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Common Iditarod Question: Do You Run at Night?

By: Dr. Tim Hunt
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Do you really run at night? It's a question that I get asked often.

The answer,of course, is that the Iditarod is an around-the-clock race. So, strategies differ as to your run (the dogs are pulling you) and rest (the dogs are not pulling you) schedule. Some mushers like an equal run/rest schedule such as six hours on and then six hours off. This works very well for the musher as a six-hour rest allows for some good sleep;if you are efficient at the stop. Eight hours is better if you are not very efficient. Successful mushers are very efficient at chores and time management.

Back to run/rest schedules. The common theory these days is that you can run longer than the rest, often by a certain percentage. What happens, though, is as you run longer you risk the chance of the team slowing down and they will not regain that speed even after a long rest -- you crossed the line in the recovery department. This has been proven true time and time again with teams doing long runs, the dogs can do it, but it pushes them too far into their reserves and I believe the dogs go into a preservation mode for the remainder of that event. They don’t seem to regain any level of speed, despite rest once this happens and you will see it in this race this year.

Watch the teams closely, especially the ones that take some long runs with out breaks and watch how their speed slows way down. Had they taken a break in the middle of said run often the speed will be maintained. The musher skips a rest to make up time but in the long run costs the team overall speed, that team will fade (go much slower) and be caught by teams behind them.

So, my idea is maintain the speed of the team with runs not quite that long (50 miles or less with a break that is a minimum of a certain time. Mine will be five-hour breaks if all goes well. Top teams may do four-hour breaks. See, there are only two ways to make time in a race; go faster or shorten rests. Nowhere else are you going to gain time even if you pray a lot on the trail.

The team will thus be moving at night, during the day, or however it fits the schedule you are on. Better to run when it is cooler and the sun is lower but sometimes the schedule doesn't allow for that, so better to be moving somewhat slower until the sun gets lower (dogs pick up when it gets dark, definitely nocturnal). A good head lamp, not being afraid of the dark and staying awake are each all necessities if you plan to run at night. (Yeti sightings optional.)

Each rest stop will typically mean going through all the dog chores again; unhooking, feeding, booties, bedding them down, ad infinitum. Skipping one stop eliminates all this work but in the grand scheme of things, it is not always the best for a team; it's a calculated risk. Above all you need to train like you race. If you have been training all year for a 6 hour break and suddenly start doing 4 hour breaks it doesn't take long for that team to start to fail. And some will do this time and again in races and not see the light. You can lead a horse to water but…

The Iditarod Insider is a good thing to follow during the race, the GPS tracker is highly addictive and informative as you follow in real time all the mushers little red lights on the computer trail. There is lots of information as to speed, rest, elevation, etc., for the true or part-time race fan. Besides the Insider, Danny Seavey through his Ididaride Facebook Page will have the best in depth analysis I have seen. It's worth following his expert synopsis.

There is much strategy in the race, many use completely different styles but finish very close to each other. I think it has to do with training in that method and believing that it will work. The power of positive thinking and executing a plan. And then again having to adjust on the fly and adapt to circumstances is a prerequisite, too. Quite a sport to be involved in.

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Voted America's Favorite Veterinarian in 2014, Dr. Tim Hunt provides expert content to Voyce. His role with Voyce is one example of the many terrific expert partners that have dog-specific content featured in the Voyce member portal. To join the Voyce Experience, click here.