Success in sled dog racing depends primarily on two factors: The attitude, appetite and ability of the dogs, and the skill, strategy and stamina of the mushers. While “outsiders” tend to focus more on the mushers and “insiders” focus more on the dogs, they’re really quite equal in importance. A strong dog team with a weak musher will do no better than a strong musher with a weak dog team.

Some folks may nit-pick that I’ve over-simplified things, but I’ll stand by my basic assertion. It is the “alliance” between humans and canines that makes sled dog racing so addictive for participants and observers alike. It is the centuries-old survival partnership between them that makes sled dog racing a worthy celebration of shared history and, I believe, calls forth in us an instinctive passion.

Beyond the human-canine alliance as the key to success, honest mushers will admit that luck also plays a part. That luck mostly applies to things beyond control or even anticipation, things that don’t happen if you’re lucky and things that do happen if you’re not: Your dogs can pick up a stomach bug; your sled can hit a stump and break; you can fall off your sled and get a concussion. We’ve all seen these things happen and feel badly for the team, stuff which is arbitrary, random or just the way things go in a race. “Better luck next year” is all we can say.

While almost all of the “luck” happens in the race, one piece happens before it: The luck of the draw.

Allen and Commando will be happy starting #6

The bib/starting number which a musher picks out of a hat is a bit of luck that matters. With 38 mushers starting this year’s CB300 at the rate of one every two minutes, the first musher will start 74 minutes before the last. Each team will “give back” their portion of that lead — the “start differential” — at their mandatory 6-hour checkpoint rest as a way of making it all even in the end. That said, however, picking an early starting number has two subtle advantages.

First, an early starting position means that you have little, if any, traffic ahead of you. For speedy teams, that means very little passing needs to be done. This can be significant because passing is not as fast as free running. It takes a little time to pull up on a team ahead, signal your intentions, make the pass then move along. Think about what it’s like to pass a slower vehicle on a two-lane road. It takes time to accomplish before you can step on the gas again. Top teams which pick early starting numbers will be much happier with their luck than those who pick later starting numbers and have to work their way through the crowd.

Second, the earlier your start, the more “start differential” time you have to give back at your longest checkpoint rest. This is also an advantage for early starting teams because instead of getting only the 6-hour mandatory rest, they can get as much as an extra hour-plus of rest. That extra rest is all to the good for a dog team. So, again, early starters will be happier with their luck of the draw. These are slight, subtle advantages, but every little bit helps in a highly competitive race like the CB300.

I’ve often contemplated whether there are ways to take the luck of the draw out of the racing equation. The only thing I’ve ever come up with is to have a mass start where every team charges from the line at the same time. Having seen first-hand how chaotic a race start can be — and the lack of room to maneuver at most races — I don’t see how that’s a workable solution.

If you’ve got a better idea, have at it in the comments… Go SPK!

17 Responses

  • Thanks so much, Macgellan!!!

    I note that your first post in this series identified results from 2015 – when Allen won with #34 and Aliy came in 5th with #36.

    So those following from our armchairs will probably advised to not throw in the towel – but cheer even harder to motivate the racing gods to bring luck and favour to SP Kennel's three amigos!!!



  • Perhaps divide up the 'give-back' time over several checkpoints. An extra 15 minutes in multiple places might not confer the same advantage as one full hour in one place.

  • That is an interesting problem. Any reason they don't employ an "elites" starting etiquette like in long distance running? X number of teams pick between earlier starts? Competitive runners never run with the pack.

    Also, why not split the differential between more checkpoints? Seems like 15 minutes at 4 check points would be less of an advantage than an entire hour of extra rest.

    No easy answers.

  • Ah, the luck of the draw….looks like Lady Luck was shining on Allen when he made his draw….Chris and Aliy, not so much darn it! Well, practice passing makes perfect…right? I'd be curious to know what the best finish is with the highest bib number for this race. It does appear to be quite a factor!

    Listening to the race now….Allen is on his way!

  • Hey Mac! welcome back..
    great thoughts from experience.. I also think that early numbers the trail could be in better shape than those with the later draws. not all dragged up by mushers on brakes… I think Allen is in a perfect spot. our other 2 teams will get some Real time passing experience which can be good for later races.. Its all good Cause we are Racing!
    Padee Fairbanks

  • Allen is off. Listening to KCAM. You mentioned in the 2014 analysis the passing of teams on the trail. I had not thought of the fact that it can take time to do that, can't pass just anywhere on the trail. Now to wait for Aliy and Chris to get on their way.

  • The Kobuk 440 has a mass start: everyone lined up side-by-side across the frozen Kotzebue Sound. The standard single-file trail begins on the other side of the sound, giving the mushers about 8 miles to get things sorted out. It is exciting to watch.

  • just listened to the start: gooo SPK!!
    have a great run ALIY and Allen, take good care of Scout, Christian, and be fast like the wind, Champ

  • Margaret thank you so much for your observation that even higher bib #s can rock the race, as Aliy and Allen did. No matter what, I am there for every step of every starting position and all along the trail. I am wishing for very good luck, all things being considered.

  • sorry, Chris, meant Christopher ; not Christian. More the guy who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders in order to help to cross a treacherous river : might come in handy in this race …
    all the best to you and the dogs

  • Is there updated checkpoint roster yet? I keep checking and it still has last years results posted – no help in seeing race times. I am hoping by the time folks start arriving at Sourdough, CB volunteers have it sorted out. I know they do a great job with few people, so patience is the order of the day, I expect.

  • Thanks for so much exciting and detailed information, Yup Feel the spirit and excitement. The season is here YEAH! Lets take it to them and GETTER DONE this is the Red & Black SPK YEAR!! Best wishes and may God Speed be at your sides and behind you. Will look for the posting as the CB300 unfolds to the finish line!

Comments are closed.