Bearss Blog: The A to Z in catching ZZZZs along the Last Great Race
With no hotels or motels on the trail between Anchorage and Nome, teams are limited for accommodations.
At Finger Lake, Martin Buser was modeling a slick banana-yellow tent to cope with the cramped-- and often loud, smelly quarters found in the checkpoints. This is not a knock on the villages that host the checkpoints because they lay out everything short of the red carpet as Iditarod rolls into town.
As a musher, you may find yourself sleeping on the floor in a roundhouse community building, a school gymnasium, or the garage of a firehouse. Far from the honeymoon suite at a big name hotel, most mushers more than welcome these accommodations.
I remember after a long day the trail and camping out at -70 degrees how much I welcomed the opportunity to sleep inside. I was out of the wind, and using the bathroom didn’t come with the threat of exposed body parts freezing off! It wasn’t until I awoke from my slumber that I discovered I was being “spooned” by a musher I didn’t recognize in a room packed with mushers who sounded like a chorus of chainsaw and smelled no better than roadkill festering alongside the road on a sweltering summer day.
The convenience and comfort of the checkpoints have more than once swayed me from the idea of camping out on the trail. The access to hot water for the dogs reduces the work necessary for melting snow and ice. Straw is readily available and doesn’t have to be awkwardly lashed to the sled and transported. Dog food and snacks are as plentiful as a musher chooses to pack. Additionally, tantalizing human food is left behind by mushers (cheesecake, quiche, gourmet pizza and designer chocolate bars) and supplied in potluck fashion by the village (smoked salmon, moose roast, beaver tail and pilot bread) to break the monotony of meals planned and packed months before.
Checkpoints also offer the opportunity to reconnect with society and fill any need a musher may have for social interactions, whether that is with other mushers, veterinarians, race officials or villagers. I’m a card-carrying introvert, but these interactions were as warmly welcomed as any Hawaiian beach.
While this all sounds like a great case for stopping and staying in every checkpoint, mushers still choose to camp outside villages. There is a certain simplicity of life that attracts people to this sport, and for that reason, you may find some camping away from villages. In some cases, it may pay off to camp away to avoid the canine viruses being imported from all across North America. As a rookie with a team of freshmen, I chose to avoid the early checkpoints where I knew the distraction of 50+ teams would surely equate to limited rest for my dogs.
Compounding the debate to camp in a checkpoint or out alone is the variable distance between checkpoints ranging from 18 to 85 miles. If a team were to camp only in checkpoints, the varying distances would prevent a team from establishing a routine running and efficient, regular pattern of running and resting.
By abstaining from resting in one checkpoint, I may set myself up better to stay in multiple later checkpoints. As a leader, there is also a deal of psychology in play. It can be disheartening to pull into a checkpoint only to see the team you’ve been chasing has already left. Even if they are just out of eyesight camping out, in the back of your head, you ponder the merits of changing your plan to give chase versus sitting back and resting in comfort.
If you stay and they pull off a monster run with little or no rest, you lose time. If you give chase, you have the potential of breaking away from your established rest cycle and put your team at an energy deficit.
Right now, teams are settling into routines they trained for all fall and winter, packs are being established and in the wink of an eye, we’ll be seeing which musher is the first to take an extended 24+ hour nap.
Bryan Bearss trained Iditarod race teams full time from 2003 to 2009 and raced the Iditarod in 2006 and 2015. He is currently an elementary school teacher and marathon canoe racer. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not of KTVA 11 News.
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