Andy’s Corner – Sleep Deprivation Takes It’s Toll

Jake Berkowitz’s tragic accident with his knife got me thinking about the issue of fatigue and sleep deprivation.  I have no way of knowing if his knife slipped because he was tired, but there is no question that the difficulty of every single action and decision made by a musher is amplified after a week on the trail.  In fact, there may be no single greater difficulty that confronts mushers on the Iditarod.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, mushers might get an hour or two of sleep during a break.  If they are taking two breaks a day, that comes to an absolute maximum of 4 hours of sleep, broken into two sessions.  Most of the frontrunners are getting one or two hours total in a day’s time.  Couple that with the cold, the monotony of endless hours on the sled, the dog chores in checkpoints, and the struggle to stay hydrated and fed day after day… and you have mushers that are veritable walking zombies by the time they reach the Bering Sea coast.  There are many stories of tactical errors made by mushers trying to make competitive decisions in the late stages of the race, and even more wild tales of hallucinations and dreams.  I, for one, thought the beach from Topkok Hills to Safety (the final checkpoint before Nome) had beautiful stands of spruce.  That was at 2 AM after 1,000 miles of racing.  There isn’t a tree for 30 miles, in reality, but by that point, everything outside the narrow beam of your headlamp is a fantasy world of weird creatures, trees, buildings, snowmachines, dog teams, and even whole villages that don’t exist.

Many race analysts believe that mushers at a certain age deal with the issue of sleep deprivation better that younger racers, and this is why, in their estimation, most Iditarod champions have been between the ages of 35 and 50 (basically, after the young adult years when a person requires more sleep, but before the years of physical limitations due to aging).  Pete and Dallas Seavey appear to be bucking that trend.  If you watch the Insider videos, Dallas is alert and sharp in every interview.  Pete is lucid and thoughtful in his KNOM and Insider appearances.  If Dallas goes on to win this race (which is looking more and more likely by the hour), it will be as much that be successfully battled the haze of extreme fatigue, as he battled the trail, the cold, and his competitors.

Andy’s Corner – Brawling at the Front has a Cost.

There is a recently established Iditarod theory that says if you make a strong-enough marathon run coming off of your 24 hour layover, you can crush your competition.  In 2006, Jeff King made an exceptional all-night run to Ruby that locked up his 4th championship.  In 2009, Lance Mackey made a similar move on the southern route that gave him his 3rd victory in a row.  This year, Mitch Seavey and Dallas Seavey both made powerful pushes to the front that almost every pundit (me included) figured would put them in the driver’s seat going down the Yukon River.  Not so fast.  Aliy Zirkle, who made a couple of strong moves in the race’s early going, made an equally powerful move by blowing through Ruby while Dallas and Mitch rested.  It was the equivalent of taking a right cross to the chin, staying on your feet, and countering with a left hook.

The problem for the frontrunners is that they may have traded too many punches in the last 300 miles.  Just behind the Seaveys, Zirkle, Baker, and crew, are Pete, Jake Berkowitz, and Ray Redington, Jr.  These guys are burning up the trail.  It is worth noting that Pete and Jake are good friends, and in fact, Pete trained out of Jake’s dog yard in the week before this Iditarod and in previous years.  They have been traveling together now for a majority of this race, and it seems to be working to their collective advantage.  There are several positive aspects of traveling and racing with someone… for one thing, you have somebody to BS with on the trail and in checkpoints.  It keeps things light, and keeps a musher from getting into their own head.  At the same time, it allows them to push each other competitively, and if one team is having a bad run or faltering in some way, the single best way to turn it around is to draft another team.

This has been the most dramatic race in recent memory, as far as top mushers trading the lead.  There may be one or two potential winners by White Mountain, but enjoy the next 200 miles of racing.  It’s been awesome and is only going to get better.

Andy’s Corner – A New Iditarod Emerges and a Close Race Materializes

Andy at his 2007 Iditarod Finish

Last night I noticed something noteworthy while watching the GPS trackers:  every musher in the race was between Nikolai and Ophir, within a 100 mile stretch of trail.  This is remarkable, and it’s not something I’ve seen before.  I believe what we’re seeing in this race is the fruition of years of effort by the Iditarod Trail Committee to limit the number of unqualified and inexperienced mushers taking part.  The current last-place team, for instance, is none other than Dan Seavey, patriarch of the Seavey mushing juggernaut, and veteran of the very first Iditarod in 1973.  Others in the back of the pack are also quite experienced dog drivers, and a number of the rookies are running younger puppy teams for Iditarod contenders.  Gone are the days of any yahoo showing up in Anchorage with a team of dogs.  (See my dad’s description of his rookie run in 1979).  Nowadays, in addition to the racing requirements (200 and 300 mile qualifiers), a rookie must provide a reference of an Iditarod veteran who can vouch for their mushing and wilderness survival ability.  This is in addition to the mandatory rookie meeting in December prior to the race, where they receive rigorous instruction on dog-care, trail hazards, and equipment, culminating with a visit to Martin Buser’s kennel.  This doesn’t take into account the immense expense and time allotment for their own training and preparation.

This is good and bad.  On the good side, dog care has dramatically improved (no dog deaths in the last two Iditarods), there are fewer scratches (no one likes to see someone’s work and investment end in failure), and the Iditarod organization is able to shore up their support (veterinarians, race judges, and volunteers are able to move up the trail more efficiently, not having to wait for stragglers).  This saves money for the race and helps promote a good image of professional dog drivers and well-cared-for dogs.  On the flip side, the overall number of young and rookie mushers getting into long-distance racing -already limited by the outrageous expense of having and maintaining a dog team- is hampered by the strict requirements placed on participating in the sport’s single biggest event.  At the same time, some of the frontier magic of the old Iditarod is gone.  Mushers coming off the trapline or showing up in Anchorage on a shoestring are a thing of the past.  This is why, I think, a lot of mushing fans are excited about some of the younger mushers from off the road system, like Pete, Mike Williams, Jr., and Josh Cadzow.  There is still an element of Bush Alaska pride that comes from bringing a team from off the road system to do battle with the established mushers from Fairbanks and the Matsu Valley.

Andy’s Corner – 24 Hour Layover

Andy and Pete at Willow Restart

We welcome Andy Angstman to the Kaiser Racing Family as our personal Eye on the Trail, so to speak. Andy has been around dogs and mushing since he could walk and has personal Iditarod Experience. Both he and his dad, Myron, have both run the Iditarod and many other races. His insight will be a valuable window into the Iditarod and what is happening day by day. Thanks Andy and Welcome!!

Here are a few thoughts from Andy about the 24-hour layover:

The most typical race strategy in the Iditarod, historically, is to run six hours and rest six hours.  Obviously, many frontrunners today run longer than they rest, but still, it is ideal to get two runs and two rests in daily.  This is best for the health of the dogs and also for the health and sanity of the musher.  The 24-hour layover, then, encompasses two run-rest cycles.  The mushers plan their time during this break to maximize the opportunity to get calories into their dogs and to rest their dogs and themselves.  This will be the first decent sleep Pete has gotten since last weekend, and the last he will get until next week at the Madden’s house on Front Street.  On a regular six-hour break, a musher might get one-and-a-half-hours of shuteye (many of the top mushers taking a 4 or 5 hour break will get less than an hour).  On a 24, they should get a couple of 6+ hour snoozes.

On the Iditarod, most mushers try to avoid running the dogs during afternoon, as the March sun can put a lot of stress on a team.  Furthermore, think about how you feel at 3 AM or 3 PM in the average 24-hour period.  Dogs follow similar circadian rythms to people, in that they want to sleep away the heat of the afternoon and the dark of the night. If we take the earlier idea of the run six/rest six into consideration, it is best to run a team from 6 PM until midnight, and again from 6 AM until noon, while resting from midnight until 6 AM and noon until 6 PM.  Those are, obviously, almost impossible to follow strictly, but you would be surprised how many dog mushers will shut their teams down at approximately those times of day and night.  Getting back to the 24 hour layover… Pete stopped at 3:21 AM last night, and with the adjusted time will leave at 4:37 AM tomorrow morning.  This is a good time to leave, because it allows him to do long run before the afternoon heat becomes a factor tomorrow.  A team pulling in at noon, and leaving at about noon the next day, has little choice but to swelter.  Also, a team pulling in at midnight will be leaving at about the following midnight and running through the darkest, sleepiest time of night, which is not ideal either.

Many mushers choose to take their break in Takotna these days, both for the competitive advantage (how the runs and rests set up coming and going from that checkpoint) and also because the hospitality is superb.  As a rookie in 2007, I wasn’t too worried about the competitive aspect, and in fact McGrath worked out well for me as a stopping point, coming off a tough first 300 miles.  As far as the hospitality was concerned, I asked five-time champ Rick Swenson before the race, “don’t they cook made-to-order steaks for every musher at Takotna?”  The classic Swenson reply: “those ladies in McGrath will cook anything you want any damn way you want it.”  So I stopped in McGrath.  It was a great place to take a long break.  For one thing, at that time my friend Joe Dale owned Joe’s Bar, right next to McGwire’s Tavern.  I may or may not have had a pint of beer in there during my layover (which is generally frowned upon by the Iditarod folks).

As for what it’s like in and around the checkpoint, try to imagine a calming, almost eerie silence outside among the dog teams, especially at night.  Tonight after sunset there will be, literally, hundreds of dogs sleeping in Takotna, and it will be almost totally quiet save for the occasional snowmachine rolling past.  At the same time, step inside the McGrath or Takotna community center and it is lively as can be.  Mushers, checkers, veterinarians, race judges, volunteers, kids, hangers-on, all sitting around chowing down on food and conversing.  The discussion can get quite lively, especially among the mushers who have had a few hours of rest and are already telling stories from the first 300+ miles of trail.  The trick is to get your fill of food, hydrate yourself, exchange a few pleasantries, and head back out to your dog team (and eventually back to the sleeping cabin).  Pete is a disciplined musher and his checkpoint routine is solid, a lot like John Baker, Jeff King, and other perennial frontrunners.

Some thoughts on the Race as Team Kaiser Leaves Nikolai

Team Kaiser is just now leaving Nikolai and appears to be sticking to a pretty strict regimen of rest run periods.

I just got these thoughts from Andy Angstman, who has run the Iditarod in the past and part of the Angstman Dog Dynasty here in Bethel. Well worth reading:

This morning I, like many other race observers, tried to unravel the mystery of run-times from Rohn to Nikolai.  Some of the more obvious time-discrepancies were easily decipherable, especially if you noticed that Aliy Zirkle, Jeff King, and others camped out late last night near the exit of the Alaska Range by Egypt Mountain (there’s a usually-open creek that offers a good campsite there).  Aliy’s time on that run was 13 hours and 48 minutes, compared to John Baker’s run of 9 hours and 55 minutes.  Obviously, John ran basically straight through.

But further down the standings, I noted some rather remarkable differences in times not accounted for by stopping on the 70+ mile haul to Nikolai.  Take, for instance, the case of Pete Kaiser and Tom Thurston.  Pete left Rohn at 3:13 AM, and arrived 9 hours and 32 minutes later in Nikolai.  Tom left Rohn at 5:00 AM, and beat Pete to Nikolai by two minutes!  How is this possible?  Well, the Iditarod requires that every musher sign in to a checkpoint, but nobody has to sign out.  This morning, Iditarod race headquarters probably asked the Rohn checker what time Tom Thurston left last night.  The likely response?  “Oh, about 5:00 AM.”  Rohn at 5:00 AM is dark, crowded, and busy.  It is easy to imagine that a number of teams slipped out in the night without a checker getting an accurate time into the book.  Tom will be able to look back at his run across the burn as possibly the greatest highlight of his mushing career: 7 hours 43 minutes!  Don’t believe everything that you read.

This is why the run from Nikolai to a team’s 24 hour layover is so telling.  We DO get fairly accurate departure times from the checkers in Nikolai and McGrath, especially in the daylight, with more checker help (because these checkpoints are more accessible), and because the teams are starting to spread out more.

As a final thought, I am constantly baffled by the red line that is purported to be the race trail on the Iditarod Insider/GPS Tracker page.  The line was clearly drawn in a cursory, abbreviated fashion.  Teams are usually nowhere near the red line, and a lot of casual race fans are left scratching their heads.  A few years ago, I was asked to draw a similar red line on a Google Earth map of the Kuskokwim 300 trail.  Counting the Whitefish Loop, that meant tracing over about 200 miles of trail before it doubled back on itself at Kalskag.  I zoomed in as close as the resolution would allow and went mile by mile, trying to accurately trace the portages, tundra trails, and slough crossings as I remembered them after running the Kusko three times.  It took me about two hours.  I would hope the Iditarod Insider could hire a veteran to do the same with their race map.