Bleary-eyed mushers follow Iditarod trail to Nome

Posted: Friday, March 03, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Mushers can't outrun their need for sleep on the 1,150-mile Iditarod trail through Alaska's wilderness.

Eventually it takes over, impairing their judgment, forcing their eyes shut while riding the runners, and sometimes causing hallucinations, said Anne Morris, medical director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Providence Alaska Medical Center.

The situation can be hazardous, she said.

A person who gets five hours of sleep for just a few nights has the impaired reactions of someone who is legally drunk, Morris said, assuming that person needs eight hours of sleep normally.

''When you have long-distance competitive races like this, they become very sleep-deprived. That becomes potentially a danger because of failure of vigilance.... They need to sleep,'' she said.

Eventually, say halfway through the race, some mushers will begin to hallucinate because the need for deep sleep breaks through, Morris said.

''There will be such a pressure for dream sleep built up you will begin to dream -- but you are awake,'' she said.

At that point, most mushers are racing on autopilot. Morris says that works well enough in normal conditions.

''That is fine if you don't have a moose walk in front of your team,'' Morris said.

Dogs don't suffer nearly as much from sleep deprivation because they are excellent nappers. Morris recommends mushers take the lesson.

''Sleep wherever and whenever you can,'' she recommends.

On Wednesday, veterinarians checked over the dogs in a record 81 teams scheduled to begin the race Saturday. The dog doctors checked everything from the toughness of the dogs' feet to whether they were carrying enough body fat. A typical dog loses about 10 pounds between Anchorage and Nome.

In an effort to understand more about sled dogs, electrocardiograms were done on 1,650 dogs this year, all the dogs who could compete. The effort was begun in 1994 to weed out dogs with heart problems, usually one and two dogs each year, said Ken Hinchcliff, an associate professor of veterinary medicine at Ohio State University, who is studying the dogs.

The hearts of sled dogs are so big that vets at first glance would think the dogs suffered from heart disease. They look more like those found in rowers, large and muscled, rather than the hearts of marathoners, he said.

The tests also showed that between one-third and one-half of the dogs have heart murmurs. Hinchcliff said the condition is normal and ''a function of getting fit.''

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