When Doug Swingley swept into Nome after a thousand-mile run, his dogs looked about as tired as most of us do after climbing two flights of stairs.
That's the thing about the Iditarod. Despite all the outrageous claims by Outside race critics, the fact is that Iditarod teams win because they are in great shape and the dogs love to run. Otherwise they couldn't stay ahead of the pack.
While the critics are busily trying to scare off Iditarod's national sponsors -- with some success -- the truth is that mushers like Swingley and the other top competitors are models of good dog care and handling.
The best animals are partly the result of good breeding, but even dogs from the best parentage wouldn't or couldn't do well in the race without being pampered, nurtured and carefully trained throughout their lives. They work hard and receive constant conditioning, but so do all great athletes.
It would be nice to suggest that the critics go to Nome and watch as the dogs cross under the burled arch, but that wouldn't help. There would be no way for such visitors to appreciate what makes a great team without watching a champion feed, train and handle his or her dogs in the months and years before the race.
Then they would have to follow the teams along the trail and watch as the exhausted mushers deferred their own rest to care for their animals' feet, give them food and water and spread their bedding.
They also would need to talk with the volunteer veterinarians who check the dogs along the trail and to the many handlers who feed and care for dropped animals until they can be shipped back to their home kennels. They would need to talk to the pilots who track the teams throughout the race and to the checkers who watch over them as the teams pass through.
The dogs of the Iditarod are working animals that love to run as much as any urban jogger in expensive footgear. It's what they live for and one of the hardest jobs for mushers often is making them stop when they are supposed to. Unlike the dogs favored by race critics, they will never wear pink ribbons and watch Oprah while sitting on their owner's lap.
And though the Iditarod was once dominated by men, Libby Riddles became the first woman winner in 1985 and Susan Butcher later dominated the race for years. Their victories at first surprised the experts, but those same experts ultimately conceded that women with the strength, endurance and commitment to finish the race might actually have an advantage over the men.
After all, the nurturing nature essential to making a great team want to win comes more naturally to women than to most men.
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