20 Million compete in well-known and rarely heard of events
When Kristin Pace and one of her best “human” friends, Ryne Olson, made their run to the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2016, “it felt like everything was made of magic.” She and Olson met when they were the only two women to finish the Yukon Quest the year before and signed up for the 2016 Iditarod together, ending up running much of the race together. At about 3 a.m., they mushed up onto the top of Cape Nome, a high ridge overlooking the Bering Sea and all the surrounding Alaska coastline. “That’s where we stopped and had a ‘ceremonial bib putting-on’ in Ryne’s words,” Pace said. All mushers are required to cross the finish line wearing their race bib with the number clearly visible, she explained. So, they clipped each other’s bibs over their parkas and turned off their headlamps.
“Above us, the Northern Lights were a pulsing, liquid river of red, green and purple light,” Pace said. “They were so close it felt like we could reach up and stick our hands directly into the light. The moon was three-quarters full and it lit up a riot of white-shouldered mountains that descended down to the frozen sea.” They could see the lights of Nome dotting the shoreline in the far distance. “We decided that once we reached Front Street, we would stop, line up and race each other the last few hundred yards to the finish line,” she said. The dogs barked impatiently until, finally, they stepped onto the runners of their dogsleds and descended Cape Nome with headlamps still off. “The auroras reflected in the snow and the shadows of our long, sinuous dog teams stretched out ahead of us, a smooth, singular unit by now,” she said. When they turned onto Front Street, they lined up their teams side-by-side. A handful of people waited to watch them finish, mostly parents and partners and a few mushing friends who had already finished the race.
“And off we went, sprinting behind our sleds, pushing as hard as we could, a ridiculous effort for finishing 56th and 57th but fun nonetheless,” Pace said. They crossed the finish line one second apart. After checking in, her dogs were still lunging into their harnesses and howling like they wanted to run another 1,000 miles but after 11 days on the runners, Pace was ready for more than a couple of hours of sleep in a row “and a warm bed. And beer!” While dogsled racing may not have the largest number of participants of all snow sports, races such as the iconic Iditarod test a musher’s resolve.
The number of competitors varies and can be anywhere between 60 and 96 teams, said Ashleigh Ebert of Thompson & Co. Public Relations in Anchorage.
Teams average 16 dogs at the start and can finish with as few as five. (Editor’s Note: Dogs are dropped at checkpoints during the race for many reasons, including if a dog isn’t feeling well, is injured or because races such as the Iditarod require mushers to finish with only those dogs that started the race.)The first Iditarod race began on March 3, 1973, with 34 teams; 22 teams finished 32 days later. In 2018, 52 teams finished the race, 15 scratched, Ebert said. Training for a 1,000-mile race like the Iditarod takes years, said Pace who, with her husband, Andy, runs Hey Moose! Kennel in Healy, Alaska.
“First, you have to qualify by running hundreds of miles of shorter, 200- or 300-mile races,” Pace said. “For Iditarod, you have to run 750 miles of qualifying races before you are allowed to sign up. For the Yukon Quest, you have to run 500 miles of qualifying races.” That doesn’t take into account the years it takes to build a team, she said. They started with four puppies in 2011 and built their team over the next five years. “The amount of work it takes to build a sled-dog kennel from the ground up is nearly immeasurable,” Pace said. “It is a true labor of love and no musher will ever get back the money they invested.”
It takes a lot of hard work but it’s also full of incredible adventure and built on the special bond developed with the dogs, she said. Each year, training starts in August for the Yukon Quest in February, then the Iditarod in March. Training starts by running just two miles at a time and works up to running 70 or 80 miles straight. “The dogs are incredible athletes and the farther they run, the stronger they get,” Pace said. Sled dogs have an unbelievable ability to recover after long miles and get stronger instead of weaker. Not so for humans.
“It’s really more about getting the humans ready than the dogs. They are just incomparable athletes. The humans are the weakest link in the team. But that’s what we are: a team,” she said. “We’ve been through it all together. We trust each other with our lives.” About 20 million people participate each year in more popular winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding. But there are other, less-well-known athletic competitions that are coming into their own.
The USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USABS), for example, has 165 athlete members and five bobsled/skeleton annual tours: the World Cup, Intercontinental Cup, European Cup, North American Cup and Para World Cup. Each holds races around the world, said Kristen Gowdy of USABS. The highest-level World Cup holds eight races each season plus a World Championships or the Olympics if it’s an Olympic year.
“Those are on the international level but the U.S. program also holds national team trials in the fall and national championships in the spring,” Gowdy said. Ice cross, a fast, high-energy, tactical sport, is fairly new to the snow sports scene. Just watching skaters fly along the Red Bull Crashed Ice course can get your heart racing. Because of the blend of various athletic prowess needed, athletes come to ice cross from sports such as hockey, ice skating, snow skiing, mountain biking and snowboarding.
“The guys and gals love to train at skate parks in the off-season.” said Maria Balogh of the US Ice Cross Association. “They do this on rollerblades and utilize the ramps and drops-ins to keep their legs in shape.” “You can also find them at hockey training facilities where they work with trainers on skate treadmills to keep their stamina and agility in tip-top shape,” she said. “Of course, most of them also play in rec hockey leagues.”
Other off-skate training includes CrossFit, to work a variety of muscle groups; yoga, to help with balance and body control; and mountain biking and downhill skiing/snowboarding, to get used to the downhill aspect and knowing the best routes during racing season.
Each summer, USABS holds combines across the country in order to recruit new bobsled and skeleton athletes. “These have proven greatly successful in bringing in some of the top talent to the sports, which most athletes discover post-collegiately,” Gowdy said. The U.S. Olympic Committee also began the Next Olympic Hopeful show last summer and will continue it this year. “The show is designed to recruit talent to several Olympic sports and it has proven to be beneficial for us as well,” Gowdy said. The US Ice Cross Association hosts one Riders Cup per year but that can change depending on the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship schedule (other international Riders Cups and the Red Bull Crashed Ice races) as well as hill availability.
“The Riders Cups are open to any and all skaters, which make them a great way for new skaters to try out the sport,” Balogh said. “They are also the only way for new skaters to get points that determine who gets invited to Red Bull Crashed Ice races.” At its event this past February, more than half of the 125 skaters were new to the sport, Balogh said. When looking at hills to host its events, the US Ice Cross Association searches for places that are easily accessible for skaters and fans.
“Hyland Hills in Bloomington, Minn., was perfect this year since it was just minutes away from the MSP airport, hotels and, of course, the Mall of America,” Balogh said. “It also didn’t hurt that it was in the state of hockey.” Balogh said the association was also lucky to find a staff that was passionate about helping bring this new sport to the public. “Their social media and marketing team was a fantastic help in spreading the word and their staff was extremely helpful every step of the way,” Balogh said. Pace recounted what she’s learned from long-distance dogsled racing.
“You face the most incredible highs and the most debilitating lows over the course of a thousand miles,” Pace said. She also learned you can’t go wrong if you base decisions on the dogs and their happiness. “Don’t pay attention to any of the other teams or any other mushers’ strategies,” she said. “Keep your head in your own game and don’t forget to enjoy the scenery and appreciate where you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing.”