Saturday, March 1, 2008

Gentlemen, start your canines

Today marks the ceremonial start of the 36th Iditarod. (The actual competition begins tomorrow with the re-start in Willow.) A controversial innovation this year is a new (actually adapted) satellite tracking technology being carried by 20 teams that will enable race fans like yours truly to follow the race in something closely approaching real time. The catch? Many mushers are reluctant to be tracked so closely. Running speeds, rest locations, running-to-rest ratios, etc. are often closely-guarded secrets.

For example: Several teams opt to rest at the same checkpoint. Another musher close behind the group checks in, but declines to stop. Whoa, the leaders think, his team must really be strong right now. Better get moving. So they cut their rest short and pull up stakes, only to find their competitor camped out a few miles down the trail. By playing better chess, the musher who blew through the checkpoint obtains several advantages. He gets to camp at a quiet spot in the woods rather than a noisy, crowded checkpoint—and consequently has better-rested dogs. Meanwhile, he's forced (or at least encouraged) his competitors to limit their rest, so their dogs will tire more quickly—and they themselves are more likely to make mental mistakes further down the trail.

The intrusion of satellite technology, to a certain degree, threatens this kind of gamesmanship. With telemetry, a racer's strategy is more an open book.

I'm not a Luddite. (A Luddite with a blog?) I use radio telemetry myself. (Days like yesterday, I'm glad to have it.) But I'd be just as happy to wait for news, to enjoy the suspense, and to let race strategies unfold unseen in the wilds of Alaska. May the best man or woman—and, let's be honest, the dogs who deserve most of the credit—win.

BTW, I'm temporarily adding Eye on the Trail to the blogroll. Musher/writer Jon Little and photographer Jeff Schultz will be flying up and down the trail covering the race in all its aspects—sporting event, cultural event, window on the wonders of The Last Frontier.

1 comment:

Andy said...

The deception in the sport is something I hadn't thought of but it really makes sense as a useful strategy. Thanks for the link to the blog with the updates, this will be fun to watch.

I owe you an e-mail; I'll be back in Ohio next week and will catch up then.