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.