Armchair Musher: Eagle, Strategy and Data

Thursday, February 7, 2019

2-6-2019  10:11 PM

Brent will be off and running before I file this report, and since the first four mushers are less than an hour apart, it will be a busy night in Dawson. Brent, Michelle, Hans, and Allen. All experience all with the potential to *well I am not going to say it since I do not want to jinx anyone, but you know what I am hinting at.  Paige is a short 2 hours later. And then hot on her heels Denis, Matt, and Ryne. Dogs are getting fed before the run, gear amassed to be packed, and mushers are getting back into the headspace of someone who is going out into the night to be alone with their dogs for a long time. This section of trail takes you through 40 mile, and it is like going back in time. Then to the village of Eagle, where the old school house is full of food and bustling with volunteers and the mushers only sleeping area quietly in back. I imagine this is a special treat for Matt, who is from there and who’s mom Scarlett is the checkpoint manager. After that it is onto Slaven’s Roadhouse. For a fantastic look at how the National Park Service turns this historic cabin into a cozy checkpoint check out the video at their website. Yukon Quest at Slaven’s

Some 300+ miles later when you roll into Circle and are again on the road system things get back to present day.  You eat in a fire station; there is a washateria (laundry, shower, and bulk water source for the community) across the street from the checkpoint. More people, more noise. My guess is for some it is reassuring, to be back in touch with the world at large (for lack of a better way to say it). For myself, and I am sure others, it was a bit jarring at first. I liked being out there in old buildings, traveling old trails.  I don’t carry a music player. I like the silence and am comfortable alone with my own thoughts.  For some of the rookies this may be the most time they have spent alone with their thoughts so far from what they have known.  I hope each in their own way they enjoy it as much as I did.

OK, so now armed with the understanding that data is more suggestive than absolute truth, I will be referencing some of Melinda’s data to try and figure out what it is suggesting to me.

First we looked at the run/rest ratio. How the amount of time spent running compared to the amount the team spent resting. When Dan started racing the Quest an equal run to rest ration was a common strategy for finishing the race.  I say finishing because for as long as I can remember champions have always had to do something a little extraordinary to be champions. But a good strong race, it was felt, could be run with an equal ratio.  The sport of mushing has evolved, the way things do. Improvements in gear, advances in nutrition, and research into the distance capacities of our canine athletes has allowed mushers to better train and care for dogs.  So now we see teams able to compete with different strategies.  Some teams will runs longer and maybe rest a bit less at key points.  Other teams may do shorter runs and rest sooner hoping to keep the speeds faster.  And with what we are learning about canine metabolism in distance racing, mushers are able to adjust feeding to best suit the run / rest patter they will be doing.

One thing the data suggests is that of the top 4 teams Michelle had the most even run / rest ratio.  And that kind of conservatism can serve you well later in the race. She came in with a full strong of 14, but so did Brent and Allen, and Hans had 13. But we will need to see how many they leave Dawson with.  Remembering of course that dogs may well have been dropped for preventative reasons, since the mushers know they have a long journey between checkpoints.

Now do not let Jessie’s 12th place into Dawson fool you, she can never be underestimated. Right now she has more rest then run, and knowing how smart she is I have to think this is absolutely what she wants. When she ran in 2017 she was in the same situation, and went and posted the fastest run in race history from Central to 101, a section that includes the notorious Eagle Summit.  As well as that years fastest run time from 101 to Two Rivers.

There is a very talented crew still in striking distance of the top 4 mushers. Over 500 miles making up 6 hours is not un-reasonable at all.  Paige, Denis, Matt, and Ryne, I am talking to you ;)

I talked earlier about using the Speed vs. Time plot to get a general overview of a musher run /rest pattern and how well they are holding speed.  To see what I mean take a look at Denis, Deke,  and Cody.  If you are looking at the race flow chart, don’t forget you can change the Category in the drop down menu on bottom to “Main” and see all the teams’ progress.  Double click on the Race Flow chart to zoom in, and it will make it much easier to follow a single musher. When I did this the race flow chart suggested to me that Isabelle may have struggled with the hills coming into Dawson.  It also suggests that Olivia petered out a bit on her way into Dawson. But once in Dawson both mushers have a chance to re-fuel and start the second half anew.

Now here is a fun little tool for the second half. As teams race toward the finish you may want to use this handy Speed – Distance – Time Calculator. Why you may ask? Well short answer, because I can’t do math, so I have to. Long answer: I am making up a hypothetical situation for example.

  • Let’s say the top 3 teams all leave a checkpoint, in say Two Rivers for a 73 mile run within 20 minutes of each other. 
  • Team A leaves at 10:00, Team B leaves at 10:05, and team C leaves at 10:15. 
  • If Team A is going 6.6 mph the handy dandy calculator tells me it will take them 11.06 hours.
  • So if Team B is traveling an average of 6.9, can they catch them? 
  • We refer back to the short answer, and then go type the data into the calculator and … tada we learn that it will take them 10.57 hours. 
  • And then 11.06 – 10.57 = .49, and .49 of an hour is about 30 minutes - which is much larger then then 5 minute difference in start.
  • Repeat with additional data as need to see possibilities.

Again I feel the need to remind you, that these calculation - this data is not all knowing.  But it can be a fun way to try and figure out what is possible.

And never forget, it is still dog race. Anything can and often does happen. Mother Nature is a fickle dance partner. Birch Creek is long, lonely, often cold and sometimes wet. The climb over Eagle Summit going that direction will challenge the strongest of teams has the ability to stop a team dead in its tracks on a bad day. Teams have to make sure they have enough gas in the tank later in the race to make it up and over, plus there is still Rosebud to contend with.

And then there is American Summit.  That one holds a special place in my memory, the only spot on the trail that really freaked me out.  There were hard parts a plenty to be sure.  But American Summit, on my rookie run, in bad weather, I mean really bad weather, winds blowing, trail blowing in, poor visibility...   I just knew if things went wrong and I slid off I would barrel roll into the abyss and never be seen again.  I have since been over it and back again, on good weather days and it was spectacular and beautiful.  But the feeling I felt when it wasn’t and I had to get over it anyway stuck with me for some time after the race.

And on that cheerful note, just remember folks it’s a dog race, anything can happen, and it’s not over till the last musher gets to Fairbanks.

Mush Love


Jodi Bailey