WINDS OF CHANGE: 2009 IDITAROD PROMPTS NEW REQUIREMENTS TO BETTER PREPARE ROOKIES
Since its inception in 1973, the Iditarod has undergone nothing short of a complete metamorphosis in terms of the time it takes to get to Nome, the style of dog run, the type of gear used to get there, and the skills of the competitors making the attempts. Gone are the days of true woodsmen spending 20 days on the trail, relying on their camping skills and outdoor savvy to survive and keep their dogs going in an inhospitable winter landscape. There are some of these types still competing, but now filling the ranks beside—or more often behind them, are countless numbers of mushers with only a few years experience running dogs, some of whom lack the personal experience of coping with a serious storm, or enduring extended periods of temperatures below minus 40. There also are numerous mushers who lease, rather than own their own dog teams who don’t even know how much they still don’t know about remote, long-distance travel by dog team. This is not necessarily a new concept to the Last Great Race, but as the numbers of these mushers by hobby, rather than by lifestyle, sign-up to compete, the Iditarod must take steps to ensure these rookies are adequately prepared for what is the pinnacle of long-distance sled dog racing.“We don’t want to jeopardize dogs or the event,” said Mark Nordman, Race Marshall for the Iditarod.During the 2009 race, the Iditarod experienced a series of problems, many of which rookies were at the core of. In all, six dogs died during the race, two of which—belonging to rookie Lou Packer—froze to death during a brutal blizzard. Rookies Kim Darst and Blake Matray had to be rescued after the health of one of Darst’s dogs became seriously compromised in the same storm. Another rookie, Nancy Yoshida had a crash so severe that she could not repair her sled, so she opted to set several dogs free expecting them to follow her. However, one of the dogs ran away and was on the lam for nearly two days before it was finally found.“After last year, people got woken up again,” Nordman said. “We were stung by some pretty tough times for people and animals, and it has prompted everyone to reevaluate.”As a result, the Iditarod took steps to prevent situations such as these from occurring again. The rules have been changed in preparation for the 2012 race. After July 1, 2009, a musher must now complete two 300-mile qualifiers and another approved qualifier for a total of 750 miles to be qualified. In addition, completion requirements dictate that a musher must finish their qualifiers either within the top 75 percent of the field, or in an elapsed time of no more than twice the time of the winner. Qualifying races will also now begin filling out musher assessment forms, also known as “rookie report cards,” for those who declare they are using a 200 or 300 mile race as a qualifier. “Last year there were drivers who had trouble and that brought this issue back to life, but the rookie report card has been on the table for at least the past eight years,” Nordman said. “It’s not a negative thing and it’s not meant to keep people out of the race. It just boils down to we’re responsible for these guys, and we take that very seriously, so we need to make sure rookies are ready to go.” In addition to the new qualifying miles and report card requirements, rookies must also get an Iditarod veteran to vouch for their skills and experience, and get a veterinarian to sign off on the health of their team. Once all of these prerequisites are met, the final step for rookies is to get the approval of a recently appointed five-person “Iditarod qualifying board” that will review all the aforementioned materials and then make a decision on whether a musher intending to run the Iditarod should be allowed to compete.Many who annually run the Iditarod can vouch for the wide spectrum of experience that rookies bring. Sebastian Schnuelle, placed 2nd in the 2009 Iditarod, his fifth time competing in the race, and he is the current Yukon Quest champion. Having competed in both of these 1,000 mile ultra-marathons, he has seen his share of experienced rookies, as well as those not quite experienced enough.“I am relatively new to the Iditarod and do not know much of the history, but my feeling is that many rookies these days are less knowledgeable than 15 years ago. Rookies back then were often running dogs for many years before attempting Iditarod. Now, there is a whole bunch of rookies who are not only rookies to Iditarod or Quest, but they are rookies to mushing, barely having run dogs for more than one or two years, often not even living a true mushers lifestyle,” Schnuelle said.“Those kinds of rookies I find dangerous for the race,” he added. “If they team up with somebody experienced -- running a puppy team or leased team -- that is one thing, but if they are trying to do it on their own, without learning the proper skills, that can lead to disastrous results as we have seen in the past.”Aliy Zirkle, a 10 time Iditarod veteran and the 2000 Yukon Quest champion, also acknowledged the Iditarod of today is a completely different entity than it was back in 1973, and so too are the rookies.“The fact is, times change and people change. In my view, we are not dealing with the same people who first ran Old Joe’s (Redington) race,” Zirkle said. “Iditarod mushers back in the 70's were more than tough. They were independent outdoorsmen who could take care of themselves and their dogs at any cost. They knew that they had a journey ahead of them, and it was their responsibility to try and get to the finish line. The first race to Nome took between 20 and 31 days to complete. How many racers these days would or could put forward that amount of time and commitment? I would expect very few.”“At some point in the last 40 years things changed,” Zirkle added. “Now, it seems like it's the responsibility of the race officials, veterinarians, volunteers and Iditarod Air Force to get a racer to the finish line. We have support around every corner, we have a super highway as a trail and we have enough well-stocked checkpoints that a racer doesn't even need to build a fire or camp for the entire 1,000 miles. So, is it that the race that Old Joe created has changed so much, or has the racer?”While this question is debatable, it is clear that attempting to bring a more qualified rookie to the Iditarod starting line is not, at least for Schnuelle and Zirkle.“The 750 mile requirement I think it is a step in the right direction. I personally would favor 1,000 miles for qualifiers to run a 1000 mile race, no qualifier less than 300 miles long,” Schnuelle said.Zirkle echoed similar sentiments.“I guess all that 750 miles can do is hopefully give a musher more experience than 500 miles,” she said, and again cited the 2009 Iditarod as her reason for her opinion. “For years, (from) 2002 – 2007, the actual weather challenges of the Iditarod weren't all that great. Cold for a few days or windy, but last year we saw what really can and will happen out there. And a rookie or a veteran, for that matter, should want to expose themselves and their dogs to the most realistic rigors of wilderness racing that they can in order to prepare for what might be. Otherwise, once again, we are just back to depending on someone else to save their butt.”Schnuelle also brought up that it isn’t just the miles of qualifiers a rookie completes, and where they finish in them that should be assessed, but also which races were chosen for those qualifiers. This is because some races have a reputation of being “easier” at least in terms of terrain or elemental conditions, and these races are often sought out as an end-run by rookies who are looking to be “qualified” for Iditarod, more so than “prepared” for it. “I think the choice of qualifiers a rookie chooses to run tells enough about the mindset of that rookie and the to-be-expected performance. Somebody who runs the Kusko or Copper Basin is serious about wanting to learn,” he said.Tamara Rose, of Fairbanks, will be a rookie in the 2010 Iditarod. While the 2012 rules won’t affect her, she said even if they had already been in place, they wouldn’t have dissuaded her from entering the Last Great Race, nor changed how she approached preparing to compete in the event. “With the growing number of mushers entering the Iditarod, I believe that the newqualifying rules are absolutely appropriate,” Rose said. “The Iditarod has gotten a bit 'glossy'and some people enter it either for the wrong reasons (the glitz), or they take it too lightly, or both. They could get by during some years if the weather was kind, but years like last year put dogs, mushers and the Iditarod in jeopardy. Time to tighten things up and make sure mushers have had some miles and challenging situations under their runners.”Rose practices what she preaches, too. She maintains a small, 20-dog kennel and has only been mushing since 2005, but has covered a lot of ground in the last few years, which she said was by personal choice, rather than to meet a race-qualifying requirement.“My main goal has always been ‘learn and become competent’ in order to feel that I could run the Iditarod in good fashion, not just get by and do it poorly. I didn't want to race in order to qualify for the Iditarod or Quest per se. I wanted to race to learn how to race, and if good enough, I'd enter one of the big ones. I want to be fair to my dogs while also learning how to become as competitive as possible with a kennel of my small size,” Rose said. “So, for my first year, I chose races that I thought were appropriate for a newbie: Cantwell Classic 200, Goose Bay 120, Two Rivers 200, and the Taiga 300. I learned a ton, and thought I could step it up for my second year, and thus chose races that would push me a bit more: Gin Gin 200, Copper Basin 300, Two Rivers 200 again, and the Quest 300.”Not all rookies are as supportive of the new rookie requirements as Rose. Kim Darst, of New Jersey, will be considered a rookie again in the 2010 Iditarod, despite making it more than 534 miles in the ’09 race. Darst maintains a 33-dog kennel and has been mushing for roughly 10-12 years. She competed in the Can-Am Crown—a 250 mile race in Maine, and the Seney 300 in Michigan as her qualifiers for the Last Great Race, and said she believed more qualifying miles would not have helped her to make it to Nome last year.“I could go either way on the 750 versus 500 miles,” she said. “I don’t think it would make a difference to your Iditarod performance because it does not seem like there is anything like the Iditarod once you get out there.”Darst had even more trouble with some of the other requirements.“I am against the qualifying board and the recommendation from a veteran musher. I think they are just opinions from someone that has never run with you,” she said.The organizers of qualifying races also seem to have differing opinions about the new requirements. Jon Schandelmeier and Zoya DeNure host two qualifying races: the Gin Gin 200 and the Taiga 300, the latter of which last year alone saw 14 out of the 22 teams entered, run by people who did not own their own dogs. They both were supportive of the new rookie report cards.“Neither Zoya, or myself, had any problem with the Iditarod questionnaire. Everything asked made sense and was easy to follow,” Schandelmeier said.DeNure said she agreed the rookie report cards were a good thing for the Iditarod and the sport of mushing in general.“A few extra minutes out of our day is worth taking if this means helping dogs in the long haul of things. Too much inexperience on the trail trying to run Iditarod or Quest and the dogs end up suffering for it with lack of care, bad feet, poor nutrition, etc. With this new report card system, Iditarod should have a better chance of screening people pretty hard,” she said.Joe May, the 1980 Iditarod champion and an organizer of the Don Bowers 200/300 mile race disagreed. He said he believed the rookie report card was a well-meaning, but misguided response to the events that transpired in the ’09 Iditarod. As a result, the Don Bowers will no longer be an Iditarod qualifying event.“We found it impossible to quantify, on a grade of A to F, most of the questions on the report card,” he said.May pointed out that not all races have the infrastructure in place to comply, citing that in some races organizers may only have a limited amount of contact with mushers using the event as a qualifier, which makes assessing rookie card criteria such as “wilderness survival skills” or “ability to detect subtle health abnormalities” very difficult. May said he also questioned the ability of some qualifying races to have organizers with a personal level of experience to make an informed judgment about rookies.Almost everyone understands that qualifying races are an imperfect solution to a difficult problem,” he said. “They’re accepted as the best answer to date in a long evolution of answers. I’ve been involved in some fashion from the beginning of this evolution and appreciate the gesture of the Iditarod to further refine the rookie filter in the interest of the dogs, musher and race…but this ain’t it.”Nordman said the Iditarod staff and organizers are well aware that with these new changes there will be some growing pains, and they are more than willing to listen to the input of all entities involved, and possibly rework some aspects of the rookie requirements.“This is a work in progress,” he said, “but the goal is still the same: to within the rules and in a safe manner, get mushers—whether they’re trying to win or just get the belt buckle —to achieve their dreams.”Joseph Robertia is an outdoor reporter and freelance journalist. Along with his wife, Colleen, he also owns and operates Rogues Gallery Kennel in Kasilof, AK.
Authored in fall of 2009.