The 2018 Iditarod won’t be over when the fat lady sings -- instead, the city of Nome won’t rest until the final team has crossed under the Burled Arch and the flame of the Widow’s Lamp is turned down. Once that flame has been extinguished, it’s not going to be long before a fire in the belly of many mushers is lit.

The first day of planning and training for next year’s race began for many mushers before they even completed this year’s race. Allen Moore was training a team of “puppies” this year for his wife, Aliy Zirkle, in preparation for next year’s race. Allen had absolutely no intention to win, let alone be competitive, even though he’s just coming off a victory in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest last month. After winning the 2006 Iditarod, Jeff King spoke frankly about using his victory lap from White Mountain as time to plan for his quest to win his fifth Last Great Race.

Where the Iditarod goes from here will be telling. This past off-season was a rough one for mushing and the Iditarod in particular as special interest groups (I will not give them free advertising by mentioning their names) redoubled their efforts to paint a picture shaded by ill-informed, one-in-a-million-type case stories. Unfortunately some corporate sponsors pulled their support under the pressure from these groups.

Alaskans don’t seem to be influenced as much as folks from Outside. This was evidenced by the lack of attention given to their theatrics and a local furrier (completely decked out in fur) advertising in front of them. I guarantee these groups will continue their pressure to convince more sponsors to withdraw their support until they can shut down the whole race.

The Iditarod Trail Committee, mushers and fans must stand up and passionately advocate for the sport and race by sharing all the amazing stories about the dogs all year round, sharing the research and development for continued improvement of dog care (training, food, housing, psychology, etc.), and engaging in media campaigns to drown out these special-interest groups.

An inordinate amount of time, this off-season and even during the race, was also spent speculating about a scandal I refuse to attribute to doping when it was really about poor management and communication as well as unprofessional conduct. This scandal threatened to sully the reputation of Dallas Seavey and resulted in a four-time race champion walking away from the Iditarod to race in Norway. Worse, this provided poor press when Iditarod was already bleeding from the loss of sponsors.

The Iditarod's board of directors must heed the recommendations provided during an independent review this summer. In addition, the Iditarod must step into the forefront of drug testing. Step one is to follow the lead of Oregon State University and fire Dr. Morrie Craig, director of drug testing. Craig has helped tarnish the veneer of this race with drug test reporting that was shown to be inaccurate by independent review, and has already been warned for his threatening interactions with Wade Marrs just 30 minutes prior to the start of this year’s race.

Step two would be identifying a new lab, new director and new testing protocols that are at industry standard or cutting edge for canine/equine sports.

The Iditarod must be proactive. Joe Redington, among others, created this race from a dream and the mortgage on his personal house. The current board has more and must do more. They’ve been patient and content like a musher waiting for a storm to slow their nearest competitors. Like 2018 victor Joar Leifseth Ulsom taking advantage on Norton Bay, the current board must seize the moment to help the race rebound.

These politics will not keep mushers from training their dogs. This is what they love. However will that love for the Iditarod fade, and a new suitor like the Yukon Quest step in to fulfill the desire for adventure without the noise of these politics?

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.

Copyright 2018 KTVA. All rights reserved.


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