In “Lessons from the Iditarod,” a presentation Dr. Davis gave at the American Physiological Society’s conference, Davis stated that the dogs “displayed most of the metabolic changes that are found in human endurance athletes during their first day of exercise…” including depletion of muscle energy reserve, stress hormone increases, and evidence of cellular injury.
However, and this is the kicker, in subsequent days of similar exercise intensity, the changes reversed and within four days the dogs’ metabolic profile returned to where it had been before the race began.
Iditarod dogs, Davis added, consume up to 12,000 calories a day, the equivalent of 24 McDonald’s Big Macs. For humans to fuel the same amount of power during distance events, we’d have to eat a staggering 72 Big Macs.
Out in Sterling, two-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey owns a large-sized kennel of about 150 dogs. He hails from a prominent mushing family. His father, Dan, has run the Iditarod and his son, Dallas, is a four-time Iditarod champion and last year’s winner.
Seavey is personable and friendly. And when he talks mushing, his voice deepens and his tone becomes more expansive.
Iditarod sled dogs aren’t ordinary dogs, he says. They’re very much a pack animal. “They’re very satisfied and content to hang out with each other and yes, they’re excited to see us coming—it could be because of food or hooking them up, and that’s exciting to them. But they’re really happier hanging out with their buddies.”
Their nature is closer to wild canines, he says, and because of this, they’re more raw, more instinctive. “That pack instinct is very important in understanding and training them,” he says.
For this Iditarod, he’s training his dogs all year round, a variation from traditional methods, where sled dogs typically experience an off-season.
“We didn’t do that this year,” he says. “No ultra-marathoner is going to take six months off.”
They’re also experimenting with essential oils and various other supplements, to improve cartilage and joints.
In addition, he’s teaching the puppies to eat well.
“One of the difficulties and important aspects of having an efficient checkpoint is having dogs that eat efficiently,” he says. “They have to eat right now, and we try to train that into the dogs as puppies.”
He believes that dogs neither know nor care about winning.
“They love to be around other teams. We may think, oh, they want to catch and pass the other team but really they just want to be around other dogs,” he says. “They don’t think, Oh, we got here first and you didn’t. But they do sense my urgency and excitement.”
To protect dogs and mushers, the Iditarod Trail Committee imposes strictly enforced rules and regulations which, according to ITC board member and longtime Iditarod finisher Aaron Burmeister, evolved from the first Iditarod race, over 40 years ago.
These rules span from qualifications to what to do if big game needs to be killed in defense of life or property (Answer: a musher must stop and gut the animal).
The majority of dog-care rules are formulated as preventative measures designed to help ensure dogs are healthy at the start of the race and throughout. The rules include a list of prohibited drugs, a pre-race veterinary exam, mandatory blood tests, and EKGs for all dogs plus a whole slew of required vaccines.
“When you’re looking at these rules, it comes down to the safety of the dogs and mushers and everyone out there,” Burmeister said.
This year, the board implemented a new rule allowing cell phones and two-way communication devices. Many mushers aren’t happy with this, including Burmeister.
“I have no need for it,” he said. “As a musher, it’s a distraction. That’s my 10 days or two weeks that I have no one to answer to but me and my dog team, and that’s what I love about it.”
But as an ITC board member, Burmeister views
“In terms of safety, you’re going to the middle of nowhere. I have to look at the best interest of the race,” he said.
During last year’s race, a snowmachiner attacked Aliy Zirkle’s and Jeff King’s teams, killing a dog from each team and injuring several others.
The new ITC rule doesn’t require mushers to carry a two-way communication device. It’s optional. Still, with it comes the possibility of mushers using phones to seek outside advice or coaching.
“People who are going to cheat are going to cheat,” Burmeister said. “We find that in every sport.”
Tucked away outside of Fairbanks, five-time Iditarod finisher Jodi Bailey trains sled dogs at Dew Claw Kennel, where she keeps 22 race dogs plus yearlings. She raises her team at home, where her philosophy centers on dogs, not winning.
“Sometimes you will be out on the trail, somewhere so beautiful it is surreal, and you look at that team moving like a well-oiled machine in front of you, not for money or fame but because that is what they do, and it is so beautiful I am moved to tears.”
She likens running a kennel to building a community, with shared expectations, communications, rituals, and structure.
“It’s about taking these amazing dogs and watching them grow and working with them to help them become the amazing athletes they are capable of being,” she says.
She feeds her team what the majority of mushers feed their dogs: High quality dog kibble supplemented with beef, salmon, beaver, moose, and high-fat foods such as chicken skins.
Her dogs continually amaze her.
“They are the best traveling buddies I could ask for. And to be honest, they’re good company all of the time. Most days I prefer the company of my dogs to people.”
The Iditarod is an often misunderstood race, and one that takes a lot of criticism from animal rights organizations, most of which are situated down in the Lower 48.
“We don’t support long-distance racing,” said Ashley Keith, a Sled Dog Action Coalition Volunteer. “In many states it would actually be illegal for the Iditarod to operate.”
Keith, who said that she’s handled at multiple Iditarod and Yukon Quest races and once dreamed of running the Iditarod, said that she walked away from the race after handling at an Iditarod kennel.
“What I witnessed in my few short weeks there were the worst kennel conditions and husbandry techniques I had yet to come across,” she said.
Dr. Paula Kislak, of the Humane Society Veterinary Association, said that her biggest concern is the grueling nature of the 1,000 mile race course.
“These dogs are being forced to perform extreme and prolonged exercise that is not natural to their organ and muscle functioning,” she said.
Humans aren’t coerced to perform athletically and Kislak would therefore like to believe that mushers wouldn’t force exhausted or sick dogs to run.
“But unfortunately that is exactly what happens all too routinely,” she said. “There are great financial rewards and celebrity to be garnered—but none for the dog.”
According to Burmeister, race judges and veterinarians are at every checkpoint to evaluate the dogs and make sure mushers follow all dog care rules.
“As a musher, reading dogs is instinct to us. It’s like motherly instinct: No matter how tired you are, when that baby cries you’re going to get up and take care of it.”
Seavey put it a little more forcefully. “There’s always been people trying to oppose the Iditarod. To me, it’s a bunch of nit-wits patting themselves on the back.”
Back at the Team Janssen Kennel, chunks of very pungent meat thaw in large white buckets as Scott Janssen readies himself to return to his other life as funeral home owner. Janssen, who calls himself the Mushing Mortician, is the epitome of sled-dog caretaker. Soft-spoken and unassuming, he became famous during the 2012 Iditarod for giving mouth-to-snout resuscitation to one of his team members. That dog, Marshall, retired and lived the high life in Janssen’s family home before passing away of old age at 14.
Janssen raises all of his puppies in his house, where they have free access to the bed and the sofa. Such bonding, he believes, is essential. It builds trust. He sees his dogs as part of his family and strives to give them as much love and affection as possible.
“I talk to my dogs just like I do to my grandbabies,” he says. “Sometimes when I’ve been stranded on the trail, my dogs have been there for me one hundred percent,” he says.
Cinthia Ritchie is an award-winning Alaskan writer who runs ridiculously long distances over mountain trails with her dog, Seriously. She hopes to one day be reincarnated as a sled-dog racer.