Saturday, November 26, 2011
Basic Iditarod Strategy
The Iditarod has been described as a chess match where all the players move at once and you can only see your pieces. It is subtle, nuanced, and incredibly complex. But given that there are a few basic principles that apply.
First you are only as fast as your slowest dog. An example of that was the 1996 Iditarod in Kaltag where Jeff King dropped a dog because he worked too hard. Sounds crazy, but because that dog worked so hard he needed extra rest. Jeff couldn’t convince him to ease off. When the rest of the team was ready to leave Kaltag, this dog was still resting. So Jeff left him behind. That was one of many decisions that contributed to Jeff’s win that year.
Dropping a dog can help the team go faster. The more dogs in the team the more power you have. In bad trail conditions and/or hills that might equate to speed. But on a hard fast level trail, once you reach a minimum number to pull the sled (maybe 6 to 8 dogs), it doesn’t make any difference.
Second, if you over run your dogs, they will slow down. Then they will not recover their earlier speed during that race. During training, each dog team negotiates among themselves to come up with a preferred traveling pace. Something they are comfortable with and that leaves them some reserves after the long runs the musher puts on them in training. Frequently the musher slows them down even more. The faster you run the harder it is on the body and the longer a rest you need to recover and maintain that speed.
If you run the dogs further than they are trained for, this negotiated speed is too fast. Then the dogs need extra rest to recover. If you cut their rest too to keep up with another team, they don’t have the reserves they need to maintain that negotiated speed and they slow down. Take them over that edge and extra rest at the next stop, even your 24 hour rest, will not be enough to get that original speed back. One of the first signs a musher will see is dogs that lose some of their appetite. A team where all the dogs eat like wolves is feeling good and ready to keep racing.
Every competitive musher walks a knife edge in his run rest cycle. Give the dogs more rest than they need and you leave time on the table (you could have finished faster). Don’t give them as much rest as they need and you slow down and are no longer competitive.
This brings us to the third strategy of the race. The strong teams will try to draw the slightly weaker teams into keeping up with them and blowing up their dog team. That means driving them hard enough they lose that original speed they had. Then the other team is no longer a threat.
Of course the other side of that is that you might have misjudged your team and will blow them up in the effort. It is kind of like a game of “chicken” crossed with “catch me if you can”. If you have a strong team that you have run conservatively (not too fast or long and a little extra rest), that is eating well and feeling righteous, you can cut corners (rest), pull off long runs (if you’ve trained for that), and dare the other teams to try to follow you. For each musher, knowing how fast to run, how long to run at that speed, and how long to rest your particular dog team after that run is the crux of the problem. Each team is different. Of course the strengths of the musher play into this also. Optimizing the run/rest strategy and keeping it optimized as conditions (weather, dogs health, mushers health, trail surface, etc.) change is one of the real challenges mushers face on the Iditarod Trail.
Keep ‘em Northbound