Rick Swenson: American sled-dog racer Rick Swenson celebrates his first-place finish at the 1991 Iditarod race in Alaska. In 1977 Swenson became the youngest person to win the Iditarod, at age 26. He went on to win four more championships.
Dogsled races can be held anywhere there are enough miles of open trail. Sprint races are limited to distances that dogs can sprint or lope. Middle-distance races are competitions under 500 km (300 mi), and long-distance events are over 500 km (300 mi). Teams usually start at short intervals one after another with the order assigned by lottery. Most race trails are groomed and lined with colored markers. The terrain, like the weather, can be harsh and inhospitable. Snowdrifts, blizzards, and thaws can create difficult racing conditions at almost any time, and with little notice.
Sled designs have evolved to meet the demands of serious competitions. Today’s plastic sprint sleds weigh between 7 and 9 kg (15 and 20 lb). Middle- to long-distance sleds weigh between 15 and 30 kg (30 and 70 lb). The number of dogs used to pull these sleds depends on the competition. The most common race classes are for 4, 6, 8, or an unlimited number of dogs, which can reach 20 or more. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, dogsledding’s premier long-distance competition, allows a maximum of 16 dogs per team.
The speed of teams varies. Sprint dogs race at 25 to 40 km/h (16 to 25 mph), while middle-distance and long-distance dogs run at 13 to 22 km/h (8 to 14 mph). Different types of races and climates favor different dog breeds, but all racing sled dogs must be strong and light. They usually weigh less than 25 kg (55 lb). Sprint dogs need explosive force, while long-distance dogs need endurance. During a long-distance race, each dog may use 10,000 calories per day. Mushers therefore develop special diets that are high in fat and protein by adding meat and supplements to commercial dog food.
Mushers are caretakers, but also coaches. Top mushers have large kennels, and their preparation for competition begins by buying and breeding race-specific dogs. They train their dogs, decide which to run on certain days, and make adjustments during races by switching and dropping dogs. Serious competitors run their dogs year-round, using carts and all-terrain vehicles when there is not enough snow on the ground. During races they decide their strategy, choosing when to rest and when to push ahead.
A race marshall and a set of race officials supervise competitions. These officials are responsible for timing and monitoring the competitors. During prerace inspections, they also check for the mandatory snowhooks or snub lines, functioning brakes, brushbows, and sled dog bags. In long-distance races, mandatory equipment includes survival gear, adequate food for the musher and team, a sleeping bag, and an ax.
Officials can request veterinary examinations and can disqualify dogs or whole teams from competition for a variety of reasons. One reason is the mistreatment of dogs, including the use of choke collars, muzzles, and whips. Dogs or teams can also be disqualified if officials find any trace of drugs that enhance performance or suppress signs of illness or injury. If a dog dies during a race, officials carefully investigate. Any sign of mistreatment results in severe punitive action against the musher.
Officials also enforce racing rules and etiquette. Teams must stay on prescribed trails and not interfere with other teams. When a musher requests right-of-way, the team in front must give way and remain behind for a stipulated period of time or until the passing team has gone a certain distance. The rules also prohibit pacing, or working with an outside source, such as a vehicle or other dog team, to set the pace of the race; trailing too close to another team; and receiving outside assistance. There are some exceptions to this final prohibition. Mushers who lose their teams may be helped, and if someone has a serious accident, other mushers are allowed and expected to help.