Iditarod mushers squeezed by rising costs, tough timesANCHORAGE, Alaska— Joe Redington Sr., “the father of the Iditarod,” realized his dream by mortgaging his home and selling a piece of land to raise money to launch the world’s longest sled dog race.
By: By Mary Pemberton, The Dickinson Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Joe Redington Sr., “the father of the Iditarod,” realized his dream by mortgaging his home and selling a piece of land to raise money to launch the world’s longest sled dog race.
Now tough economic times are squeezing out mushers and nearly kept away his two grandsons. The entry fee is up and the purse is down nearly 35 percent for this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Meanwhile, the prices of everything needed to run the race, from dog food to dog booties, has gone up.
“I think it is nice to have a Redington or two in the race,” said one of the grandsons, 26-year-old Ryan Redington.
But he said it’s getting tougher all the time to chase Iditarod dreams.
A shrunken Iditarod field of 67 teams is expected at the ceremonial start Saturday in downtown Anchorage, down from a record 96 in 2008.
Most of the big names will be there: two-time defending champion Lance Mackey; Rick Swenson, the race’s only five-time champion; four-time champions Jeff King and Martin Buser; and 2004 winner Mitch Seavey.
DeeDee Jonrowe and Paul Gebhardt, who have each finished second twice, also will be there, again chasing the elusive title.
There are some new faces this year. Harry Alexie, an Alaska Native and staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, was trained by Mackey to run his first Iditarod. Mackey said his father was in the guard and he was honored when Alexie asked for his help.
There’s Wade Marrs, 18, who has lived in the Knik area his entire life — the same place where the Redingtons live. Marrs got most of his dog team from the Redingtons and said he “learned most of what I know from them.”
Debra Glenn, 53, of Madison, Wis., says it was during a trip to Nome to watch the finish of the Iditarod that she befriended Dick Mackey, Lance Mackey’s father and the race’s 1978 champion. That was when she realized her true passion, “owning sled dogs and being out in the wilderness with them.”
This year’s entry fee is $4,000, up from $3,000 last year. The race’s board of directors is considering increasing the fee to $5,000 next year. The board also is considering capping the number of teams at 85 in 2010.
Executive director Stan Hooley insisted race officials are not trying to squeeze out the noncompetitive musher, the back-of-the-packers who just want to get to Nome in what is sometimes described as “going on a camping trip.”
“That is absolutely not the case,” he said.
The race faces the same tough economics confronted by businesses everywhere, he said.
“It is clear it is more expensive to run this race as a musher and clearly to stage this race as an organization,” Hooley said.
Ray Redington Jr., 33, who lives on the same land and trains on the same trails as his famous grandfather did, got over $20,000 last year for finishing in a respectable 18th place. This year, if he does as well, he will get less than half as much.
Balance that against the rising costs of just running the Iditarod. Redington estimates his costs at $30,000. That’s a lot of money to come up with year after year, especially for a musher with a young family, he said. He has a 3-year-old daughter and a newborn son.
“Dog mushers don’t retire,” Redington said. “They quit.”
Redington isn’t considering quitting.
“It is a fun race,” he said. “We grew up with it. As much as we complain about it as far as the purse and that we would probably run it for nothing, but it can’t be as expensive as it is.”
Even the biggest names aren’t immune to the Iditarod’s economic woes.
“Everything went up except the purse,” Mackey said. “I was just as (ticked) off as anybody when they told us we had to pay 4,000 bucks to sign up this year and then drop the purse by $300,000. That was like a slap in the face to all of us.”
“We are the most underpaid professional athletes in the world to do what we do. ... Most people wouldn’t even consider it,” Mackey added. “We are literally working for welfare checks.”
Mackey noted that Hooley, with a $100,000-plus salary, now makes more than people working for President Barack Obama in the White House.
“Someone needs to take a pay cut,” Mackey said.
Hooley said his salary was about $108,000, what it was several years ago.
Hooley said the costs of staging the race have nearly tripled between 1995 and 2008, increasing from $667,000 to $1.8 million. To get a musher from Anchorage to Nome, it costs the race about $9,000. Add in-kind services, such as free veterinary care and flying time, and the cost increases to more than $20,000, he said.
Hooley said the $610,000 purse, down from $935,000 last year, is because the race paid out too much in the past two years. Prize money is paid to the top 30 finishers.
The 2009 winner will still get $69,000 and a new pickup, just like last year and the year before.
Each finisher out of the money receives $1,049 each to help get themselves and their dogs back home. That hasn’t increased from previous years.