Saturday, November 5, 2011
So you want to run Iditarod
Many people picture Iditarod mushers as extremely tough Neolithic cavemen types who drive a team of half-wild wolves through sheer force. Others picture superman driving a team of genetically enhanced dogs that can leap of tall building in a single bound and pull a heavy sled while running up a vertical wall of solid ice. Neither picture is correct; and that is the true magic and wonder of this race.
Iditarod drivers are normal everyday people from all walks of life, who do extra ordinary things with dogs that range from exceptional animals like Munch and Solomon to rescues from the pound. Admittedly the pound dogs don’t win, but they get the job done. So let’s say you want to run this race, what would that take? Not surprisingly, it is a lot like the skills needed to live life.
The first thing that comes to mind is winter dog driving skills. These include how to care for the dogs, how to care for yourself, how to handle the sled, how to pick good camping spots, how to find shelter when necessary, etc. These are all skills anyone can learn, but they must be mastered before you try Iditarod. When it is ok, anyone can do it – but when it isn’t…
For example, let’s say that you live in a northern tier state and a good friend from Florida who has never seen snow wants to drive up in January to experience winter. Most of the time that isn’t a problem. The roads are typically bare and dry. You buy a good parka and boots and drive on up. But what if a winter storm builds and blocks the way. Does your friend have the winter driving skills to go through that? These are skills that anyone can learn, but they must be learned to live in the North Country.
The next is much harder. You need to know your limits and the limits of your team. What can you handle and when do you call it quits. This is just as important for veterans as it is for rookies. The first rule of survival is to recognize that you are in a survival situation and not just barrel ahead until you and the dogs perish. Just because Lance Mackey went through the coastal blizzard to Koyuk in 2009 doesn’t mean that you could. In fact, no less than Jeff King turned around and went back to Shaktoolik because he didn’t trust his dogs not to quit on that trail and he didn’t have enough supplies with him to camp and wait out the storm if they did. Both men made the right decision for their teams. This can be the toughest part for a rookie to master and may well mean you have to scratch.. In the above example, if you friend knows enough to stop and wait out a storm they don’t have the skills to handle (or turn around and go home), then tell them to come on up.
Finally you need coping skills. Not just to fix the things that break or adjust to the things that go wrong, but the dogs feed off the mushers attitude like you would not believe. They read us like a book. If we are happy, our dogs are happy. They can be sick, or tired, or injured and not able to perform at the level you desire, but if you can convince yourself that you and they are winners anyway, they will believe you.
But if you break your sled, or have to drop a key dog, or somebody passes you with a snowmachine and tears up the trail and you get angry and upset, the dogs will get stressed and not perform at the level you know they are capable of. Then you get more distressed, and the dogs get more depressed. This vicious cycle continues until you get happy, or you scratch.
So the answer is that anyone with a positive attitude who is willing to put in the time and effort necessary to learn the appropriate skills and has the moxie to reach deep inside when things get tough and keep a smile on their face can finish this race. It might take more than one shot depending on conditions, but you can do it. Like Jodi Bailey said “It’s not how often you fall, but how often you get up and can still smile, that makes you a winner.”
Keep ‘em Northbound