Iditarod 2011: Leased teams and rookie mistakes

On yesterday’s episode of Mush! You Huskies we spoke about a little known fact about the Iditarod.

Leased teams.

While leasing a team to run The Last Great Race, is not new and has been around for years, it is something that the casual fan doesn’t know much about.

According to our Iditarod expert on Mush! You Huskies, 7-time Iditarod finisher and Rookie of the Year (1993) Jason Barron, leasing teams have been around since the start.

Barron said on the show that the Father of the Iditarod, Joe Reddington, used to lease out teams of dogs for the trek to Nome for several reasons including building up his kennel with quality dogs.

But in the 21st century things are changing. It is not unheard of for people to lease a team of dogs for sky-high prices. Sometimes upwards of $50,000.00 dollars.

With this high price tag, it does not allow the “client” to get on the sled runners in Anchorage and start the race. It takes at least two years to qualify to become a Iditarod rookie but that is just the bare minimum.

During this two years this person needs to learn the fundamentals of the sport as well as compete in at least two races that are qualifiers for the Iditarod. One of 200 miles and another of 300 miles or more. One can argue that a musher is hardly qualified to run 1,049 miles in some of the most dangerous conditions on earth with just these couple of races under their belt, but as the rules state right now that is about it.

The way it works is like this (at least from my understanding):

  1. A person has a dream (or maybe just a bucket list wish) to run the Iditarod.
  2. The client contacts one of several Iditarod veterans that are offering this leasing service.
  3. A contract is set up to include mentoring or coaching of musher and rookie and the rookie moves up to Alaska (at least in most cases) to begin the training to run his qualifying races.
  4. The rookie begins training and races his qualifiers. There is a rule that the rookie must get checked off on what is called an Iditarod Report Card during these qualifiers with items such as dog care, sportsmanship, and competitiveness.
  5. After the qualifying races are complete the rookie applies for and must be accepted by the Iditarod beginning in June of the year before the rookie plans to run the race.
  6. The rookie enters and runs the race.

The leasing of the team DOES NOT guarantee a successful finish and the coveted belt buckle after the musher crosses under the burled arch in Nome.

Quite the contrary. Many of these mushers struggle on the trail and often do not even finish. Think about it; many of the top mushers are born into this sport and most, if not all mushers will tell you this is a lifestyle not an expedition.

There have been successes. Newton Marshall, the Jamaican musher, was tied to Lance Mackey’s kennel when he ran the Iditarod last year and this year he is competing very well.

Scottish musher Wattie McDonald leased a team last year from an Iditarod veteran and did great in his rookie run finishing with all 16 of his dogs!

I am learning what it takes to become a long-distance musher and what it will take one day to run the Iditarod. I can tell you that even doing this every day for the last six months, I have so much more to learn.

My best advice is to find a musher that you can work your butt off for for at least two years. Picking up poop, running B-teams, learning how to camp, learning the dogs, getting a feeding routine down to a near science, and spending lots and lots of time on the back of the sled in every condition that you can imagine.

Only then will you be prepared to call yourself a long distance musher BUT you still have no idea what you are up against in the Iditarod. At least that is the advice I am getting and I am doing my best to absorb as much as I can and take in the enormity of it all.

At least to my family and I, 50 grand is just a drop in the bucket to attempt this race. We bought a home, moved me to Alaska, are supporting two house-holds 2300 miles apart and that is not to mention the emotional expense of being away from your loved ones.

50 thousand dollars is a modest estimate, I think. I believe it is closer to 80 grand and that does not include dogs.

So if you are a guy/or gal that is suffering from a mid-life crisis and you tell your spouse: “Hey, I think I want to run the Iditarod.” Think long and hard about what you are getting yourself into.

Take it from me getting to Nome is a hell of a lot of work and that doesn’t include one second on the runners behind a dog team.

Listen to our Iditarod coverage daily on Mush! You Huskies. You can find us on iTunes (search Dog Works Radio) or click on Mushing Radio now.


Robert Forto | Team Ineka | Alaska Dog Works | Mushing Radio | Dog Works Radio | Denver Dog Works | Daily Post

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Robert Forto is a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the popular radio shows, Mush! You Huskies and Dog Works Radio Shows

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