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

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 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.