Sunday, 12 April 2015

What Does an Iditarod Judge Do???

I would guess that 80% of the time I mentioned to folks that I was going to Alaska to judge Iditarod, they would look at me quizzically and ask questions like 'Judge what?'

Got to admit, that shocks me. Iditarod is a World Class, top level sporting event with a purse of over $700,000. Do folks really think that it is all done on the 'honour system'? That there are no rule infractions or problems arising? While I think Iditarod is a unique sporting event in the respect that by far the majority of mushers appreciate the risks involved in what we do and, most of us, would, without thinking, put aside our race to aid a fellow musher (or dog) in jeopardy, it doesn't mean that corners may not be cut nor rules forgotten along the way.

Mark Nordman is the Race Marshal for Iditarod. He has been so for as long as I've been involved in the Race. He does a fantastic job, but he is only one man and can't have eyes everywhere - remember the Race can stretch out over 200 miles. The team of judges he has on the trail are his eyes and ears where he can't be.

Generally there are about 8 judges working the race. Some just work one checkpoint; others, like myself, work the entire race and a number of checkpoints. ALL of us are Iditarod finishers - it gives us an understanding of the race and mushers that is very difficult for a 'normal' human to have.
I have the added benefit of being on the Rules Committee for the Race. I think being on the Rules Committee gives me a better understanding of the intent of the rules, and being a judge and seeing the rules 'in action' gives me good insight for the Rules Committee.

By the way - you can read the Rules for the race at Iditarod Rules.

Now, as for what a judge on Iditarod does....

First off, judges are the 'final say' on what goes on in a checkpoint. It is up to us to work with the locals (if we are in a village) and our volunteers to set up the checkpoint and decide on the way it will run. Remember, what is done for one musher must be done for all mushers, so things like whether we are going to bring drop bags to mushers - or have them collect their own from a sorted pile - must be decided and stuck with. Sleeping arrangements designated, check in and check out procedures set, dog team parking sorted, etc., etc.

Former Kaltag rules on the left...new (my) rules on the right


All judges run things a bit different, but I try to be present to greet every musher when they arrive. The checkers (sometimes a local, sometimes an Iditarod volunteer) usually signs them in and does bag checks (Iditarod sets how much of a bag check is required in each checkpoint), but I like to chat with them (to make sure they are still on the same planet I am!) and give them the layout of the checkpoint.

If a musher has had any issues on the trail - like while passing another team or perhaps lost their own team for a period of time - that gives them an opportunity to talk to me too. I will say, those things are rare.

When in checkpoints, mushers may come to me with questions regarding the trail ahead, weather, or any other number of things. If a musher would like to make a phone call, they would need to approve that with a judge - and the judge will usually be near them while they make the call.

If there are any concerns about a musher's ability to safely continue down the trail - say due to injury or illness - that is something the judge would take up with them and ultimately decide.

If a musher wishes to scratch, it is through a judge they do that. If they wish to file a complaint, that is also through a judge. If they have broken or lost gear they would work with us for a solution.
If a judge notices - or it is brought to a judge's attention - a rule infraction in a checkpoint, it is handled by them.

Oh - and we are somewhere to get advice, motivation, a shoulder to cry on, or a kick in the pants...
Because we are all mushers, we have been where all the mushers are at one point or another. We understand the ups and the downs that mushers go through - both rookies and veterans.  That is likely one of the biggest parts of the job - and the hardest. Sometimes it is hard to know whether a kick in the pants or a shoulder to cry on is the best answer to the problem. 

Of course, we are in regular contact with Mark. He is always consulted regarding 'significant' matters and often the insignificant ones too.

We don't always stay in each of our checkpoints start to finish. In terms of logistics and playing to each judges experience as well as strengths, Mark moves us along the trail. I was in Tanana start to finish, Kaltag for the Top 30 mushers or so, and Elim till almost the last musher. At early-on checkpoints the action is usually fast, furious and over quickly, where in later-on checkpoints, the action can drag out for days. When one judge is pulled out, another will generally be put in.

Tanana 'before'


Tanana during


Tanana after



The perks of the job??? Well, there are some for sure - all the flying is AWESOME! The Iditarod Air Force is an amazing group of professional, super nice pilots who are a delight to fly with - even when conditions are less than ideal. Seeing the trail from the air is wonderful!!!!







It is also wonderful to get to spend real time in the checkpoints. You get a real 'feel' for the villages and meet some amazing people - and often the food is interesting and delicious!

Elim local Carl Paul with one of the 6 Dungeness Crabs we devoured for dinner!

Eskimo Salad - courtesy of John Baker.

Judges also usually get 'prime' sleeping spots.....this year that meant a mat in the the musher's sleeping area in Tanana, a couch in Kaltag, and a bunk (hard wood, but still a bunk) all to my own in Elim.


It's also very rewarding to help mushers realize their dreams. I remember all the times I've been kicked in the butt or cried on a shoulder or just had a good chat with a judge on the trail and been so much better for it. It is nice to be able to 'pay back' those things in a small way.


Rob Cooke being checked into Nome

And, of course, it is nice to be able to help Iditarod too - and just be involved. I have lived and breathed this Race for so many years that it is now a permanent part of me. 


 *********PLEASE NOTE - while I am happy at address GENERAL inquiries about this blog I absolutely WILL NOT comment on any specific situations that occur during Races! *******


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

What is all in Eskimo Salad? looks very interesting!

Anonymous said...

Who were some of your fellow judges we might know?

Bonnie said...

Karen, nice article....nice photos too...I think the crab is a king crab, not a Dungie...:). I think you should write more often...

NCL said...

Interesting info - thanks for sharing!