March 18, 2004

Duke v. Dogs: Why the Iditarod Triumphs

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March Madness starts today. Do you have your bracket in? Across the country, millions of people are gearing up for what some call the greatest race to a championship in American sports.

But there is something else better, at least in a way. I think the Iditarod is a little more hardcore, even if its Vegas line isn’t quite as big. I certainly watched it as closely as I could, considering four hours of time difference and absolutely no television coverage. Much like the NCAA Tourney, it’s all about having someone to watch, and wanting to be there.

The Iditarod happens every year around this time on the trails between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska, covering 1,049 miles of snow-buried mountains, silent winter forests, frozen-solid rivers and rocky, windblown coastlines over two weeks.

The winners make the trip in about eight or nine days, depending on the weather and conditions that year. To make the trip in that time the competitors launch themselves into a festival of dog care, movement, and enough sleep deprivation to make an architecture student cry, all so they can follow their canines through the Burled Arch in Nome.

To get there, it takes an incredible amount of physical endurance, perseverance, and a good attitude.

“The race is just as challenging mentally as it is physically,” said race veteran and Cornell junior Andy Moderow. “When mushers get discouraged, their dogs know it. One of the main responsibilities of a musher is to stay upbeat, and send good vibes to the dogs. This isn’t the easiest thing to do on 2 hours of sleep a day after 8 days on the trail.”

A racer spends about half his day on the sled, and a good part of the rest taking care of his or her dogs and gear. So, while the dogs get a healthy days rest, the people average about four hours of sleep — although not all in one stretch — all the way to Nome. This leads to some interesting phenomena, such as falling asleep on the back of a dogsled, which, I’ve been told, can be a very bad thing. The dogs do not stop, you see, when a person falls off; they just keep going. This means an inopportune spill could result in a very long walk back to civilization — not a very pleasant prospect in the Alaska backcountry when it’s -50 degrees.

But, despite the obstacles, every year more than sixty competitors sign up to make the trip. They train teams of 16 dogs to pull a sled through as many conditions as is possible, then brave the cold and solitude for a chance to complete the race.

This year, I was watching Andy’s father Mark, a 53-year-old lawyer from Anchorage, racing in his first Iditarod with a team he and his family raised at their kennel, The Salty Dog Kennel, in their back yard.

While Mark cannot execute an alley-oop or come from behind to defeat Duke (who wants them to win, anyway?), he does have something an NCAA bracket will not, a connection to Cornell through Andy and his sister, Hannah, a sophomore.

The two kids were responsible, in a way, for getting him into this Iditarod thing. After competing in the junior version in high school, Andy took off a chunk of his senior year to train for and compete in the 2001 version of the race.

Like Carmelo last year, Andy did about as well as he could for a rookie, finishing in 17th place, and inspiring his parents to take up the race.

Last year Hannah and Andy’s mom, Debbie, competed in the race, covering 950 miles before she had to scratch on the Bering Sea coast due to high winds.

Anything can happen on the trail. Obstacles include open rivers, cliffs, animals and storms. Every year Hannah and Andy tell me their mushing stories from break or from their parents, stories about moose encounters and catching air on a dog sled, about how to survive in the middle of nowhere when it’s really, really cold, and what it’s like to live with a bunch of dogs for two weeks.

“The most important thing is the dogs,” said Hannah. “You really want to give them everything you have.”

The canines are what drives the race, after all, they’re the players, the athletes. They run the hundred miles a day, burning 10,000 calories as they go, and they are the ones that are alone with you out in the woods.

“It’s hard to really describe the race to people,” said Andy. “In some aspects I think people overestimate how difficult it is. That being said, it’s hard to explain to someone what it feels like to be 70 miles from the next civilized checkpoint, which is a ghost town.”

But for all the dangers and the obstacles, it is rewarding, and that’s why the Moderows keep it up.

When you read this, Mark will likely be traveling somewhere along the coast on his way to Nome, and I’ll probably be imagining what it would be like to be out there, in the cold in snow, alone on the ice, and fighting to get through the unknown.

And I think that’s why I like to track the Iditarod so much, and why “The Last Great Race,” as it is called, might just be a little more interesting than the NCAA Championships. While I never made it past a little five on five in open gym during seventh grade, I still hope that one day I’ll make it up to Alaska and make the trip between Anchorage and Nome — so my little piece of the dream can be more than 69 choices in a bracket posted on a bulletin board in the office.

Hey, a kid’s got to dream.

With special thanks to Hannah and Andy Moderow for facts, figures, details, and stories.

Archived article by Matt James