Iditarod XLVII: 52 mushers are on their way to Nome
Bright sun and blue skies brought out big crowds to watch 52 mushers launch down 4th Avenue in Anchorage for the 47th ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The 2019 Iditarod competitor list is the smallest since 1989 when 49 teams were at the startline. There are 17 women racing alongside 35 men this year. Ten rookies are running, also a record low number, alongside five returning champions.
Reigning champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway is joined on the trail by four-time champions Martin Buser, Jeff King and Lance Mackey and three-time champion Mitch Seavey.
The race purse remains at last year’s levels of $500,000 total – about $250,000 less than the 2017 amount – with the expected top prize of $50,000 and a new truck.
Rules and Changes
Along with fewer mushers overall, there will also be fewer dogs on each team this year. One of the race rule changes for 2019 is a reduction in the maximum size of teams from 16 dogs to 14.
Head race veterinarian Stuart Nelson said that a lot of consideration went into that decision. “One of the things we were looking at is the return dog numbers,” Nelson said. He also explained that there is new terminology this year to go with the rule. “Rather than dropped dogs they are return dogs,” said Nelson. “Rather than being dropped from a team they are returned to their home kennel,” he said.
When making the decision Nelson described that the statistical probability of numbers of return dogs led to the decision to reduce the maximum team size to 14 dogs so ultimately that would mean fewer returned dogs to manage.
“Fewer dogs for mushers to have to focus on and fewer dogs per team for veterinarians to examine,” Nelson said. It is an evolution of the race Nelson stated. “This means veterinarians will have a greater opportunity for taking a longer look at dogs at each checkpoint and ultimately enhance dog care,” Nelson added.
The race has been challenged in recent years by dropped dog care at checkpoints, particularly when weather causes delays in returning those dogs back to Anchorage and ultimately their home kennels. In 2013, a dog from Paige Drobny’s team died when it suffocated in accumulating snow against a fence at the Unalakleet dog lot while awaiting a flight out. In 2017 a dog died, and others fell ill, after overheating on an airplane after being flown out of Galena.
Both instances forced reviews of procedures and changes in handling of dogs in subsequent years, but this is the first reduction in team sizes since the mid 1990s when the maximum number of dogs per team dropped from 20 to 16.
Acting Iditarod CEO Chas St. George, commented that some mushers racing this year can recall when 20 dogs were on a team. “[Comments] don’t all resonate the same way,” St. George said “Many mushers then said it would be no good for the dogs, but what happened was fewer injuries for less teams and noticeably fewer dog deaths and teams were faster with less dogs,” he said. St. George described the change as a “no brainer” as a matter of management. “Every musher says the same thing – 14 dogs can get you to Nome,” St. George said. St. George assumed the role of CEO when Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley resigned after 25 years at the helm to take a new unnamed job outside of Alaska a few months ago.
Dog care, safety and drug testing are driving the other rule changes for 2019. Also new this year, is automatic musher removal in the event of a dog’s death. Unless the death was due to an “unpreventable hazard,” a competitor will have to voluntarily scratch or be withdrawn by race officials. All dog deaths will also now be reviewed within 30 days of the end of the race.
Drug testing and handling of test results has also prompted changes to the race manual and a shake up in the board of directors and race administrators.
The alterations to the 2019 manual further refine the 2018 rule changes put in place surrounding banned substances and the punishment for the musher whose dogs test positive.
The Iditarod shifted the burden of proof to the musher. Before, it was the ITC that had to prove by whom and how the dogs were drugged before it could disqualify a musher. Under the new rule, the musher is automatically disqualified unless he or she could prove their innocence. This rule change came after a dramatic and drawn out announcement that four dogs from 2017 second-place finisher Dallas Seavey’s team tested positive for the banned opioid painkiller Tramadol. Iditarod ultimately apologized to Seavey in December for their handling of the incident and that they do not believe he had any involvement or knowledge of how his team came to test positive.
In addition to changes in the testing manual for staff and volunteers, the testing period has been extended to four hours after a team’s finish.
St. George said a team of “pee testers” randomly collected samples from dogs during the ceremonial start and a number of samples have already been sent on to the lab for testing. “The chain of custody is meticulous,” St. George stressed. “One thing we’re trying to do this year is work more with the University of Alaska’s veterinary medical program,” he said. “A majority of pee team testers are either veterinarians, vet techs or registered nurses along with experienced volunteers,” according to St. George.
Sizing up the competition and the trail
Fewer rookies this year means a greater number of veterans jockeying for advantage on the trail.
Defending champion Ulsom spoke with his usual quiet voice and with few spare words at the ceremonial start. He would not give any strategy away but announced that he will be carrying and spreading the ashes of legendary Alaskan Native musher Rudy Demoski on his way to Nome this year.
Demoski passed away in January 2018 at the age of 72 and was instrumental in jumpstarting the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race out of Bethel as well as running the Iditarod six times between 1974 and 1985. Demoski came back after a 28 year hiatus to attempt the Iditarod again in 2013, the same year Ulsom ran his first and finished as rookie of the year.
Ulsom recalled Demoski’s visiting his kennel before he passed away and that he enjoyed learning from the elder’s experiences. Demoski’s family asked Ulsom to carry the musher’s remains to sprinkle at various points along the trail.
Always a fan favorite, four-time winner Lance Mackey returns to the trail after a two-year break from racing in the Last Great Race. “I hope I live up to [fans] expectations and be the man they hope I can be,” Mackey told reporters at the ceremonial start.
“It’s awesome to be here. The fact that I am on the Avenue at the moment I feel I already won,” he said.
Mackey has faced several health issues since successfully battling throat cancer. Treatment left his teeth, jaw and hands in tough shape.
When asked how he faired health-wise he said, “If I wasn’t up to par I wouldn’t be here.” But Mackey explained that despite his history of issues, “I don’t think anybody would disagree that as life goes on and the older you get that you figure out how to do things.”
Mackey seemed most eager to get on the trail to thank his fans and to gain as much energy from their support as he would like to give back in effort to compete one more time.
“It’s overwhelming the amount of people who have told me how happy they are to see me in the event again,” Mackey said. “I am in awe of that and for me to thank the people and be sincere about that thank you, and the only way I know how to say thank you is to be on this trail.”
When one member of the gathering of reporters asked Mackey to sum up the ceremonial start, the trail veteran graciously referred to how a fellow multiple Iditarod winner described the event.
“Years ago Martin Buser put it best,” said Mackey. “Today is dress rehearsal. It’s about the fans, the sponsors, interacting and mingling with the people who came from all over the world to be a part of this. It’s an event like no other that an average person can be a part of.”
Nome’s hometown musher Aaron Burmeister returns to the trail again this year after a solid 12th place finish in 2018. Burmeister said his team looks good and that he was looking forward to a great race.
Burmeister, who is training out of Nenana, sent a shout out to Nome residents who have been battered and snowed in by recent storms. “Tell everybody to hang in there. I’ll fire up the loader and plow folks out when I get back,” he said.
Yukon Kuskokwim Delta favorite Richie Diehl of Aniak was looking upbeat and organized at the ceremonial start. The six-time finisher in as many starts, and with his highest place finish of sixth place last year, said he felt really relaxed this year after doing the race so many times.
As far as changes he said, “I’ve added some younger dogs to the team this year to add some youthful energy to the team.” Diehl said seven of his dogs are age three and under following behind veteran leaders and running alongside multiple Iditarod finishers.
Rookie racer from Kaktovik Martin Reitan, 21, cheerily greeted fans as hit the ceremonial trail wearing a jovial smile along with a myriad of bright colored clothing, including rainbow suspenders. Reitan is fresh off his rookie of the year run of last month’s Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Referring to the Iditarod, “It’ll be different. It’ll be warmer,” he said. Reitan said he added some dogs from fellow competitor Jessie Holmes’ kennel to run with eight dogs from his 14th place Yukon Quest team. “We rested a lot on the Quest so it was a really big training session for those eight dogs and now they are stronger for it,” he said. Martin Reitan is the youngest of two sons of seven-time race finisher Norwegian Ketil Reitan and Inupiaq Native Evelyn Anguyak Reitan. Reitan’s older brother Vebjorn ran the Yukon Quest in 2018. It was a family affair on Saturday as both mom and dad helped with the dog team. Evelyn also makes the majority of her sons’ clothing for the trail. “She’s sewn my parka that I wore on the Quest and a new parka cover just for this race,” Reitan said. “I’m not sure I’ll get to wear the caribou socks she made me, though,” Reitan added, referring to the predicted warmer temperatures for the Iditarod trail.
Teams will follow the slightly longer 998-mile southern route this year, as opposed to the 975-mile northern route.
According to St. George and race marshal Mark Nordman, trail conditions are good this year with enough snow to keep teams moving at a steady pace through the mountain ranges and along the Yukon River.
In fact a recent shift in temperatures and large dumping of snow in the area of the Willow re-start, about 50 miles north of Anchorage, prompted officials to move the location of the start line up off the lake ice and on land next to the Willow Community Center.
The lake was safe for mushers to travel across but not advisable to park dog trucks and other vehicles on the ice as in past years given additional wet and heavy load of new snow, according to a statement from race officials.
Competitors launched from Willow under softly falling snow on Sunday afternoon. At the time of publication, the front running teams were making steady progress over the Alaska Range and pushing toward McGrath.
In an earlier statement by Nordman, a lack of ice around Norton Sound will keep teams inland when the race hits the Bering Sea coast.
The race features domestic and international competitors from Alaska, Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as dog drivers from Alabama, North Carolina and California. The international field includes four Canadians, two Norwegians including the defending champion, Ulsom, and one musher each from Sweden and France.