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Iditarod mushers use mishaps as learning experiences

March 13, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — One musher bonked his head and will never again race without a helmet. Another found out it’s hard to stop when you strip the brakes off your sled to go faster.

As 75 mushers sprint across Alaska, here are five of the painful lessons from the past that are changing the way they race the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this year:



Scott Janssen, an Anchorage undertaker known as the Mushing Mortician, left last year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in inglorious fashion: He was lifted off the trail by a rescue helicopter.

Conditions were horrible in last year’s race because of a lack of snow. Janssen’s sled overturned and he hit his head on a tree stump, and was knocked unconscious long enough for 3 inches (7 centimeters) of snow to fall on him. After he got back on the trail, he broke his ankle trying to retrieve a loose dog on ice.

This year’s race is being run on more than 600 miles (965 kilometers) of river ice. His daughter and son-in-law presented him with a snowboarder’s helmet for Christmas.

“I think it was a subtle hint but it was a pretty good one,” he said.



Jeff King has relived last year’s finish many times, and knows he’d do things differently.

King was easily in the lead with 25 miles (40 kilometers) to go when a sudden blizzard came up. He stopped his dog team, and said there was no way he was going to ask the dogs to run again. He caught his breath as they waited for the wind to die down.

But it didn’t die down. He dropped out and a snowmobile rider offered him a ride to the finish.

King said neither he nor other mushers would ever put their dogs at undue risk, but he adds: “I can tell you that there’d need to be a meteorite hit me not to end up in Nome (at the finish) this year.”



Musher Aliy Zirkle, who has finished second the past three years, said she’s learned there’s a limit to how far you can strip down a sled to make it lighter.

There are several ways to stop a dog team, and last year she removed most of them. That left her in “quite a pickle” in controlling her sled dog team.

“Now I would say last year taught me, don’t leave behind the important parts of your sled, even if it means saving 8 pounds or 10 pounds,” she said. “You really still do need a vehicle that is controllable to get to the finish line.”



Two-time champion Mitch Seavey says if last year’s race taught mushers anything, it’s “keep a little gas in the tank.”

He said no matter what the forecast says, mushers should expect a snowstorm.

He says his son, Dallas Seavey, kept some in reserve, and that enabled him to win the race. Mitch Seavey and Norwegian musher Joar Ulsom also had a bit of energy left at the end, and it helped them get third and fourth places, respectively.

Mitch Seavey said it’s betting against the odds for a musher to think he or she will skate through the race without coming across a snowstorm. “Keeping something in the tank, in reserve, like Dallas and myself and Joar powered through the storm, you got to have some power left to do that.”



Musher Brent Sass is already starting on a “Lessons Learned” list for next year, and it starts with being totally off the grid.

Sass was disqualified from this year’s race because he had an iPod Touch to listen to music and watch movies as he mushed across Alaska. But it’s illegal to have a device that is capable of two-way communications, and the device has a wireless option that could be used at checkpoints.

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