Mushing the Iditarod Trail

Note: This is the first of a two-part series on leadership.  But before I can discuss the leadership lessons, you need to have some background.  While I will talk here about the mushers, the main story I will focus on next time is the dogs—just notice the determination in the faces of the incredible huskies.

I just returned from a 2-week Alaskan trip, which I would highly recommend to people who have a fascination with nature and the outdoors.  Moose, glaciers, caribou, whales, mountains, bear, foxes, native Indian’s and their culture, magnificent hiking trails, Dall Sheep, glacial fjords, salmon, and even bald eagles are plentiful.   The Alaskan people are fascinating, too,  especially when you get outside of Anchorage (the largest city with its population of just under 300,000, which is about half of all those living in that immense state).  Alaskans are respectful of the environment, fiercely independent and deeply proud that they live in  the last great frontier in America.  I was surprised by how many people I met who lived in homes without running water, electricity or both.  Yet, they don’t see these as hardships, but as advantages of their simpler lifestyles.

As civilization has spread (civilization is a relative word of course in a land where bears outnumber people) they have had to impose laws to protect their wildlife.   One local told me that “you could get in more trouble with the law in Alaska by killing a moose, than you could shooting your spouse.”

One of the more surprisingly interesting stops on our journey was a place called Husky Homestead outside Denali National Park.  It exposed us to a sport I knew virtually nothing about––dog sled racing.

Perhaps the granddaddy race (at least in the North America) is the Iditarod, spanning 1049 miles from Willow (outside Anchorage) to Nome, Alaska.   Temperatures can sometimes reach -50 degrees CELCIUS (that’s cold!).   Mushers and their teams can face any number of hardships:  blizzards that obscure their view of the trail, driving winds that produce wind chills of as low as -100 Fahrenheit, unsafe ice and even accidents–like  falling from your sled as your dogs race along enthusiastically leaving you alone in the tundra without your supplies.

The race can take 10-12 days – that’s 87- 100 miles per day, and the mushers (the men and women who run their sled dog teams) will run day and night to accomplish their task.  Imagine the supplies needed to assemble to make the race? Imagine: 100-150 pound (50-68 kilo) dogs are consuming 10,000 calories per day and even though today’s sleds use high-tech plastics and are light weight, the sleds are loaded with about 450 lbs (over 200 Kg) of supplies that the dogs must pull (not including the weight of the musher)!  The rest of the 2,500 pounds (1100 Kg) of supplies are sent ahead to a group of checkpoints along the Iditarod Trail.

Here is a promotional piece for the 2011 Iditarod – that may give you a better grasp of the experience.

One of the vital priorities for the mushers is to care for their dogs along the way.  One musher we met is a man named Jeff King, who has now entered this race 22 times and won an impressive four Iditarod championships.  He is something of a celebrity around the entire state.   He explained that one of the things he learned is that the dogs are so instinctively focused on running, they’d  run almost until they drop from exhaustion.   So one of his roles is to force them to rest and eat at proper intervals. His main approach to running the race relies on  a schedule of six hours running, followed by six hours of rest – on a continuous cycle both day and night for 10-12 days.   But when he stops, his work intensifies.   He has to give his dogs some snacks to tide them over, break out a stove to melt snow for drinking water, and to thaw out frozen protein for both him and his beasts.   He helps groom the dogs, (if they are coated with frozen snow and ice around their faces or paws, he changes their booties (which protect the dogs’ paws and only last about 100 miles before they need replacing) and settles them in for a needed rest period.   By the time he eats and then arranges his sleeping space – typically on the sled itself – he is lucky to get 90 minutes of rest before waking up his dogs and getting them hitched and ready to go on the next race segment.

As you may imagine, dog sled racing is full-year activity – even during summer, when time is spent in training and breeding the dogs, with a constantly critical eye on ones who seem to have what it takes to be great sled dogs. A common technique is to hook the dog teams up to an ATV and pull it through trails when there is no snow.

I now have an autographed copy of Jeff King’s latest book, Cold Hands Warm Heart: Alaskan Adventures of an Iditarod Champion, filled with stories from Jeff’s racing life including his philosophies for raising and leading dogs.    It provides an intriguing look at mushers who are an interesting breed.   As one past race winner put it, “I know the names of 500 dogs by heart, but I know only about 9 people.”

As you might imagine selecting the right dogs for the team is a pretty important task.  So what does King look for in a husky?  Here is his list, and with the possible exception of “strength” they sound like things we would probably want in our employees.

  • Physical strength
  • Resilience / stamina  (ability to endure extreme conditions)
  • Determination (to keep running, and to keep going no matter what)
  • Technical Proficiency (comfortable in a harness, ability to eat well and quickly, etc.)
  • Enthusiasm for the job (running and racing)
  • Ability to function well within the team (plays well with others)
  • Ability to take direction (from the musher during a race and during training)

Today in his 50’s, Jeff still races by also operates his fabled dog training center.  Here is a brief clip of the Husky Homestead Training Camp:

What does it take to be a race-winning musher? Here’s my list of attributes based on what I saw and read.  These, too, I think we would like to see in any leader.

Great eye for talent Mushers are great at sensing which dogs to breed and understand it is an important part of building a winning team.  The ones that aren’t a good fit, the musher will sell off as pets or sled dogs to others who may need them for purposes unrelated to competitive racing.

Extraordinary coach and trainer.  Great mushers like King spend the entire year focused on developing the talent and skill their team needs.  The training never stops.   It both develops skills you need to operate as an effective team and maintains readiness. Since you never know what you might encounter on the trail, training really pays off, especially if you encounter a life or death situation.

Love and compassion.   One thing that impressed me was to hear King talk about the deep relationship he has with his animals.  He speaks about some of them as his “best friends.”   I suppose it is hard to know for sure how or even if the dog’s sense this compassionate energy, but all the dog lovers I know would say that absolutely the animals can sense it, and King says that they will respond in kind.

Humility with a Servant mindset.  It also impressed me to hear him speak about how success in the race is NOT mainly about his skill or effort.  King says his victories came almost exclusively from the performance of his dogs.   He speaks of them with constant awe and amazement, about their inherent abilities to perform in these extreme conditions almost no matter what he does. He characterizes his role as more of a helper than a team leader.   I suppose it must be that he under states the importance of his role, but there is no hint of self-centeredness.

I must say I never went to Alaska thinking I would uncover a leadership story.  And I surely never thought Husky Homestead would be a place where I would find it.  In my next piece, I would like to talk about leadership of a dog.  We have all heard the term “lead dog,” well I’d like to share some of the insights Jeff shares in his book, about the most remarkable lead dog he ever had, named Hickory.

Stay tuned.


1 Comment

Filed under Leading, Managing Teams

One response to “Mushing the Iditarod Trail

  1. Hi there! This post could not be written much better! Going
    through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!

    He continually kept talking about this. I’ll forward this article to him. Fairly certain he’s going to have
    a good read. I appreciate you for sharing!

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