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ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The pace of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has quickened over the years, thanks to innovations in dog breeding and gear, and stiffer competition among mushers.
The winner of the first Iditarod in 1973 needed 20 days to cover the 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome. In 1998, eleven mushers completed the race in less than half that time, and even the last-place finisher arrived in just over 14 days.
The 28th Iditarod started Saturday with a record field of 81 mushers competing for a record purse of $525,000. The winner will take home $60,000 and a new pickup truck.
The field includes six former winners, including defending champion Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., who finished in nine days, 14 hours. Swingley owns the race record of nine days, two hours, set in 1995.
It's animal rights time once againBy LEW FREEDMANTHE ASSOCIATED PRESS
All animal rights organizations are the enemies of all Alaskans.
Basically misinformed, they hate the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. They hate anyone connected to the race and they know nothing about the state's history, tradition and culture.
Once again, the know-nothings have popped out of the woodwork with their hysterical, anti-Iditarod rantings, trying to do as much random damage as possible to Alaska's image, to mushing and the Iditarod. Just in time for today's start of the 28th annual 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, of course.
And, as usual, some gullible suckers fall for the propaganda spread by these organizations without doing any of their own research, without gathering any of their own facts, without checking into what makes the Iditarod a truly special cultural event.
If you are an Iditarod fan, and if you are close enough to the race to get to know mushers well, to visit their dog yards, to appreciate their competitiveness and devotion to a throwback lifestyle, you know that most of the so-called information the Humane Society of the United States and its fellow travelers dispense is malarkey. Their real point is to raise money and membership for their clubs.
Members come off as a bunch of monkey-see, monkey-do robots. (The latest campaign by animal rights activists is to get monkeys declared to be human, isn't it?) The newsletter says the Iditarod is bad, so members believe it's bad. Half of those sheep (couldn't resist that) live in places like California or Florida.
They have no idea what Alaska is like. They have no idea what the Alaska Bush is like. They have no idea what snow is like. All they know about snow is that before they fled from New England or Michigan or Colorado, they didn't like to drive in it. They have no idea that there is a long history of using Alaska sled dogs for transportation.
They claim to be dog lovers and yet they leave their dogs locked up in apartments 10 hours a day while they commute and work. Then they take them for a walk on a leash and let them piddle on the sidewalk in front of your house.
When I lived in cities Outside, that's exactly how it went with everyone I knew who had a dog. Iditarod dogs get 50 times the love and attention of those pets.
I have never understood why animal rights groups pick on the Iditarod when there are a million times more dogs (and cats) neglected, abandoned and ultimately annihilated at pounds around the country. Misdirected energy.
It will be a shame if one of the nearly 1,300 dogs starting the Iditarod dies during the 2000 race, but despite the most sophisticated, on-the-spot veterinary care, it really wouldn't be that surprising. Chances are if 1,300 dogs hung out at home over the same time period, one would die for some unexpected reason. Why wouldn't that be true? Happens to people all the time. How often do we hear sad stories about a person jogging or simply out walking who keels over from a heart attack.
My favorite Lower 48 assault on the Iditarod comes from a nationally syndicated sports talk-show radio host (whom I generally agree with). He always rips the Iditarod, yet one of his favorite regular guests is a thoroughbred racing trainer. So he loves horse racing, but despises dog racing? No inconsistency there, huh?
A Lower 48 national sports columnist who has it in for the Iditarod, advertises that he took a vacation to Alaska, where he apparently talked to one 81-year-old man who hates sled dog racing.
A recent animal rights group tactic is to ridicule the Iditarod's school education program because it teaches that doing the Iditarod is a grand adventure which dogs love.
Duh. The Iditarod is a grand adventure and the dogs love running it.
Still another animal rights activist tactic is to target musher sponsors. A blizzard of messages critical of AmeriGas' sponsorship of Ramy Brooks created turmoil for the Healy musher on the eve of the race. The East Coast parent company of his Fairbanks sponsor ordered the Alaska affiliate to stop sponsoring Brooks. In a display of loyalty, and some courage, the Fairbanks branch office recognized that in Alaska mushers are heroes and role models, and stuck by Brooks.
I have always believed animal rights activists are misguided individuals with too much time on their hands, people who would better serve the country by working to support causes that help needy children or fight terrible diseases. But their next campaign will probably be trying to obtain the vote for parakeets instead.
Mushing helps make Alaska unique, helps link old-time Alaska and modern Alaska and helps Alaska maintain a special identity when in many ways it's in danger of becoming a clone of Lower 48 states. And the Iditarod, in particular, boosts the Alaskan economy.
All of these things are under attack from animal rights activists. Any Alaskan who sides with the animal rights activists is not a real Alaskan at all, but a traitor to the common good and should move somewhere else.
Three-time Iditarod winner Jeff King of Denali Park, Alaska, who first competed in the race 19 years ago, has a clear view of what it takes to get to Nome first.
``You can't get there with crummy or outdated equipment,'' he said. ``You can't get there with dogs that are inferior and an inferior training program, inferior dog food. ... There is less room for error.''
With a few exceptions, top Iditarod mushers have abandoned wooden sleds for those made of aluminum alloys. Quick-release sled runners allow racers to minimize drag on changing trail conditions. Lightweight freeze-dried dog food that swells up in warm water has become a race necessity. Dog booties are now made from materials tough enough to last between checkpoints.
And a breeding idea that left race veterans chuckling and shaking their heads just a few years ago - mating endurance-focused Iditarod dogs with short-distance sprint dogs to create a faster yet durable hybrid - is now standard procedure.
Rick Mackey, the 1983 Iditarod winner from Nenana, Alaska, will be competing for the 20th time. He said the No. 1 priority is a team of fast dogs, each one able to go the distance, to keep the competition from nipping at your heels.
``It seems like there used to be 10 or 12 consistent Top-10 people, and every year it was the same people. Now, I think easy you can double that,'' Mackey said. ``If you shut your eyes and blink, they are going to pass you up ... (To remain competitive) you just have to shave off a little more time each year.''
In the early days, mushers were lucky if they had eight dogs able to finish strong. Slower dogs were sent home as they tired.
``Now you start off with 16 and you figure they can make it all the way,'' Mackey said.
While mushers easily could spend $50,000 to $100,000 to compete in the Iditarod, most do it for half that amount. Even so, there are more competitors than ever willing to give chase to the Iditarod elite.
Mushers are turning to more expensive equipment. Mackey will begin this year's Iditarod with a new $1,500 sled that weighs 28 pounds.
``My first Iditarod sled in 1975 I built myself out of white ash and tied with nylon rope. It weighed 60 pounds. Now I am using three sleds, all different and all pretty high-tech,'' he said.
Three-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser of Big Lake, Alaska, said his first sled was made of birch and he broke it two years in a row on the same stump.
``Now we have sleds that would laugh at a stump like that,'' he said.
Much has been learned about what racing dogs need to eat to compete. For the first Iditarod, mushers shipped Purina Dog Chow in 50-pound bags to checkpoints along the trail. Now top mushers each have their own ``secret formula'' for getting the best performance from the dogs. Those with deeper pockets are using freeze-dried foods.
Mushers no longer have to spend hours pulled off the trail replacing worn-out dog booties. Booties made of tough materials will last 100 miles or more.
They're also shipping more clothes ahead for themselves - fast-drying snow suits, socks, boots and gloves - to save dryingout time along the trail.
When Buser first began racing the Iditarod in the early 1980s, he wore woolen pants that weighed twice as much when wet.
``Never mind drying, you just wore the extra weight,'' he said.
Even headlamps have changed, Mackey said. The old ones cost $10 and rattled apart, forcing mushers off the trail to waste precious minutes fixing them. Headlamps now cost about $100, but are sturdy and come with krypton bulbs and lithium batteries.
Mushers say gee-whiz gear will never tame the Iditarod because too many things can go wrong along the trail, which goes through two mountain ranges and across miles of frozen Bering Sea ice.
``Technology does not avoid moose, does not make mountains quite so high,'' said perennial frontrunner DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, Alaska.
Try using technology to buck a 70 mph head wind, said King, who won in 1998 after battling a storm in which he could barely see his lead dog.
And then there's the musher hanging onto the back of the sled. Jonrowe said it's no accident that the race usually is won by a handful of veterans.
``The musher has to make good judgment calls,'' Jonrowe said. ``You know they have to have patience and a good deal of caginess.''