So, you want to race?

Race marshal Michael McGowan at the 2016 Open North American Championships in Fairbanks.

The following wise words are from longtime race marshal Michael McGowan who most recently gave a rookie orientation to new racers at the Alaska Dog Mushers Association in Fairbanks, Alaska.

This is the Golden Rule:

Leave your ego at home. It does not belong anywhere near a dog race. Your dogs deserve and require your full and undivided attention and your ego will hinder that. It will lead to your ruin at a race.

Remember: It is just a dog race!

Most of everything discussed here will be done from the point of view of how the things are done at the ADMA. Please remember: Every race giving organization has particular ways of doing things, so it is important that you find out what rules are being used, read them, participate in Driver’s Meeting and ask questions if you are not perfectly clear as to what is expected of you as a competitor.

Ask Questions!

Don’t guess, do not assume. Seek out the race marshal to clarify your questions. Don’t ask this volunteer or that volunteer, ask the race marshal.  

If something happens during a race and I have to come speak with you about an infraction of the rules, the first thing I will ask you is “Were you at the Drivers’ Meeting?” (At all Championship Races the ADMA conducts there will be a Driver’s Meeting after the draw sometime before the first day of competition. There also may be additional meetings prior to the start of a heat to pass on information that may impact the race. Most races have those driver’s meetings prior to racing.)

Here is the bottom line, regardless if the Drivers’ Meeting is mandatory or not, regardless if this is your first race or your 1000th race, GO TO the Drivers’ Meeting and get there on time. If you choose not to attend the meeting or arrive late and then something happens during the race, things are probably not going to go well for you. Why? Because you have chosen to not avail yourself to the most updated, current information about the race and that is a really bad choice on your part.

If you come to the Drivers’ Meeting and you have a handler, bring the handler with you. They cannot ask questions, but they need to hear what is said because their job is to keep you squared away. Be nice to your handler. They cannot argue your case for you, but they may be able to save you from making a mistake. Be nice to your handler.

At the Drivers’ Meeting the race marshal will go over the rules and procedures. I expand on rules and procedures that have caused the most grief in the past: Checking in, equipment, when to load a dog, how to carry a dog in the sled, sled bags, loose teams,  getting to the start line, marking/identifying dogs and conduct while on the trail.

Sit down and write a list of all the things you will need to get to the race site, race your dogs and then get the entire unit back home.  Make several copies for future use, revise your list as you learn, but use the list every time and cross nothing off the list until you know it is in the truck ready to go.

I have had drivers arrive at a race site only to realize they forgot some really important pieces and parts such as harnesses, lines, sleds and dogs. Have a list, use the list properly.

I strongly urge you to arrive at the race start at least 90 minutes before the scheduled start of your heat. Not 90 minutes before your start time, but the start time of the heat.

As soon as you get to the race site, check in and pick up whatever bib(s) who will need that day. You and you alone are responsible to check in and pick up the correct bibs at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start time for your race. You must do this each day of multiday races. If you fail to do this before the 15-minute call for your class your participation in that class is over, regardless of your standing in the class from previous days. It does not matter why you failed to check in.  You can have someone else go into the hall to check you in and pick up your Bib(s), but you are responsible for it being done correctly and on time.

You are checked in and you have your bib now go find a post to park at. Once your truck is parked start your preparations for your race.

Drop your dogs. Let them pee and get a nose full to think about.

Get your sled off your truck, if it is a Lego sled, put it together. Connect the sled to your truck or the post. I strongly suggest you use two safeties for this connection: some form of a quick release and at least a hook from your sled tied or chained to the post. The goal is that if one fails you won’t have your team running loose.

Get your lines, hold-out hook, sled bag (if not already in your sled) out and hooked up. Note: your handler can assemble your Lego sled, attach a sled bag, attach the safeties but you personally must check and make 100 percent sure that everything is in proper order. I strongly urge that you and only you make the actual connection of the towline (mainline), snow hook lines, and shock absorber to the bridle of the sled and lock the carabineer.

Make sure you have spare necklines, a spare tugline (with snaps included) a very sharp fix blade knife (blunt point if possible) on your person. In a race you don’t have time to dink around with a folding knife or one that is attached to your sled. If you’re running any cable lines, a good quality cable cutter is wise to have in case you have a terrible day and a dog manages to get tangled in the cable line. All of this should be easily reachable on your body. Again, the knife should be on your body.

Winter gear: have it. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your dogs.

Getting to the start line in a timely, safe and orderly manner

Arriving at the race site at least 90 minutes early gives you more than enough time to be ready to leave your truck with  your bib on, with your dog team to be at the start line within two minutes of your starting time.

When you have 7-8 minutes before your start time and if you have everything ready, and your dogs are harnessed, you and one other person can easily hook up and move your team at a walk to the starting line to arrive just in time to see the team in front of you launch. Then you can calmly and purposefully move your team the last few feet into the starting position.

The above applies to at least up to and including 10 dog teams, open teams might take a bit longer.

This is important because you don’t want your dogs to have to stand in harness at your truck any longer than absolutely necessary. Just because everyone else is hooking up and there is 10 minutes before the first team is slated to launch does not mean you need to or should begin hooking dogs.

You hook your dogs when YOU are ready and need to, not when anyone else is. Think for yourself and focus on what you need to do.

ADMA does not allow flying starts. This is when you have your team running towards the start line with the intent of getting there just as the tower gives the “Go”. This will earn you an instant disqualification. Also, you are not allowed to run your dogs towards the starting chute as you might during a training run. A race is not a training run.

Your team must be at a full standing stop in the starting position prior to the “Go” command. You have a full two minutes of time to be at the start line. Use it for any last minute adjustments your equipment or team needs.

You can have as many handlers as you want to help you from your truck to the start line and they can stay with your team to help manage the team up until the “Go”. They must, at that time release, step backwards and are now spectators.

One of your handlers is your designated handler.

You pick the person. It is best if that person knows your dogs well and knows dogs well enough in general to deal with them safely while they are in the excited state at the start line. This designated handler may continue to assist you after the “Go” until your team reaches the end of the chute. The end of the chute is far enough away from the start line to cause the designated handler to generally hate you and speak poorly of you after you are finally underway.

When you are at the line and on the sled never let off the break suddenly causing a loud noise thus causing the dogs to lunge forward. Sled holders are hard to come by so be nice to them.

Do not call up the dogs until the tower gives the “Go”.  Do not push the sled forward, do not pull the hook until told to, do not attempt to give any orders or instructions to the sled holder. They will hold the sled until the “Go”.

If, for whatever reason you fail to have your team at the start line at a standing stop prior to the “Go” you shall be declared a late starting team. You will have your team turned away from the starting chute and you will follow the last scheduled team of your class after a standard two-minute interval. Your time will be running from the time you were originally supposed to leave.

You have finished the race when the first body part of the first dog that crosses the finish line. It could be the tip of the tail of one of your wheel dogs. Once that happens get on your break and shut your team down.  Do not wait for your entire team and sled to cross. First dog crosses, your break comes down, Except, when another team is screaming up behind you. Then slow your team and give the other team’s first dogs room to cross then work together to get back to your trucks. This is a really important time for your handler to be near the finish line to catch your unit. This is not a place for children, or anyone who is unaware.


Everything changes, nothing remains the same, equipment wears out when it is not convenient and dogs are the Artful Dodger.

Dogs will slip their collars and do so at the worst possible time. How does this happen? Easy, you failed to properly adjust the collar. You failed to make checking collar fit a weekly routine.

Now, for spectator comedy relief you try to put the same poorly adjusted collar that is attached to the neck line back on a now sanctified escape artist who is attached to a tug line by its harness all the while your count down is getting closer to “Go” and/or you are trying to get to the starting line from your truck.

Stop. Deep Breath. Remove the neckline snap from the collar. Adjust the collar down a bit, put it back on the dog and reattach the neckline. If possible, assign someone to keep the dog from backing out again. It is bring the collar to the dog, not bring the dog to the collar.

Better yet. During your magical 90 minutes, check every dog’s collar while you are walking around the truck.

Gear-dogs-sled-truck, “Good enough” or “this should work” is not Good Enough.

I understand the cost of this sport, I understand how things wear out, and I understand how dogs can destroy things just being dogs. You are asking these dogs to give you their best, and they will do it. They deserve your best. Every bit/piece of gear/equipment they are subjected to must be the very best you can give them. Every piece of gear and equipment will break, wear out or just get trashed. The safety and well-being of your dogs depend upon the quality and condition of the gear. Check it constantly, replace and repair it for the safety and well-being of your dogs.

And NEVER use something new in a race!

Alligators/Excitable/ Aggressive Dogs:

If you have a dog that gets mouthy i.e. grabs hold of your coat, your hand, or your leg during hook up, or actually gets so excited during hook ups that a bite potential is real, or has actually bitten another dog in another team during training: Leave it at home. Work with it and try to teach it appropriate behavior, give it a toy to chew on during hook ups, but don’t subject everyone to this dog.

If a dog acts out and bites a human or another dog at a race, odds are pretty good the dog has done this before. There is zero tolerance at races for this type of behavior. If you choose to bring such a dog to a race be prepared to face the legal and financial consequences of doing so. It is not your right to subject another dog or any human to such behavior from one of your dogs.


There is no other situation in sprint dog racing that results in more troubles, conflicts or unsportsmanlike like behavior and disqualifications than when one team is about to pass, is passing and after the pass with another team.

The problem begins when the overtaking team approaches the slower team and the driver requests the right of way by simply saying “Trail”. At this point problems can begin.  And the problems begin because somebody brought their EGO. If you brought your ego, it is right now where you could easily do something stupid. It is irrelevant how the team caught yours or why it caught yours. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the other team has caught yours and now has the absolute and non-arguable right to the trail and an unimpeded pass.

You are not out there alone. Unless you leave the starting line as the last team, you know there is at least another team behind you. If you go out first, you know every other team in your heat is behind you.

No two teams will run at exactly the same speed. If your team is faster and you have a clean run you probably won’t be caught. If either of these two things are not the case, you may very well find yourself in a pass.

No person has ever entered a race hopeful of being passed. And no one gets happily excited when they realize there is someone coming up on them with the intent of passing. This is one of those times where your ego is not your friend. Never, ever, write ego on your list of things to bring to a race.

When you are on the trail during a race it is not the time to zone out and go to Candy Land or Happy Land or where ever your special place might be.

I know, some of you may be thinking that it seems sort of unfair to have all these expectations and responsibilities  put on you when the passing driver has only a couple.

A passing driver should get all the gear away from their mouth before requesting trail. They should not request the trail by saying: Trail, Trail, Trail, oh please trail.  It should be: TRAIL! But remember, no matter what, it is upon the driver of the overtaken team to maintain awareness.

It is your total responsibility to give trail and assist the other team with all the help you can to get it past yours in the safest and most expeditious manner possible. 

The biggest help you can give any passing team is to not have any dogs in your team that will reach out and bite at or attempt to jump on a dog in the passing team. 

At all championship races of the ADMA the ISDRA Passing Rule is read aloud in its entirety to the drivers. The fine points are explained; and this is the case at every championship race, every year.

It is understood in both sets of rules that the preferred method is for a moving pass where both teams are moving. This has been proven over many years to be the very best way to do a pass. It greatly reduces the chances of problems. The team being passed should not be stopped unless the driver of the passing team says: “STOP.” 

It is also understood that nothing is to be gained by either team if they both get into a pass, repass, pass, repass situation. The truth is if teams get into this situation both are placing themselves in jeopardy of disqualification.

A Few Points On Passing

“The overtaken team shall make way for the passing team by steering the sled to one side of the trail, slowing his team and, if demanded by the overtaking team driver, stopping and keeping the team from moving forward.”

This means, steer your sled to the same side of the trail your front end is favoring. This prevents your team from becoming a diagonal block. The object is to make a hole for the passing leaders.

Communication before a heat of the race between the drivers is normally a good thing. It can really help things go smoother. Once again here comes the ego thing, most of the time people know who has potentially the fastest team and then you have the wild cards and then the known slower teams. If you think there is a chance for a pass it is a good idea to talk with the folks with whom you might be interacting with in a pass.

You may have had the experience of a driver coming up and announce to you “my dogs like to pass on the right/left side, whatever.” I always have to watch myself carefully when I hear that because my impulse is to reply with “yeah, I don’t like pineapple on my pizza. Ego boy or girl has just tried to dominate you. Remember that you are to make way for the passing team by steering the sled to one side of the trail. If you do that you will have created a hole for the other team’s leaders to run through. If you have done that you are golden. The rules don’t care which side the hole is on.

Once you have steered the sled to one side of the trail, you are to slow your team as you steer the sled. To slow your team use your mat, use the heels of your feet, use the soles of your feet, but stay off the break for right now.

If the overtaking team’s leaders are within a few feet of your sled and you pound the break you are going to throw all kinds of snow or ice chunks directly into the eyes of the leaders, blinding them, making a clean pass even more unlikely.

Remember: “If demanded by the overtaking team driver, stopping and keeping the team from moving forward.” So don’t stop, stay off the break unless the overtaking team’s driver tells you to stop. And “STOP” is the magic word. If the driver doesn’t say stop don’t stop, just keep your unit moving forward slowly.

Overtaking driver, when you get within 50 to 60 feet of the other team do the Trail! call.  Don’t wait until your leaders are half down the other team. Give the other driver time to get their mat down.

Another option to consider is when the pass is going just beautifully and the passing sled is moving by your team nicely you can hit you break just as his steam gets to your leaders. Sit there and count slowly to 10. Let that team get its steam back up. You can tell your unit what great dogs they are and at ten come off the break

Remember, in the 4- and 6-dog classes you can’t even begin a repass for two minutes or half a mile and for classes of 8-dogs or more,  it is four minutes or one mile. As I have mentioned before, few good things happen if you and another team get in a pass, repass game. In training that is one thing, in a race don’t do it.

Now, if a pass doesn’t go as sweetly as the ideal what happens?

If the passing team becomes tangled or bunched up in the course of the pass, to allow time to untangle and tighten lines, that team’s driver may require the overtaken team to remain stopped for up to one minute in the Unlimited and Limited Classes involving eight or more dogs, half a minute in all other classes.

That is real simple. A dog gets a half hitch around a leg, you stay stopped and let the driver fix the problem.  

Now, when do you not have to wait? When a driver begins to repair gear (replaces a neck line, or a snap, or repairs the back loop on a harness) or when the driver unhooks and transfers a dog or dogs from one position in the team to another position in the team or goes off the race trail before the above mentioned distance or time interval has elapsed.

Loading a dog in the sled constitutes changing a dog’s position in the team.

Drivers, remember things go far better if all of you treat each other respectfully before the race. During the race things like passing go far better if neither driver decides to become a Richard.

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