This year only, Hugh Neff will be required to take just a 24-hour rest. All of the other mushers will be forced to stay longer at their mandatory 24 rest..

Cody Strathe will have to stay the longest at 26 hours and 14 minutes. What I’m revealing here is not the newest doping scandal designed to help a Chi-town boy win, it’s purely a way to level a playing field that was slanted way back on the Thursday before the race start. Confused yet?

This past Thursday, mushers, fans and sponsors gathered together at the Iditarod Starting Banquet in Downtown Anchorage. This is an annual event featuring a silent auction, dinner, music, autographs and photographs. However, the main attraction is the selection of starting positions.

Mushers line up at the edge of the stage based on the order their entry was accepted. One by one they stroll up to a microphone and blindly select a numbered chip from within seal skin boot. Once revealed, that number becomes their starting position. (Note: #1 is not included in the draw and is reserved for an honorary musher who does not race)

At the race start, mushers will be carefully organized by number on Willow Lake, where they will be expertly guided through a starting queue up to the starting line. Starting with bib #2, teams will be precisely released in two-minute intervals. This year, Cody left first and Hugh left 2 hours 14 minutes later.

Now the tables turn and it seems like a huge advantage for Cody until we refer back to the 24-hour rest scenario where Hugh was able to rest 2 hours and 14 minutes less than Cody. In fact, this scenario happens to every musher. Based on their starting position, they will each receive a time adjustment to eliminate the disparity in individual start times.

Now, this is not the only way to start a dogsled race. There are a handful of races that have a mass start where all the teams line up side by on a large field or lake. At the drop of a hat--no starting guns at dog races!-- they all race out at the same time, slowly funneling down to a single file on the race trail.

Having raced the Kobuk 440 and experienced a start like this, I can tell you it is absolutely exhilarating. At the drop of the hat, my team took off and was almost instantly surrounded 360 degrees by some of the best athletes in the state. Short of the time my team raced alongside a pack of wolves or tried to chase down a moose, I have never seen so much excitement, nor have I struggled so much to slow them down!

I can only guess one reason we utilize the 2-minute interval start is due to the sheer number of teams in the race (rules allow up to 100 teams of 16 dogs). Our start location on a lake is far to small to funnel that many teams into a single file line quickly enough, and up to 1,600 dogs being funneled down into a single file line would not be a pretty or safe sight.

From my research, I cannot determine a definitive correlation between start position and finish position. With the time differential at the 24-hour rest, there seems to be no real competitive advantage as a couple more or fewer minutes of rest over that long of a time is hardly consequential. What factors in greater is how you ran your dogs into that rest, and the weather coming in and out of the rest.

Right now, these are factors mushers are contending with as they begin taking their “24”.

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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