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Follow that musher!

Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2008

ANCHORAGE - It's always been impossible to witness the entire length of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race except, of course, for the competitors. Many top contenders like it that way.

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Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News Quinn Iten, Of Kotzebue, Alaska Puts Booties On His His Dog Beavis While His Other Dog, Gray, Is Ready To Go At The Takotna Checkpoint On Thursday During The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News Quinn Iten, Of Kotzebue, Alaska Puts Booties On His His Dog Beavis While His Other Dog, Gray, Is Ready To Go At The Takotna Checkpoint On Thursday During The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

But organizers say fans will get the next best experience in the 36th running of the 1,100-mile race, which begins with a ceremonial start Saturday in Anchorage. Race buffs around the world will be able to follow online the virtual progress of 20 veteran mushers whose sleds are rigged with technology derived from instruments used to track oil-pipeline inspection tools.

"Basically, it winds up looking like a video game but it's a way to watch a representation of an event that's happening many thousands of miles away - in real time," said Jerry Miller with IonEarth, a satellite race tracking company based in Traverse City, Mich.

The company is teaming up with the Iditarod and Iridium Satellite LLC for the test run they hope will become an annual feature involving all mushers.

This year's experiment developed after IonEarth approached Iditarod officials, who quickly recognized the system's applications for keeping fans up to the minute and alerting race supporters about the occasional lost musher. Among mushers and fans, however, the concept is generating some mixed reviews.

The 30-ounce units carried by mushers will emit logistical data every 15 minutes that will instantly be processed by Iridium's global network of satellites and wind up as a free service this year on the Iditarod's Web site. Iditarod and IonEarth officials say the Web link will be up and running by the time the competitive race begins Sunday in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. A record field of 96 mushers is competing this year.

The tracking system is a simplified application of technology used in highly complex devices that monitor "smart pigs," tools sent through oil pipelines to assess their condition.

Race personnel equipped with similar devices and working in remote locations will be able to monitor the mushers. Fans will see where the dog teams - symbolized by a tiny person on a sled - are along the trail. Also posted will be speed, direction, altitude and temperature, as well as supplementary musher bios. Fans can choose various views, including three-dimensional and aerial modes, which show past images of the actual terrain. Viewers can zoom in or out.

"For race fans, having that visible ability to track where the teams are in relationship to each other is something that will bring the race to life in a way they just haven't been able to do before," said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee.

But the idea of closely tracking the race is not entirely embraced by some mushers and contributors to a new fan forum on the Iditarod Web site.

Many mushers closely guard their strategies involved in running the world's longest sled dog race. For example, they can use rest times along the trail to conceal their true speed. What's to keep some rivals from getting crucial information sneaked to them or taking a peek at computers at the checkpoints?

And for many fans, not knowing where mushers are between checkpoints adds to the mystery of an event that usually takes at least 10 days for the winner to complete. The mounting excitement can be pleasantly unbearable.

Four-time winner Martin Buser, who holds the record for the fastest Iditarod, said he is participating reluctantly. The Big Lake musher will be giving up much valuable information, including secret resting places. He said the sacrifice would be more palatable with significantly larger prizes.

This year's purse is about $875,000, to be paid out to the top 30 finishers, with the winner receiving $69,000 and a new Dodge truck worth $45,000.

"We would love to continue participating in little public relations things like this, but we would like to see the increasing purse," Buser said. "By giving out a lot of propriety information, there's got to be a trade-off."

Last year's winner, Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, said that as a competitor, he understands the worries. But they're negligible concerns, considering the benefit to fans, said Mackey, who last March became the only musher to win both the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in the same year.

"If it wasn't for the people following the race, there wouldn't be a race at all," said Mackey, who won his fourth consecutive Yukon Quest Feb. 20. "It's minimal what we're being asked to do, so I'm all for it. It doesn't mean anyone can catch me."

Miller said that such worries about giving away strategies always emerge among competitors in other long-distance events, such as offroad and sailboat races, that the company tracks.

"The initial reaction is that changes will be for the worse rather than for the better," Miller said. "But what starts out as fear and apprehension turns into, 'Hey this is great."'

Iditarod officials said the concerns being voiced are valid and they're instructing checkpoint workers to be extra vigilant about keeping mushers from tracking information. Chances are far-fetched, however, that the equipment will affect the outcome, said race marshal Mark Nordman. He said most mushers approached are "thrilled" to participate.



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