Weird weather makes Iditarod training a challenge

Posted: Wednesday, January 10, 2001

ANCHORAGE Mushers training for the 2001 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race have been thrown into an ugly parallel universe.

Instead of riding racing sleds along sleek, snow-covered trails, their dog teams have been pulling four-wheelers over bumpy, bare ground.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look out the window and know it's weird," said Iditarod race manager Jack Niggemyer, commenting on the weather.

The crummy training conditions have been hard on Iditarod rookies who don't have the financial resources to load their dog trucks and go where the snow is, Niggemyer said.

Many of them have to work and can't take time off from their jobs to travel. They need snow on the ground near where they live, which hasn't happened in most parts of Alaska.

Niggemyer is concerned the rookies won't get enough training miles in to prepare for the 1,100-mile race to Nome, scheduled to start March 3. Thirty-one rookies have signed up for the race.

"Ultimately our concern is, 'Can they take care of their dogs?"' he said.

To compete in the Iditarod, rookies must have completed at least 500 miles of qualifying races in the previous two seasons. Most choose to do a 200-mile and a 300-mile race.

The rules won't be changed for rookies who haven't qualified by the start, Niggemyer said.

"The reality is, 'That's the breaks,"' he said.

Rookie Danny Seavey, 18, and his father, veteran Iditarod musher Mitch Seavey, have been relying on friends in Nenana to rack up training miles on their 48 dogs.

Training on trails nearer to home in Seward is out of the question. It was 40 degrees and raining Monday.

"That's pretty much the way the whole southern part of the state is," Danny Seavey said. "You can't be this far into the season and waiting for snow to train your dogs."

National Weather Service spokesman Dave Vonderheide said the temperatures for November and December in Anchorage, when combined, were the warmest on record, dating back to 1915. The average temperature in December was 25.2 degrees, almost 9 degrees above normal.

Seavey said rookies were hurt earlier in the training season when smaller, nonqualifying races were canceled. That's where rookies pick up tips from the more experienced mushers on how to run the Iditarod, he said.

It seems nearly all the Iditarod mushers are affected, "Except for (Doug) Swingley, who has the whole state of Montana to play in and there's plenty of snow," Niggemyer said. The defending champion from Lincoln, Mont., is the only Iditarod champion to live outside Alaska.

The Knik 200 Sled Dog Race, an Iditarod qualifier that was to be held in late December, was indefinitely postponed.

That put a lot of pressure on organizers of the Klondike 300 Sled Dog Race, another Iditarod qualifier, not to cancel their race, even though there was running water under the snow on part of the trail. The solution was to change the course, said race secretary Bob Spears.

About 50 mushers - 10 to 15 more than normal - have signed up to run the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race out of Glennallen on Saturday, said race manager John Downes.

"There are a lot of names I don't recognize," he said. "All of a sudden they said they were going to come. There is a bunch of them that have to qualify."

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