you were to try to teach them, and I have over the years, obedience or agility or something, they’re less eager for that than they are for just pulling. They’re all about pulling.

Jason:

Getting a dog to pull a sled, even hundreds of miles or more, isn’t difficult when it’s what they live to do. Take it from a seasoned Iditarod veteran. Although a sled dog might run forever if they could, a massive amount of energy is required to successfully complete long races. So how do mushers make sure that their dog team has enough energy to complete a race with enthusiasm to spare?

DeeDee: 

Techniques, things of that nature, plus I had access to a bigger breeding pool. And so I raced for years not only dogs that I raised, but also I raced different kinds of races. I raced for four years in the Alps in a kind of a Tour de France format, where I took twelve dogs to Europe, and we raced stage racing throughout the Alps; and then came home and a month later would raise the Iditarod. My husband would keep my Iditarod team training in a long and slower pace while I was in Europe doing a faster speed, but yet they were still distance. Probably the longest run we ever did was about 70 miles in one day. And then I think I had some of my best successes in those years. I had second place in the Iditarod and third place in the Alps, [inaudible 07:56] singular year and that was pretty amazing for me. It was definitely a huge learning curve for me because I learned that the dog’s ability to deal with environmental changes, for instance, warmth or mushy snow compared to 50 below and snow that’s sugary, and has no moisture in it at all, all of those things were different aspects of training, and then as you would run through those different kinds of conditions, you had different kinds of encouragement for them. Like in warm weather, I snacked often but with a watery kind of snack, in cold weather I snacked often but with a very fatty snack. I never wanted to see too much variety in their metabolic sugar run. I guess that’s the best way to put it. But I tried to always feed before they got tired, feed before they were hungry, water every opportunity that I could observe that they would be willing to take water and how to run rest schedules worked in different settings and stuff. And I learned to adapt to individual dogs, and a good example is just one dog that I had that was just phenomenal. He was a really good dog but he was shy. And he didn’t like to eat and in public. And I had him in Europe. And one day at the start of one of our races, there was hot air balloons and cross country skiers, over 10,000 people there. And it’s pretty obvious Perry wasn’t going to eat in that situation. So I fed him inside the truck, quietly by himself and he gobbled his food and his water up like that, fine. But it was like if people were watching him, not interested, don’t want to.

Jason:

A good musher always puts the well-being of their dogs above their own. Being able to successfully do this, however, requires that a musher is so in tune with their team that they know exactly what they need and when. A musher has to understand what their dog is experiencing mentally and psychologically, in order to take the best care of their dogs as possible. So how do they do this? DeeDee tells us how she learned about this and was able to overcome some of the pitfalls associated with high-level performance athletes.

DeeDee:

And I found out I was the same way.  The harder I trained, the more intense my program was, the less interested in eating I was, which was not good, not helpful. And I personally realized that I must, and dogs don’t necessarily have that ability to be rational. And so it gave me a new insight into what I needed to do, and how I needed to present food and when I needed to present water, and how to encourage them to keep their hydration up and things. So I think that is one of the hugest lessons, was to put myself in their shoes and realize that some of the explanations that we had had about, oh, they’re just stressed out because they ran through town or something like that, was more about training than it was about the particular event. And I just learned a phenomenal amount, and about hydration, and about recovery, and about training, the amount of training at any one personal time, when I needed to give a recovery day. Just following somebody else’s schedule wasn’t the ticket. And I had great success with all of that.

Jason:

Feeding Iditarod sled dogs enough food is critical to optimizing their athletic capabilities. But simply feeding them is not enough. Feeding the correct type of food and adjusting it according to output and environmental factors is just as important. Working dog nutrition has become a science and one that mushers take very seriously.

DeeDee:

I think, you know, when I worked with some of these dogs, I think I might even have told you, you know, so I ended up working with some of the different nutritional companies and Royal Canin was one that I was with for 15 or so years. And so I got the opportunity to travel to Europe and see their facilities and see some of the different dogs that they had dealt with over there. And they were in collaboration with some of the herding dogs out of Spain and some other working breeds. It was fascinating to see how our working breed worked with theirs. And it was, I mean, I think the canine world really gained a great deal, especially in the early 90s when there was no premium kibble dog food on the shelves in those days. Nobody paid attention to the ingredients. But of course, we did because performance was important. And then today, you will find that anybody that has a working dog, and I mean a working dog being anything from a seeing-eye dog to a therapy dog, to a herding dog, and/or maybe one of our Arctic racing dogs, they all pay a great deal of attention to nutrition. They totally understand that just as we’ve learned in the Olympics, we’ve learned that in basically the Olympics of dogs behavior with the Iditarod. And the Iditarod has been able to give researchers an opportunity to observe multiple dogs that are all in shape, that all have been taken carefully through a training season so that they are all athletic. They’ve been watched through their ECGs, they have blood work, they have all of this background and similar background. And then they can watch these dogs in performance and gain amazing information, just like we saw that big learning curve in Olympic athletes years ago. Now, there’s small increments that make the difference. It used to be, there was huge increments.

Jason:

Yeah, we see nutrition plays a big role in the police, dog service dogs and working dogs that we train, definitely. It makes a huge, huge difference.

DeeDee:

It’s so amazing. It makes a difference in what they are even capable of learning.

Jason:

Mushers love their dogs. In many instances, their lives are completely dedicated to these incredible animals. The care, training and health of their team is what not only enables them to cross the finish line but also to know that they are doing everything possible to keep their team safe and happy. With knowing one’s dogs also comes the responsibility of knowing how much to push them.

DeeDee:

Never ever, ever tire of watching dogs. So watching dogs work, going to any exhibit or anything is interesting to me. So I go to as many opportunities as I possibly can. And I had seen Brett’s team in the Copper and I went that team is solid. It’s the word I could think of. They aren’t exuberant, they aren’t tired, they are just solid. So when he came in behind Jesse, Jesse was carrying a dog at that point. So her team looked like they had worked hard, probably carrying that dog [inaudible 16:58] right before Ruby. But I thought, oh, okay, well, these two teams, Jesse drops that dog she’s going to be okay. And then in comes Thomas’ team and this team is just off the wall eager, happy, banging, he could hardly keep his hook in. They’d just come off a 90-mile run. And I just went, oh, okay, this, this is the best team I have seen. And then as the race went on, I’m watching the team in different checkpoints and in comes this team that is riding the magic carpet. And when I talked to Thomas, he said those were basically three-year-olds. They had never, ever seen the red line. They had never, ever been driven to the point of okay, we just got to get there. They were only happy, that’s all they’d ever seen. They’ve been taken incrementally to each next distance and they were never overwhelmed. So they didn’t know what that looked like. And I got to tell you, I agree. I think he’s telling the absolute truth because there’s no way you can have a dog team that was as happy as that dog team was, all the time, without they never knew anything but happy.

Jason:

Running the Iditarod is not simply about the race. It’s about the incomparable partnership that mushers share with their dog team. The magic that makes an Iditarod dog team doesn’t stop at physical capability, but it’s deeply ingrained in a sled dogs being.

DeeDee:

These dogs are special. They’re not dogs that are bred in the backyard, they’re not dogs that are always blow-dried and put in a show ring to go around in circles. And I have nothing against dogs that do that when they’re looking for the best of the best in the breeds, nothing against that at all. But our dogs, we’re looking for the best of the best on the trail, in the trail setting, in utilizing the instincts God gave them for navigating storms, for finding trails, for being able to work in a partnership with man so that you avoid the hazards and you pursue the open trail when it’s there. I can tell you, so I don’t even have time to tell you, but all the times dogs, my leaders have saved me from something around the corner I couldn’t see. Be it open water or a moose charging at us, or a buffalo charging us as it did a few years ago. And my leader just dove under some deadfall and took the whole fifteen dog team with him in there and with that big bull, elderly buffalo charging at us, nobody, nobody got clipped by a hoof. I mean, that kind of instinctive partnership between a dog and a man, between drama, you can’t fake that, you can’t pretend that in the ring, you can’t make that up and you can’t portray it really all that well on the screen. It’s a gut thing that — I mean, I was just stunned; I was scared, scared, scared when that buffalo decided to turn and charge us. And I had already tried to move that buffalo off the trail and I got kind of up close in front of my dog team and I wouldn’t even come up to his shoulders. And I went, whoa, I don’t have very many tools here. But my leader that I had spent all summer with the year before, on-on-one canicross training to try to help him get the confidence that he could make those decisions. He did, he did it and he saved all fifteen dogs that were in that team.

Jason:

There are no words to truly describe the powerful partnership that the Iditarod mushers have with their dog teams. It can be witnessed and felt in the cold Alaskan air as the team’s take off, and as they eventually cross the finish line at the end of the race. The bond between these teams is as unique as the race itself. As DeeDee exemplified, if a mature takes care of their dogs, their dogs will take care of them. The well-being of the dog teams is at the forefront of the Iditarods priority list. As much as the mushers work hard to keep their dogs safe and healthy, they can only do so much on their own. In order to ensure that every canine athlete is functioning at their very best and is fit to continue running, plenty of veterinarians are present to conduct wellness checks before, during and after the race. 

Next, we speak to Veronica Devall, a veterinarian who volunteers days of her life each year to ensuring the Iditarod dog teams finish the race in as good a condition as they started.

Veronica: 

So my name is Veronica Devall. I’ve been a veterinarian for over 30 years. How I got involved? Well, that’s a long story. But I would have to say, first years out of vet school, I adopted an injured Siberian Husky. And from there, I always had an interest with the sporting dogs, but it just led me a little bit more down the rabbit hole, so to speak. And I met some other veterinarians that lived up north, specifically in the Yukon. And I thought with this Siberian Husky, I wanted to learn a little bit more about the breed. And I volunteered. My first race was Yukon Quest. And that was, let’s see, that was late 90s. So I’ve been involved with the sled dog sport for over 20 years. From that time, I’ve pretty much done almost a race a year. I went from the Quest to Iditarod and now I’m back and forth with the Iditarod; not every year but one of the races that I also work with and I just got back on Sunday, was down in Wyoming. And it’s a little bit of a different race. It’s not a long-distance endurance, it’s more of a — Well, they call it a stage stop race based on the European races, where there’s days of racing. So they do 30 miles to 35 miles daily, different stages; so start and stop, everybody is timed. And they kind of do like a Tour de France where the yellow bit goes out, the fastest time is last to leave. So it’s different, meaning, these dogs are racing every day but they are going much faster and it’s not endurance, it’s sprint racing through the week. So that’s a little bit how I got involved. I’m sorry it’s a very long answer. You got me talking about sled dogs. And so I just had an interest and then it becomes — you can talk to a number of us that do this for years and we certainly have a special bond with our group. We love the dogs. We love working with these athletes. There’s nothing like it in practice. It took me going through these years and I actually developed more specialty in sports medicine, I actually am a specialist in canine sports medicine, probably because of my involvement with sled dogs. So yeah, so that’s a long answer, but that’s where I fit in. 

Jason:

Awesome! So do you feel like working with sled dogs has, to some degree sort of helped you be a better vet or helped you in your veterinary career?

Veronica:

Yeah, absolutely. From there, I wanted to get my hands on these dogs. And again, they are the elite athletes. So, when do you ever get to in practice, unless you become a specialist to deal with these athletes, in such a very focused timeframe over the 10 days to two weeks? So I would say yes, for sure. Because we are always palpating. And so I think, I know, my skills of palpation has certainly escalated when I started working with these dogs in this type of quick little assessments, but having to pick up these things very quickly. We’re talking these guys that are running all the time. So we’re checking, we’re doing orthopedic exams repetitively, every day, several times a day on all these dogs. So yeah, I would have to say, for sure, it’s made me better at what I do with my hands and certainly made me want to be in general practice here, focus on what more can I do, rather than just a general practitioner. That’s again, why I’ve gone into sports medicine and rehabilitation. So yeah, it’s absolutely helped with that.

Jason:

Helping to care for the Iditarod dog teams is something that these vets are extremely passionate about. As Veronica described, volunteering in these races actually revolutionized her practice and her perspective on veterinary medicine as a whole. But what motivates a veterinarian to become involved with the Iditarod anyways?

Veronica:

It becomes a, I don’t want to call it a bit of an addiction, but it is. I like to be involved with the race, meaning, as a veterinarian, we’re not just policing [inaudible 27:45] but we’re there to improve the sport, make sure the dogs are healthy, make sure that we are behind, you know what these dogs — they can’t speak for themselves, but to make sure that this is exactly what they want to do. I want to make sure these dogs are happy. Because they are bred to run so they have that drive for sure. The other thing is, I’ve been involved in certainly the development of the sport over the years. A ton of research has gone into these sled dogs, and we’ve discovered many different things. Big one is in nutrition, exercise, physiology, what can apply to our animals, our pals at home. So that is why I’m involved. I have this addiction. I love these dogs. A lot of my friends have come through this world. I guess it’s just kind of part of me, it’s second nature to me to be involved in the race somehow. And through that I actually have Siberian Huskies. One is a retired sled dog. So it just becomes part of what we do. There is a number of us veterinarians that we do it every year, and I think you’ll probably get the same answer that we just love the sport and we want to definitely be a part of that sport. For sure, taking care of the dogs and making sure that they are healthy, and that we research to see if we can find what can help these dogs or just knowing what goes through their system. I think lately with some of these research, finding out that long-distance, just like in people, we can find that their immune systems can be a little compromised. And so we want to make sure that the race is not too stressful on them. So those are those things, but also just what we found with the dogs, these sled dogs being such incredible athletes and the amount of calories that they take in it, there’s nothing like it and just how they are these little natural physiological machines to run these miles. I don’t want to use that term machine, but I just think they really are incredible creatures.

Jason:

There’s a special type of magic in the air during the Iditarod. A spectator can feel the energy radiating from the dog teams as they make their way across the starting line. And it’s an energy that is as unique as the race itself. The Iditarod vet will be one of the first to tell bystanders, that this race was life-changing for them. That working with these incredible animals has transformed their appreciation for dogs and what they’re capable of.

Veronica:

I think part of the Iditarod, obviously, the dogs bring us all together. But sometimes it’s just in those quiet moments that maybe not, when the main racers have gone by and we’re at a checkpoint waiting, we have some dogs that are left behind. Meaning they’re tired or there’s something that has kept them behind, a sore wrist and we’re taking care of them. So it’s kind of quiet, all the racers have gone through, and then we just have some time to prepare the checkpoint for closing. So we’re getting the dogs flown out. And I think that’s probably one of my favorite times, is not being in the hype of the race. Because honestly, it’s just reactions when you’re not — You’re there, you’re helping them, it is a race environment. So number one, we’re taking care of the dogs, but when we have some time, whether it’s a colleague or two or just the other volunteers at the checkpoint, I think we’re just having some laughs about who knows? We’re so tired after that. So I think I don’t have any one specific time, but I would say those are my memories, getting to know the villagers, because it is a very unique situation in Iditarod. And depending on the northern route or southern route, if I go back, sometimes I don’t see these people for a few years. And what’s really crazy is that they remember my name from four years ago. So I think just those times. So not only with the dogs, but the dogs bring us all together and we have a passion for the sled dogs, and I think those are probably my fondest memories with that. I mean, obviously the dogs, when they are relaxed too, they are like dogs. They’re racing individuals, but they just love hearing their name, they love getting the pats. So those are kind of, I would think the quiet times and the fun times for me.

Jason:

The quiet times and the fun times, those truly memorable moments, which happen once the excitement has died down, and the world once again seems quiet. Veronica is not the only vet who appreciates the beauty of the Iditarod. Many veterinarians, canine professionals and dog lovers alike partake in this event. With nearly fifty dog teams racing at sixteen dogs per team, it is imperative that there are enough vets to make sure that every dog is adequately checked and monitored. So how many veterinarians volunteer to help in the Iditarod and what is it like?

Veronica:

There’s usually about 40 veterinarians through the race. That’s not meaning that 40 stay, but from the start to the finish. The head of it usually recruits about 40 veterinarians to help them through the race. That’s the magic number and sometimes there’s less, sometimes there’s more and there’s a certain number of what they call rookie veterinarians. So their first Iditarod, they may not be rookies at all veterinarians, but rookies meaning their first Iditarod. But usually it’s about the 40. So that’s all volunteers. We take the time off to go and do the race. So it is a little bit crazy, but that’s one thing. There’s nothing like it. 

Jason:

So the next question I have is, you sort of prompted, talk to again number of mushers. Particularly some of the more experienced ones talk about lack of sleep, obviously right and trying to plan that. Does that have any impact on you guys at the checkpoints? Do you have tons of teams coming through at one time and as such you don’t get a lot of sleep or is it super exhausting or…?

Veronica:

Absolutely! Depending on where you’re working in the race, for sure the first number of checkpoints are a little insane. Of course, we have a lot of vets on but I recall checkpoints on the early part of the race where there’s 7-8 veterinarians, and all of us would work for that early rush, especially in the heavy years when there was a lot of races and I’m talking over a hundred mushers. We would be 8-9 hours straight through all eight of us. So that doesn’t seem — It seems like a workday, right? If you say eight hours. But when you get no breaks at all and you’re constantly — it’s kind of like you do a little bit of triage, you’re seeing these animals come through, making sure there are no severe issues and what is done. And these guys also are racing, so they don’t have a lot of time. So the checkpoints are, if they’re staying for a period of time, we go through, we assess them, but we try to check — well we do we check every dog that comes through. It might be a quick heart rate, we’re checking their hydration, we’re looking to see that there are no problems with dehydration, that they’re running okay, that their mucous membrane color is good, all that. And then when they stay we can do more detailed exams. So yes, I would say also, depending on how many days you do, we do go through some sleep deprivation because it’s a 24-hour clock. So we do set up our times, we take shifts, but that’s kind of part of it. I don’t go to sled dog races to sleep, we’re out 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and we’re checking dogs. And I would say that was one — you know, we talked about the memory. I recall one of those checkpoints 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock in the morning, I don’t know, and checking dogs and clear sky, full moon, and one of the dogs starts howling and then all the dogs start howling. That’s pretty cool, right? They’re all singing for probably a minute and for no reason, I think just to say, hey, you know, everybody’s calling out and then stop completely all at the same time.

Jason:

Although the work they do at the Iditarod is demanding, the services provided by these vets is invaluable. The Iditarod is not the type of event that many people ever get the opportunity to experience for themselves. Because of this, we wanted to know what one of the most common misconceptions that people have about the race is. Veronica explained.

Veronica:

Myth? That’s a good one. That’s a good question because it really has me thinking. I think… I mean, a myth is almost mystical, right? So I guess, misconception maybe, is that these dogs are made to run. And I think you need to — I don’t want to put it into Hollywood terms, but you really need to experience a sled dog race. It may not be the Iditarod but any kind of sled dog race and knowing what sled dogs do, that this is their a thing. And racing dogs, that’s what they do. So I think the misconception that I think a lot of people have is, you’re making them do that. And you can’t — the dog is not going to be made to do that. I’ve seen dogs that they go, I’m tired, I’m not going right. And I’ve seen teams, they just had one last year that he was in the lead and the dogs just decided they weren’t going to run anymore. So they all said no, I’m not doing it. So I really think that’s the misconception that a lot of the general public have. And if I ever thought that there was some of those issues, I probably wouldn’t be involved in it so. I don’t know, any other myths. I mean, it’s a race. It’s a very cool race that’s still going on. There’s a lot of dogs out there, there’s a lot of people that make this happen, there’s a ton of volunteers, there are all these villages that are a part of it, there are the plains that you have to — There are tons of organizations, but I would say that’s probably the biggest misconception. 

Jason:

How would mushers describe what you do? 

Veronica:

Well, I think it depends on the race. Because certainly Iditarod, because there’s 40 of us, sometimes we’ll see the same, depending on the year and the weather. Last year, I got stuck in one checkpoint. So I saw mushers once and then not again. But other years, I’ll see them and it’s great. Because then you can see how they’re doing, what are these dogs; even if you see them enough times, you can remember some of the dog’s names. I think they appreciate that, but also, it’s tough. There’s a lot of mushers, a lot of dogs, a lot of vets. So something like a long-distance race, especially the Iditarod, it’s difficult to have that. Now, the Quest, you follow the teams, there are not as many players, not as many vets, so definitely, you’re going to get these vets that you see. The stage stop race, those more sprint races. I really enjoy those because these are formulated as these guys go out. All these mushers know there’s not many vets, there’s four on that team that I just at, they know us all. We are working with them every day, we’re working with those dogs because they get breaks. So that’s the other thing with these stage races, they have a pool of dogs, they can run as many as 10 out of a pool of 14, and dogs that need rest, they get rest and then we can check to see if there’s a certain muscle pull where they have to massage and treat and all that. So those are in my field, what I do with sports medicine. And again, it’s like people running a long-distance race or triathletes or whatever, you have that team of physiotherapists or massage therapists. So we’re kind of their team. So I think those are much more involved with the vet crew this way. The vets on the Iditarod, we’re just making sure we don’t have any tired dogs, so we’re going through them. Because when you get sleep deprived mushers, I think they really, hopefully, they appreciate the veterinarians coming in and saying, okay, this is what we got. So I think it, there’s probably an array of thoughts to what the mushers think of us. Some of them think that we’re hugely like an asset and some of them they’re just fun and down a little bit, depending. So I would like to think it’s all warm and fuzzy, but we’re a necessity. I would say they would probably think we’re a necessity, and some would think they learn a ton from us. But others maybe when they’re trying to get to the next checkpoint and we have to make sure we’re checking all the dogs, or making sure they’re eating right, especially with a sleep-deprived musher, it might not be so. So there are different emotions. And I’m only telling you this because over the years, I’ve seen that.

Jason:

The last great race has been around for decades. As this episode is being released, staff, volunteers and dog teams alike are preparing to celebrate the Iditarod’s 50th Anniversary. A momentous milestone for an event that has become as deeply ingrained in Alaska’s DNA as the shimmering white snow itself. Sled dog races have been popular throughout the world since the 1800s, but it wasn’t always this way. There was a time where dog sledding was the popular means of transportation in the Arctic climates. And actually, it still is in some places. So what kind of jobs did sled dogs have before races like the Iditarod began?

Veronica:

They were a huge thing. I mean, they hauled freight, they were mail carriers. Before, there was no machine.

Jason:

The Iditarod serves as a tribute to sled dogs of the past. Some of these dogs and their mushers risk their own lives to save the lives of others. And these great feats inspired a brand new generation. Just as with many of the original working dog breeds, most of their jobs have been replaced by man-made equipment and machinery. Even though most of these dogs no longer have jobs, their drive to work has not lessened. These dogs live to run, it is their passion and their purpose. Although the Iditarod sled dogs, may be some of the world’s most elite canine athletes, this race is not without risk. What’s probably the number one reason or one number one cause that dogs actually get pulled? Is it dehydration? Is that a sprained elbow? Is it…

Veronica:

So that’s a good question because there’s been a lot of research on this. And I don’t have the exact years but I know this because as a rehab sports medicine specialist it’s important to know what goes on with these sporting dogs. But the number one is, they call it orthopedics. So it’s not specially or specific, but it is shoulder strain is really it. So we can determine specific muscles, but it’s again a strain.

Jason: 

Be sure to stay with us. When we return we speak with Iditarod CEO, Rob Urbach and get his take on the race. And we explore how animal rights activists are working to have an impact on the Iditarod.

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Jason:

The creation of an Iditarod sled dog requires great amounts of care, training, passion, diligence and love. These magnificent animals are the focal point of their mushers life. And as we have seen significant amounts of scientific data and care go into optimizing their well-being, both on and off the trail. We spoke with Rob Urbach, CEO of the Iditarod to learn about his experience getting involved in the race, and how the IDitarod executives mediated some of the unique challenges associated with the 2020 race.

Rob:

This is my first year, the Iditarod as being in this role. And I was amazed that most of the dogs that came in and finished looked like they could turn around and go a thousand miles back to Anchorage and never bother quitting. They’re kind of upset that race is over. So that’s really the cool thing for me is, people don’t realize the dogs are doing what they were bred and built to do. It’s hard to relate to it because the average pet certainly [inaudible 49:27], PETA will say things like Rob doesn’t understand. All dogs are emotionally and biologically the same. And I’ll say if that were true then I’m sure Chihuahua would love to run the Iditarod but I’m pretty sure Chihuahua is not going to able to make it. So you got to understand, especially, you obviously know breeds and so there’s such a variance in breeds.

Jason:

The modern day Alaskan Husky has become a combination of breeds, all selectively chosen for their stamina, speed, strength, health and personality. These dogs are born for their job. This much is clear. But what about the mushers? It takes a special kind of individual to persevere through the elements, braving the obstacles that the wild Alaskan wilderness throws at them along the way. These mushers do all of this while simultaneously caring for and monitoring the health of up to sixteen dogs. So what makes an Iditarod musher?

Rob:

I think that we are sort of the anecdote to the thumb-generation and so you’re disconnected with what it means to be human. Think about how we live on our phones and screens and connectivity, but there’s nothing more sort of primal about crossing the Alaskan wilderness with in for those of you that are dog people, their relationship with the dogs, you see it up close, it’s just absolutely extraordinary. So the challenge, and I’ve been in the sports business, and so what I do say is, I’ve been to Super Bowls and Final Fours and World Series games and three Olympics but there’s nothing that compares to this. It’s gritty, it’s pure, it’s authentic, if you want to be inspired, follow the Iditarod. There’s trials and tribulations along the way, there are things in the race that change dramatically over the course of the day. It takes incredible endurance, incredible determination and mushers are tough people. They’re just part Magellan, they’re part strategists, they’re meteorologists, they’re Macgyvers, but they’re all super tough people. And their ability to deal with whatever nature throws them, whatever the competitor show them and keeping, staying attuned to their dogs and understanding how they connect and lead their dogs, physically and emotionally and holistically from a wellness standpoint, the combination there’s just nothing like it. There’s no comparable and I’ve been around athletes and sports for a long time, and my view of the Iditarod is incomparable.

Jason:

From its inception, the Iditarod has been one of the most momentous dog sporting events in the world. Mushers travel from all over the globe with their dog teams to partake in the race. Diligently training for months or years to prepare for the days they will spend out on the Iditarod trail. Although the race itself is full of surprises, no one could have foreseen the events that would unfold during the 2020 event. 

So you mentioned Coronavirus and that impact and how things had to be moved and I saw online it appeared as though they sort of made a checkpoint. I can’t remember which one it was, but they took an older building, went in, cleaned it out, had a wood stove set up and had a place for those mushers in it. So what was that like? What kind of impact did that have? Was that a last-minute scramble? Or did you have any time to plan for that? Or…?

Rob:

Well, everything was changing hour by hour. So I was in daily contact with the medical authorities, the Chief Medical Officer of Alaska, I was on a call with the governor, I was on a call with both senatorial offices. A lot was just enveloping as the race took off. So we ended up navigating around villages. You’re right, you saw that that was old Shaktoolik, we had to navigate around other communities as well. So we had to alter the trail to get around any population centers and these are really small, 1800 people, villages or in the case of a White Mountain or Safety, hardly any people around, but there is some. And we were super diligent regarding our hygiene. We had flown out disinfecting wipes and spray bottles and hand sanitizers and left that with those communities that we didn’t use. So we were making these adjustments and we’ve scaled down our crew, so folks had to work, double and triple shifts that normally are getting relieved. Our veterinarians instead of being replaced with fresh vets were staying on the trail longer. So we had to stretch our troops significantly because we weren’t flying anyway in for the lower 48 as we normally have. There’s about [inaudible 55:20] volunteers that worked that race and we had to do that with less this year, because we discouraged, lower 48 travel into Alaska for the event and pared down our staff to mission-critical and essential. And so some of the media people, photography, those kinds of services, we really had to stretch and I had to — our insider crew is largely Washington State based and there was some rivers, they’d be locked out of state, they get, you know, families and kids and schools were breaking out and some of these folks had to return so we had to cut our insider coverage a little bit short towards the end. I had to step up personally in a few cases and make things happen. So we improvised and kind of like what a musher would, the mushers managed through difficulties and weather changes and broken sleds and getting lost on the trail and so much happens, it never contemplated. If you follow the race closely, you saw the even 11 tried to lead twice and got hemmed in by storms. If you didn’t, we had a helicopter, Blackhawk helicopter rescue three that got stuck in kind of a flood. So we had enough chaos to manage through that it made everything more challenging, then when you rope on the virus on top of that, I think it qualifies as the people that have been around for 25 or 30 years has made it the most challenging race ever.

Jason:

The Iditarod is an event held near and dear to the hearts of many. All over the world it has become a significant part of Alaska’s identity, bringing thousands together from across the globe to watch as World Class sled dog teams race across the Arctic tundra in a contest of time, passion and will. But not everyone views the Iditarod this way. In more recent years, animal rights activist groups just PETA have taken a forceful stance against the great race.

Chuck:

My name is 57:24 Chuck Towski and I’m the spokesperson for Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram since 1980. I’ve been involved in the race since ’78, when I did the sports and news at Channel 2 in Anchorage. What I can tell you is that the sled dogs are world class athletes and treated as such. Pampered would be maybe too strong a word because they’re rough and tough because it’s that kind of a race. However, all of them are given dry, warm straw at every checkpoint. If they get a little tired or something, there’s sixteen dogs you can only go as fast as your slowest dog. So what they’ll do is take the dog, put it in the sled basket in a lovely little zippered bag and then at the very next checkpoint, one of the 55 volunteer veterinarians will examine that dog and if the dog is just a little pooped out or some well they’ll send them back to Anchorage and everything’s fine. So they have premium care, without any exception within the sporting world, especially in the canine world. There is a false narrative out there with a group that claims to be animal rights representatives. They are not! These are the PETA people. And the way I put it is People Enthusiastically Terminating Animals because they want to kill the Iditarod and they’re experts at killing. There’s no question about it. The Virginia Department of Agriculture every month, every year indicates how many animals are taken in by PETA and what happens to them. To date since 1998, they have killed purposefully, many of them adoptable young animals, nearly 43,000. Let that one sink in for you. That is absolutely dreadful. They have no kennel facilities at their one and only location, the public is not invited. You can look at the Internet and type in PETA adoption hours, you won’t find any. They have a lot of guts to come after the Iditarod where the dogs are really respected and cared for and loved. Shame on them!

Jason:

Chuck has served as a spokesperson for Anchorage Alaska Dodge Jeep Ram for over 30 years. And the dealership has been a top sponsor for the Iditarod since 1980. Within a week of conducting this interview, however, Anchorage Dodge Jeep Ram pulled their sponsorship for the first time in decades. The pulling of this sponsorship occurred after PETA insistently targeted the parent company by sending over a quarter of a million emails, developing television ads and partaking in public protests across America. One of these protests even included the public destruction of a Chrysler minivan, while PETA members dressed in dog costumes beat the vehicle with mallet shouting [Protest Clip 1:00:02 – 1:00:11].

Organizations like PETA, have never been directly involved in the Iditarod, and unfortunately, many of their claims are contaminated with inaccuracies. The approach they have taken with Iditarod sponsors, however, has become so volatile in recent years, that some major organizations have been forced to retract their support. Rob Urbach, CEO of the Iditarod is no stranger to PETA, and their incredibly hostile approach to the race. As one of PETA’s he has experienced this aggression firsthand but has no intentions of submitting to their belligerents.

Rob:

They’re a formidable force and they use such misinformation out there. So spread the word that Iditarod people are people who really understand dog exercise physiology and  got leadership in that field, more than any and they say, you know, God dogs are freezing to death and reality is the race course is too warm, that’s the biggest problem. So this is so much misinformation out there.

Jason:

In the modern age, misinformation runs rampant. Between social media, the internet and cable TV, it can be difficult to find the truth unless you experience it yourself.

Rob: 

You can imagine getting a lot of calls, you never know, PETA I’m sure watches inside widescreen, 24 hours a day and tries to post stuff that they have no idea what they’re talking about, but they’ll post stuff they think the public will resonate with, and they do it. So anyway, we deal with it.

Jason:

A couple questions sort of leading back to the beginning of our conversation. Because we dealt with it a lot while we were there, it was a little shocking. What kind of impact do you feel like that these animal rights activists are having on the sport? And do you see the popularity of it declining or rising? Or where does it stand? 

Rob:

Well, I guess, animal rights activists do put more attention on the sport. So from that standpoint, if people are smart enough to understand that their campaign is a campaign of misinformation, that has a massive distance with the truth, that is factually incorrect. The campaign, if you go on PETA’s website, it’ll say, gee, if an Iditarod dog is lucky enough to survive the race they’re crippled for life. Well, if that were true, then no dog would run the race twice. But the reality is that almost every dog all ready for set on the start line is the veteran dog, who has already run the race multiple times.

Jason:

The tension runs high between supporters of the Iditarod and animal rights activists such as PETA. Although PETA maintains that countless dogs die during the Iditarod, the reality is much different. While conducting our research for the episode, the world class care that these sled dogs receive year-round was made abundantly clear. This care extends to an even greater extent during the race itself, when veterinarians are checking dogs around the clock for days on end, and each team’s care is being heavily scrutinized to monitor. The narrative that PETA portrays to the public, however, seems to be a different story.

Rob:

And I think it’s an organization that has no moral compass, that in the two weeks the Iditarod dogs we’re talking about race ran, I mean, I don’t know how many dogs PETA killed int he kills mills that they own, and they basically don’t have any real efforts to run adoption service. But if you look at the records in the state of Virginia, they kill just, unfortunately, a high amount of the doctor’s dogs they take in for what they tell you is an adoption, but they’re generally killed within 24 hours. So it’s just a massive irony. And it’s just unfortunate because I think that I tried to engage them and say, hey, are you guys interested in animal welfare? Why don’t you do a research project with us? Why don’t you come to the Iditarod and see what it’s like to be in these kennels, to see what it’s like to have these dogs on the trail but they have shown no genuine interest in doing so.

Jason:

Yeah, the one that gets me is their whole argument that they’re forcing these dogs to run, DeeDee and I were talking about that when we had the opportunity to meet her. And I’m like, well, if you’re forcing these dogs to run so much, what do you need this big aluminum brake on the back of the sled?

Rob: 

You know, what’s funny about that brake? So I’m watching these dogs coming in to Nome, and you know, we kind of have to grab the sled, put the brake on and the power, half the time [inaudible 1:05:13] and they have already run a thousand miles.

Jason:

How does somebody support the Iditarod? Because again, that’s our objective with this podcast. So I’d love for people to hear you kind of explain, as an individual, how do they support the Iditarod? And I know you guys have lost some sponsors. If there’s big companies out there listening or some other CEO of a big corporation, how would they sponsor/support the Iditarod?

Rob: 

We’d love for them to reach out to us, but individuals, you can support us in a number of ways. You can be a member on our website, you can be a subscriber to Insider, certainly you can make a donation on our website. You can find me the CEO, Rob Urbach, I’m happy to engage anyone interested in supporting us. We do need support from our community. It’s a pretty expensive race, the way we do it, which is putting safety first. And we think that we have a very unique in that, it provides impact and meaning to a lot of people’s lives.

Jason:

The Iditarod doesn’t just provide meaning to the lives of its mushers, volunteers, communities and viewers; it has been a noteworthy supporter of the Make A Wish Foundation for years. Allowing children with a dream to do something that they may otherwise never have the opportunity to do. As a business or individual, it is possible to support the race itself or a musher of your choosing. With so many mushers competing in the Iditarod each year, how does one decide who to support? 

DeeDee:

And if you are looking at a musher look for somebody who not only performance in the race, but lifestyle is something that you are proud of, that represents you. So I don’t know — because I remember telling several sponsors, I can’t ever guarantee you I could win. But I can guarantee you, you’ll never be embarrassed by my dog care. And that is a person whose quality of personality and their ethic with their animals is something that you can feel proud of. You could use that person 12 months a year in any kind of situation that you may want to include them in and always be proud of them and not have to be defensive of somebody else’s poor behavior.

Jason:

For nearly 50 years, the Iditarod has been changing lives, creating dreams, and celebrating the history, strength, and determination of the sled dog. The Iditarod dogs are a breed unlike any other. They are the peak of canine performance, and an image of what dogs are truly capable of when we prioritize their care, health, and training. They are the ultimate example of what is possible when humans allow dogs to utilize their God-given instinct. The last great race isn’t just any dog sporting event. As anyone who has ever had the opportunity to be a part of it will tell you.

DeeDee:

The way I describe it. It’s a celebration of the history of the Arctic and a partnership with dogs and man.

Jason:

I want to thank you for joining us for this episode on our journey to explore what truly makes an Iditarod sled dog. How these elite canine athletes are cared for by their mushers and vets, and ultimately what it takes to succeed when you’re at the peak of performance. 

In our next episode, hear the experience of a rookie musher that competed in the last great race in a very unexpected way.

This episode was produced and edited by Jason Purgason, story by Stasia Dempster. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast for more great episodes. And be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

The Iconic Race Of The North

Cast your mind back to March 2020 for a moment.

Across the world, only one topic is dominating the news cycle. The threat of a pandemic is looming larger with each passing day. A deadly virus – with the potential to drastically alter our long-held, cherished routines – is getting closer.

Yet in one corner of the globe, Covid-19 is not the center of attention. Far from it. Here, the air is crisp. The ground is laden with snow. And in this place, there is one long-held, cherished routine that will not be altered.

It’s March in Alaska, and that means one thing – the greatest sled dog race in the world is about to begin.

The Iditarod is here.

iditarod ceremonial start

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be releasing a series of episodes focused on the Iditarod. This iconic sled dog race takes place throughout Alaska each March, running from Anchorage to Nome. Mushers and their team of sled dogs battle challenging terrain, sub-zero temperatures and heavy blizzards in their attempts to reach the finish line in first place. Winners typically battle for eight to nine days in these hazardous conditions.

At A Life of Dogs, we were very fortunate to capture the magic of the Iditarod when we traveled to Alaska to cover the 2020 edition. It was an experience we will never forget – and we can’t wait to bring some amazing stories to you in our upcoming episodes.

Introducing the Iditarod

So, you may have heard about this famous sled dog race – but how much do you actually know about it?

In our first episode, you’ll learn a little about what makes this race so special.

Whether it’s the sheer amount of preparation it takes for mushers and their teams to succeed in this treacherous race, or the tradition of the ceremonial start in Anchorage, or to what some mushers describe as the almost spiritual experience of traveling out on the race route with a pack of sled dogs – there are so many interesting stories surrounding the Iditarod.

alaskan husky sled dog

Musher interviews

Riding through the harsh Alaskan landscape with a pack of sled dogs isn’t for the faint of heart. As you may imagine, it takes a special type of person to compete in the Iditarod.

Even with this undisputed bravery, many mushers have to scratch from the race before its completion for a variety of reasons. Mushers may be forced to drop out if they sustain an injury or their sled becomes damaged beyond repair.

In the coming weeks, you’ll hear from some of the most famous names in the mushing world. They include the likes of Martin Buser, a four-time Iditarod champion originally from Switzerland. In our inaugural episode of this series, Buser offers an overview into the origins of the Iditarod. 

In addition, we’ll be bringing you the unique stories behind many of the competitors in this year’s race – from seasoned veterans to rookies embarking on their maiden Iditarod voyage.

The importance of the Iditarod to Alaska

The event begins on the first Saturday in March with a ceremonial start in Anchorage. Mushers and their sled dog teams ride through the center of the city to the acclaim and cheers of locals, sled dog enthusiasts and visitors (and podcast crews!). This opening ceremony is a relaxed affair and a rare opportunity for the mushers to interact with spectators. The following day, the race is restarted at Willow Lake – and this is when the competitive aspect of the race kicks in.

The Iditarod holds an incredible amount of significance to the state of Alaska. Due to the climate and terrain, mushing and sled dogs have been a large part of Alaskan life throughout the state’s history. The Iditarod is seen as a vital link to the heritage of the state.

Sled dogs

Of course, the real stars of the show are the teams of sled dogs who lead their mushers through the Iditarod Trail. These dogs possess a unique mix of strength, speed and endurance, with an unwavering desire to run.

alaskan husky iditarod sled dog

Many of the modern day dogs competing in the Iditarod are mixed-breed huskies, weighing approximately 45 to 55 pounds. A team consists of a maximum of 14 dogs.

As you’ll discover in future episodes, one contentious aspect of the Iditarod is the welfare and treatment of the dogs involved. On one side, PETA and other animal rights groups allege that the race is cruel; on the other side, mushers and fans of the Iditarod maintain that the event harnesses the natural, inherent abilities of these dogs.  The Iditarod Trail Committee has stringent checks in place to monitor the health of every dog participating.

Look out for upcoming episodes!

This introductory episode is just the beginning of our coverage of Iditarod 2020. Remember to subscribe to A Life of Dogs wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss the next one!

iditarod alaska podcast

We would like to thank our episode sponsors.  Be sure to visit them to learn more and show them your support.  Without their continued support our podcast wouldn’t be possible.

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Podcast Transcript

Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.

A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two, Episode Four (S2, E4)
Episode Name: The Iconic Race of the North

Host
Jason Purgason

Guests
Various

Duration
44:06 minutes

Broadcast Date
October 19, 2020

Announcer:    Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise, effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed, and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at royalcanin.com, and by Highland Canine Training, the industry leader in professional dog training solutions and premier canine education. Highland Canine Training offers turnkey solutions for everyone from pet owners to law enforcement and military organizations. Learn more at highlandcanine.com.

Man:               It’s hard not to be a fan of the race if you really think about it and understand how it has evolved and how it has sustained itself and what kind of people are engaged. So you felt it yourself up in this community. I’m really honored to be part of it.

Woman:          I recall one of those checkpoints three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning, I don’t know, and checking dogs and clear sky, full moon, and one of the dogs starts howling and then all the dogs start howling. That’s pretty cool.

Man 2:            This is when the Corona virus was starting to pick up and we have no idea that that was going on in the rest of the world, and your emotional state is so up and down because you’re on limited sleep and it’s cold and you’re racing and you’re tired.

Man:               And it was kind of a similar fashion to how I ran the Iditarod. I found out I was going to run the race one week before I ran it.

Woman:          The freedom of just you and dogs traveling through unmarked territory is such almost a spiritual feeling. And I guess I say spiritual feeling because I think it’s a God-given gift to be able to do so. I mean, how many people even could dream of doing that, much less have that opportunity for years. I just feel so blessed, and part of it is I have such great respect for the people of Alaska and you talk about a difficult environment to come into and to pursue your dreams in. This is a difficult environment, and yet together with dogs, they accomplished an amazing amount and I feel like I am involved in living history when I get to share that.

                        It’s early March in Anchorage and its bitter cold. Not record-breaking cold, but still well below freezing and snowy. Planes are busy overhead and the city is bustling with traffic. There’s an energy in the air that is as prevalent as the cold, biting wind. Something quite remarkable is about to happen on a scale that no one can really yet understand. From a life of dogs, I’m Jason Purgason, and this is the iconic race of the North.

Martin:           The sled dog sport is what I call a 9,000-year evolution of co-habiting this earth with sled dogs. National Geographic just concluded the carbon dating on some digs, archeological digs in which they prove that sled dogs had been deliberately bred for performance 9,000 years ago. Now we’re not talking domestication. We’re not talking just having the ore wolf become a family member. We’re talking what they described as deliberate sled dog breeding, meaning the nomadic or semi-nomadic people of the Siberian peninsulas; they deliberately bred dogs for their cohabitation, meaning those dogs pulled sledges. The sledges were big and loaded with their earthly belongings. They were not yet riding the sleds because evidence shows that the runners were upturned on both sides of the sled, ergo you couldn’t just ride on it unless you were sitting on it, which is possible.

                        Freighting then started to give way to the survival dogs, meaning people were more sedentary and supplies needed to be delivered to the outposts as far as your imagination. All that, of course, in the Arctic and the difference between horses who only have been utilized for 6,000 years, they have excelled in the warmer climates, whereas dogs because of their physiology have surpassed anything else in the Arctic climate and not being able to perspire is one of the main reasons they have evolved like that. After the freighting millennia, literally hundreds of years of freighting supplies into the most remote places, then of course the gold miners were a little bored in the winter time because the ground is frozen. You can’t do a lot of digging in the ground when the ground is frozen so they started to have dog races to pass the time. Not only driving races, but betting on races and so it became a pastime of the North to follow the greatest dog drivers and the greatest dogs, and that’s where we are now. We just simply have taken that sport of the early 20th century and beyond. We have taken that sport and selectively bred and helped evolution to a super dog that we now simply lump together on the term of Alaskan Husky. Most of your listeners might be familiar with the Siberian Huskies, which is a pure breed. They are the dogs that would be representing the 1920s. They were often direct imports from the Russian peninsula, ergo the Siberian name. The Siberian Huskies were typecast as a pure breed, and because of that, they still have to look like the 1920s.

                        A good example for your listeners would be in the same era, the Model-T Ford happened to be the fastest car. Nobody made a standard for automobiles that’s how they have to look or drive, whereas any dog breed that gets typecast has to stagnate because you’re no longer letting evolution evolve. You’re stagnating, you’re stopping the evolution. And if the clock is your judge, you don’t care whether you’re brown, black, white, or polka-dotted, and that’s where the Alaskan Huskies are. A term I use a lot to describe my dogs because it’s hard for people to look at them and say, well, what are these dogs? I often say, they are like a term you probably know – Americans. And then people look at you and say, yeah. Of course, we don’t care whether you’re black or white or polka dot. What matters is the intrinsic values, your physiological makeup, your morphology, the way you move down the trail, way, way more important than whether you have blonde hair or polka-dotted hair. So that gives people a bit of an idea of what the Alaskan Huskies, which is 99% of all the competitive teams are made up of those dogs. That’s what those dogs are.

Jason:             That’s Martin Buser, a legend in the dog mushing world and 4-time Iditarod champion. Martin came from Switzerland and has run 36 Iditarod’s. During our time in Alaska, we had the opportunity to get to know more about Martin and we’ll share more about him later. Each year on the first Saturday of March, an amazing event takes place starting in Anchorage. Many of you know it as the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. We had the fortune of covering the 2020 Iditarod and it was truly an experience like no other. This event and all it entails is indescribable. However, over the next few episodes, I’m going to try to bring you the story of the race, but first we’ll need to rewind several months and learn more about the people who compete in this more than 1000-mile journey, and what it takes to prepare for such an endeavor. We start with Wade Marrs, a 10-time competitor, top-5 finisher and the owner of Stump Jumpin’ Kennels.

Wade:             Well, my mom and uncle used to train dogs with me strapped on the wheelers with a car seat, and then mushing. Ran my first two-dog race when I was 5 years old and running few dogs since I was probably 4 years old. I got my first race dogs when I was about 10 years old. I ran my first race on my own was the Goose Bay 120 and the junior Iditarod in 2007. The name Stump Jumpin’ Kennel didn’t come to fruition until probably around 2010, 2012 but the kennel has been building ever since about 2007. I’ve ran the Iditarod 9 times now. My first one was in 2009. I was 18 years old. Ran it as early as possible and I took a couple of years off after my first one and started back in 2012 and have ran every race since 2012.

Anna:              My name is Anna Berington and my twin sister and I, Kristy we grew up in Northern Wisconsin, probably about as far north in Wisconsin as you can get. We had pet dogs and cows and horses and chickens and things just on a farm growing up, and our neighbor had sled dogs. So that was our first experience with sled dogs and we’d been fans of Gary Paulson’s books and Disney movies and things like that and the outdoors. So that’s how we first got our feet wet, I guess, with sled dogs being able to run and work with our neighbor who had sprint racing dogs, which was quite a bit different than what we do now.

Kristy:             This is Kristy. I first moved up here in 2007 to kind of scout it out and then shortly after that, we both moved up here. When we were kids, we were involved in it as much as we could be, and when we graduated, we both joined the Army National Guard and did some school and took a small break from it, but felt that yearning to go back to it. And after our commitments with school and the military, we found ourselves in California working at a Sundog tour place, which eventually brought us to Alaska to look for dogs to purchase for that touring outfit. And we met Iditarod Campion Dean Osmar and he was looking for a kennel help. They’re called handlers when you work for a kennel doing basic chores and exercising the dogs, so he offered us a job right then and there and we’ve been up here ever since. At the time, we were living in a tent in the Sierra Nevada mountains, so we packed everything up on our backs and have called Alaska home ever since. Got a one-way ticket.

Anna:              This is Anna. I’ve run 8 Iditarods and Christie has run 10 Iditarods, and then she’s also done the Yukon Quest, which is another 1000-mile race that gets started February 1st, but we’re not in that one this year, but it’s in the back of our minds for the upcoming next season.

Jason:             That was Kristy and Anna Berington, identical twin sisters who own Seeing Double Sled Dog Racing, a kennel with over 50 dogs. Kristy has been running the Iditarod since 2010 and Anna since 2012. Up next, we hear from Kaci Murringer, a native of Michigan and one of several 2020 rookie Iditarod mushers that we spoke with.

Kaci:                Where I grew up in Michigan, they have a dog sled race called the UP 200, and the trail goes right behind my old house where I grew up in when I was a kid. Always loved dogs, always love winter. And one year I just said, Mom, Dad, this looks fun. And they found a musher in the area and I went and tried it out. Did my first race when I was 7 years old. Two-dog, I think it was like a mile or so; a little fun race. And the guy said, all right Kaci, what you have got to know is don’t let go of the dog sled, and I thought, well, why would that be an issue? I’ll stand up straight and sure enough, flipped over and got dragged for about half of it and never let go. And the guy came out, got me right-side up said, good job and I went on to finish the race. Come a long way since then.

Jason:             So you did half the race flipped over?

Kaci:                I think so, yeah. Or at least pretty close to that. I couldn’t quite figure out how to use my feet to pop up, but we’re good now if that happened. And then two years later, I got my kennel started with my first few sled dogs and took off from there. And now 20 years later, I believe we’re up here signed up for our rookie Iditarod, so it was good to finally be coming full circle.

Jason:             This annual race, often termed the Super Bowl of Alaska, requires an enormous amount of training and preparation. For many mushers, the work to prepare for next year’s race begins as soon as this year’s race is over. Here’s Wade Marrs again.

Wade:             Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of work. So we’ll probably the biggest work dubs are the training of the dogs obviously. We’ll train them between 20 and 100 miles a day. They’ll put on about 2000 to 3000 miles of training runs before the race ever starts. And then also starting the food drops for the race itself. We’ll send out about 2000 pounds of cut up meat and kibble and stuff like that for the dogs to eat along the trail so that’s a lot of work too. I almost immediately put in my order for the booties. Dogs all wear booties on their feet. We’ll send about 3000 booties out on the trail for the dogs to use, so we’ll order those up right away and get those matched together and bagged and ready for next year and try to get done as far ahead as possible so when training season comes, we can focus solely on training as much as possible.

Anna:              Oh yeah, there’s about 20 checkpoints along the trail that we’ll send gear to, and you send out about anywhere between 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of stuff to the checkpoints, and the stuff is dog food – a lot of dog food – dog booties, runner plastic, extra socks and gloves for the people, people food, more dog food, gloves, socks, batteries, other gear for the dogs. We send out dog blankets and the dogs will wear; besides the booties, they wear coats. They have the little powder skirt for the coat. They have these sleeves that they sometimes wear and we send out massage liniments and so it’s all those things. That stuff is sent out about two weeks before the race starts, so you have to have somewhat of a plan of where you want these things, and certain parts of the race have a reputation of being extra cold, extra bad weather or things like that, and you know there’s certain long runs that you need to prepare for where you’re going to camp out, where you’re going to want to extra, extra things. So you sit down and you plan all that out and leading up to it is a lot of meat cutting. We cut a lot of meat. So we buy all our meat in about 50 pounds blocks, and we cut that into small pieces about the size of a loaf of bread. I compare everything to people food. A slice of bread and the snacks are about the size of a Snickers bar. Just different kinds of meat. We send out fish, beef fat, beef, chicken, tripe, horse, lamb, lots of chicken skin, beaver, lots of different food.

Wade:             I do scheduling for the race so I can stick to the schedule on the trail and training and stuff. So I’ll start writing that as soon as I finish the Iditarod while it’s still fresh in my brain. I’ll jot down a schedule for the next year’s race while I’m remembering all the different things that I thought of out on the trail. Usually we replace our sled every year and get that ready, so we have to build a new sled.

Kaci:                Yeah. I literally just bought all the pieces today when I was in town so we’re going to start building that here this evening and get it ready for Iditarod. Basically, going to model his exact sled design, and actually do a race with it. It was awesome. Handled really nicely so I had to buy the sled runners from a specialty store up in Fairbanks, Alaska that sells them. And then I went to a welding place and bought aluminum stanchions and the framework for my sled. And then I had to go to a plastics place to get things like the handlebar and the brush bow and the sled basket bottom that I am going to put my gear on top of that will support it. A few different places, but thankfully Matthew’s a handy man. We’re going to pretty much custom build all of our parts and pieces to save a lot of money because typically a sled, if you were going to buy it outright, it’s usually around $3,000 up to $6,000 sometimes, but we’re probably going to build mine for $1,000, maybe $1,500.

Anna:              Oh yeah. We did build our sleds and have been maintaining them since. Sometimes we’ll get a little help from the flood builders around here to update some things, but when you build your sled, it’s a lot easier to fix it if you bust it out on the trail, so that’s good knowledge to have and we have to build all our dog houses. We mix liniments and massage oils for the dogs, so those are the things we make. We’ve made special treats for the dogs before and my mother-in-law can sew anything, so she’s really great about doing stuff for our dog coats and the sled bags and the sleeves and everything else that the dog wears. But we do order all our booties from our favorite local mushing supplies store that has them because we use so many. It just takes so long for an individual to make 4,000 booties, and that’s just for Iditarod. We do a lot of middle-distance races and training that we use booties in. We wash them and reuse them, but they eventually wear out.

Jason:             In addition to preparing food, equipment and supplies for the race, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s lots of work that goes into training and caring for the top athletes that will actually move the sled. Teams also have other hurdles to conquer before entering the Iditarod. We’ll learn about all this and more when we return, so stay with us.

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Martin:           Because we know the involvement, the commitment, the year round daily, not only time and financial-wise, but lifestyle wise commitment that it takes, we’re very, very cautious in not having people fall into that lightly because it’s such a huge commitment. Anytime you work with living things, you have to be there all the time. Then if we cannot talk them out of it, of course I do my absolute best to be a good teacher, a good mentor, a good coach.

Matthew:       It’s kind of a weird role reversal. I never really thought that I would be a mentor, so it’s flattering to have if she called me that because my buddy Martin Buser who is like the Dale Earnhardt of our sport up here is Martin Buser. He’s a four-time champion. He’s in the Hall of Fame and he taught me and now I’m at a point where I can take his teachings and then pass them on to the next generation, which is kind of cool. She’s an awesome dog musher. She’s very patient with them, very loving with them. She is a hard, hard worker. I’ve never heard her complain once. She has never asked for a day off. I mean, if you own a business, that’s the type of employee you want. Someone who’s ready to go to work every day and this is what she loves to do and she’s been dreaming of it since she was little, so I’m really happy to be able to provide her the dogs to go down the trail.

Kaci:                It might sound like a common-sense thing, but we’re always just saying go have fun. If things get rough, don’t let it get you down. Just look at your dogs and how amazing they are, and just keep moving on.

Jason:             This commitment, and more importantly this positive attitude, is vital to making it through the Iditarod. A lot of work goes into raising and training these extreme canine athletes. We return to Wade to give us an idea of what this is like.

Wade:             The dogs we use are called the Alaskan Huskies, which are just a fancy word for a mutt. They’re just mixed bred dogs. Back in the day, they took the more tough fluffy Siberian type of dog that is built for the outdoor elements and they mixed those with different kinds of hounds like Greyhound, Wilkies, Pointers, dogs like this. And eventually it came down to a nice, even breed between them to where we have the high energy and high attitude of the hound, but we still have the toughness and the endurance of the Husky so they can handle the outdoor conditions and they can travel much faster. Some people today still use the traditional purebred Siberian dogs. Those guys are usually three to four days slower than the Alaskan Huskies, so the mixed breeds came out a lot better. They have great health and longevity. So they’ll start training for their first time at 6 months old. That’s only about half mile to a mile run at a time. With some older dogs, they’ll start coming into shorter races, 150, 200-mile races as yearlings – year and a half old. Two-year olds, they’re very solid for middle distance racing. Every once in a while, but rarely a two-year-old will make the race team for the Iditarod. We try to start them mostly in the competitive side of things at three years old, because that’s when they’re more fully developed physically, and then they retire usually between 8 and 12 years old, which is a pretty long working life for the dogs. On average, they live till about 17 years, I would say.

Anna:              We have 40 dogs that are in training and some of those are our younger dogs that are essentially trying out for the team and experiencing all their first races and just getting a grasp. They’re like a freshman/JV dog, but they’re also our bench warmers in case of somebody who’s ill or a female comes into heat and causes a huge distraction on the team. We opt to leave those ones at home in a case like that, so they’re training for it, but definitely not on the dream team yet. Next year they will be prime time. It’ll be exciting to put those guys on the varsity teams. When it comes down to picking each of us our top 14 dogs, that’s going to be hard to only pick 14 because we’ve got a lot of really nice dogs to work with.

Jason:             Yeah. That was my next question. How hard is it to get it down to the 14, and when is the final decision made? How do you approach that?

Anna:              It’s a slow process, but Iditarod has a lot of qualifications for the dogs to even run the race. The first thing they go through is blood work and an EKG so you can submit 24 dogs for that whole process. And then a week after that, you have to submit 20 dogs for a physical health check so they force you to slowly whittle that number down.

Wade:             I guess the process starts as puppies and the number one thing with puppies is socialization, making sure that the puppies love interacting with people and are good interacting with people and interacting with other dogs and stuff like that. So that’s where our process begins and those two things are very important. We’ll have veterinarians on the trail and volunteers and stuff that they’re gonna be interacting with constantly. A lot of the kids from the villages come running out to say hi to the dogs, so that’s the number one thing that we look for in the dogs early on is just human and other dog interactions. And then as they get older and start running on the team, next attribute that we look for is attitude. Attitudes are very important for ones that just want to do it and love to do it. Very rarely these days, but every once in a while, we’ll find one that just is not interested in running, and usually those guys become a house potato somewhere or a couch potato somewhere. But most of the dogs these days just absolutely thrive on running in the team so that’s the next thing we look for as we’re training them as young dogs is just their attitude and their love for doing it. As they get older and start leaning towards making the race team, a little bit more comes into play. Athleticism – the dogs have to be able to run at high speeds, 17 to 20 miles an hour, and then they have to be able to continuously move smoothly at 10, 11 miles an hour for long, long distances, and so we look for that kind of thing with the athleticism and the endurance on the dogs.

                        Appetite is a huge thing for our team because on the race they’re eating 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day, so they have to just really love to eat and put food down very quickly, and so those are some of the things we look for. Obviously make sure that the dogs are hardy and built well, have a smooth gait. That way they don’t get sore wrists or anything like that. If the dogs are getting sore, then they maybe can’t handle the speeds we are going or something like that. So if the dog doesn’t fit into the race team from the B team and usually they’re just a little bit different style than what we prefer in our team, a lot of us mushers will sell or trade each other dogs that might fit better with their team versus our team, and that works out really good because the dogs still get to do what they love. And they get to a place where they fit in good and are going to perform well and excel.

                        So that’s kind of the processes going through from puppies into race team, and then once they’re ready to finish with the race team, you can kind of tell by both their attitudes again and their eating habits and also their performance on the trail. So if they’re starting to slow down a little bit on the runs, then obviously they may be getting a little bit too old to keep up with the pace, or if they’re stopping eating, then maybe they’re getting too much exercise and it’s taking their interest off of food, or obviously if they’re acting pouty or sad that they have to run, then maybe it’s a little bit past their time or something along those lines. You can see it in the dogs’ very well that they’re ready to end their career or be done running, but you can tell when they’re ready to go to. Some of the old dogs, their attitude never changes, but you can see it in the performance.

Wade:             There are 18 of them that are training on my main race team, and most likely I’ll start with 14 of those 18. And then we have about 14 that are training on a B-team and most of those guys are one and two-year olds and a couple of older dogs that don’t need the harder training as a race team does. So a couple of those older dogs might come back into the team for Iditarod, but we have a second driver this year who’s training up that second team and he’ll be running them in a couple middle distance races getting qualified for Iditarod next year. We start pretty late in August. We start just kind of like you would as a human athlete. We start very lightly in August with like 3 mile runs and stuff like that, and slowly build them up with 5 and 10 until eventually we’re training between 20 and 100 miles a day. In training, we’ll do camp outs 200, 300-mile camp outs and kind of simulate our race and stuff like that through those camps. In the summertime when their time off is, we give them between a month and two of just relaxation and recovery time to make sure that they all come back 100 percent from anything, and then we start free running them loose and running them in the swamps and playing in the marsh. They love running down in the water and cooling off on hot summer days, so we’ll do a lot of that kind of training with them in the off season.

Jason:             As I found out, entering the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is far more involved than just signing up and showing up on the day with a team of dogs. Each participant must run a number of shorter races prior to the Iditarod in order to qualify for the race.

Anna:              Yeah as a start, 750 racing miles, so they ask you to do two 300-mile races, at least that distance. So, for me that was the Copper Basin 300 and the Kobuk 440 race, and you need to have one race of at least 150 miles so I did the Goose Bay 150. But not only do you have to finish all those races, you have to have race judge and race ushering approval saying that, yes, you rode on a trail and you were able to take care of your dog and yourself out there in the wilderness of Alaska, just to make sure when you get on the actual Iditarod trail, you’re prepared and you know what you’re doing out there. So, it is a process, but they do it for very good reason.

Wade:             So before you run the Iditarod for your first time, you have to qualify and you have to run 750 miles of qualifying races, so two 300 mile races and 150 mile race or 200, and those races take place anywhere from December to April all over the state. There’s quite a few of them in the lower 48 and in Canada as well that people use for qualifiers. Once you run the Iditarod, you’re permanently qualified once you finish unless there’s a special committee that can review you and say you need to requalify under certain conditions. But once you’re competing in and finishing the Iditarod, you’re permanently qualified, but each year we will compete in other races sometimes for purse money and sometimes just for fun, and the dogs enjoy getting around other teams and going to new places so we’ll sign up for a couple other races every year, just for those experiences.

Jason:             I had the fortune to spend months getting to know more about what the Iditarod Sled Dog Race was all about. From the mushers to the dogs, all the volunteers and everyone else that makes this event happen, it truly is a massive undertaking. One odd fact that demonstrates this is that crews often spend an incredible amount of time hauling in dump truck loads of snow to cover 4th Avenue and the other streets of Anchorage to ensure that the ceremonial start takes place.

Kaci:                Nope, that’s real. They’ll haul dump truckloads of snow a few days before the race or they’re making it so we can run through downtown Anchorage and other year when it was such low snow, they had it hauled in by rail car from Fairbanks because they needed to do some sort of ceremonial start here in Anchorage. That’s one of their preparations for Saturday, that day is to get something for us to run on in town. Like where we live, there’s more sled dogs than people, and we don’t have Super Bowl or professional teams for anything so it gives people in the state something to follow and rally around and it’s a really fun time of year. The frivolity that happens with the sprint racing and Iditarod, it’s just a great time. There’s so many races up here to do that you can travel from where we’re at within 360 miles, you can get to almost every single race that Alaska holds, and then if you’re in the Midwest, if you want to go all the way out to Montana or to Colorado or any place like that that has a race, it seems like more of a trek and there are just so many other mushers around here that it is a community and it has a very historic hold out here that there’s a lot of old timers that can tell you how it was and they will help you out with things and see all these trails and places. It feels like the place to be if you want to professionally pursue dog mushing.

Jason:             It’s the Super Bowl of Alaska.

Anna:              It is, yeah.

Jason:             This race is a spectacular event to experience, even as a spectator. As a competitor, even more so. Kaci, the rookie explains, and she also expresses her desire to become part of an elite club.

Kaci:                Yeah. Every rookie musher that finishes Iditarod, they give you a belt buckle and you become part of the Iditarod Finishers club. It’s a pretty elite club. There are actually more people that have been the top of Mount Everest than have finished this Sled Dog Race, so I’m looking forward to being a part of that as well.

Jason:             Being a musher and competing in the Iditarod is incredibly time consuming, expensive and demanding. What has been covered in this episode is only a fraction of the work and commitment it takes. So, some may ask why do they do it? The answer is pretty simple, actually. It’s for the love of the dogs and to continue to allow these dogs to do what they love. When the Iditarod is mentioned, most people immediately conjure up images of Balto or Togo, and think of the serum run that saved the people of Nome in 1925. But as Kaci explains, the race has more to do with Joe Redington, Senior and a commitment to save the Alaskan sled dog.

Kaci:                And then we get a lot of misconceptions too about Iditarod and the connection to the serum and people always go, why didn’t you talk about that? What about Balto and all this? The Iditarod was not actually created for that reason. A guy by the name of Joe Redington, Senior, he’s the father of the Iditarod is what they called him. He noticed back in the 1960s that the machines, the snow machines were actually replacing the sled dogs up here for transportation. He didn’t like the thought of that at all, so he came up with the Iditarod Sled Dog Race to keep those sled dogs around and keep that traditional alive up here in Alaska. Today, actually dogsledding is the official state sport up here so the Iditarod while it does cover part of that serum trail from Ruby to Nome, it wasn’t actually created to commemorate that run at all.

Jason:             I want to thank you for joining us for our first episode covering the Iditarod Sled Dog Race and how that you’ll subscribe to hear our upcoming episodes that guarantee to deliver some spectacular stories from the trail.

Marcus:          They want to kill the Iditarod and they’re experts at killing. There’s no question about it.

Jason:             In our next episode, learn about the controversy surrounding the race and what it takes to care for these special canine athletes. Until then, we leave you with Redington’s Run by Hobo Jim Varsos.

                        [Hobo Jim Varsos singing Redington’s Run; 41:42 to 44:00]