Fear, Loathing, And Regulations On The Alpirod Trail

FEAR, LOATHING AND REGRETS ON THE ALPIROD TRAIL

On a cold winter morning with sparkling snow on the ground and crisp anticipation in the air along with the sound and smell of diesel exhaust, I often think of the Alpirod experience. Strange that diesel exhaust still gives me a happy feeling in those conditions. These are mostly pleasant memories of good company and new friends, challenging trails, superb food and entertainment at the official dinners and the frequent open air lunches, excellent organization and publicity, and satisfaction with the dogs’ ability to adapt well to all the conditions so different in Europe from their training in North America. The Alpirod race held each winter from 1988 through 1995 in the Alps of Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria was a magnificent experiment in promoting sled dog sports. Many people in Europe were first exposed to mushing through the publicity that Alpirod generated. Many mushers in Europe entered the sport as a result and others saw the race as a healthy challenge to their progress and ambition in sled dog racing. When it all ended abruptly the failure was not as much the fault of the mushers or the organizers, but of global and regional financial circumstances much bigger than the race and the sport could withstand. (Paribas, the owner of Royal Canin which in turn owned the race at that time, was implicated in mismanagement and misconduct that threatened the French economy.) Still there are many lessons to be learned from this experience.

When Alpirod veterans meet as we do frequently throughout the world, we remember the excitement and satisfaction of being on stage and performing in a worthy event, as well as all the small pleasures during the race that are part of bringing all the elements together correctly as they should and are intended to be. Training, nutrition, friendship, cooperation, and competition must combine and be integrated in the participation and organization of any successful race.

We also remember the dark side. Sleepless nights. Hunger. Total exhaustion. Driving across Italy for 10 hours to arrive at the next race site too late for any dinner. Going off the trail in the dark, or even out of control in daylight to end up with a team tangled in a church parking lot, or running across the railroad tracks and down the main highway into automobile traffic, or crashing into a post or tree and losing a team. Going off cliffs and through fences, and down hills resembling ski jump in-runs. Hooking up too many dogs for our own safety because the race rules required that all dogs be used at the beginning stages and once dropped for any reason they could not compete in subsequent stages. These rules were changed ultimately after much debate and disagreement to allow dogs to be dropped temporarily and reentered when their health and the trail conditions allowed, but the disappointment many mushers experienced when they abandoned the race because of injuries or illness among their dogs is not forgotten, especially when the solution was obvious in retrospect (and to many of us, from the beginning.) Stress is inevitable and it is relative, but that does not mean the rules and circumstances that contribute to it are negligible or acceptable in an event that intends to promote itself to the public. The distance and difficulty of a race is not something that can or should be proven to the public by showing them the consequences in the form of tired, injured and sick dogs. The public and spectators are much more favorably impressed by strong and happy dogs, they don’t judge or see the difference between 2 and 3 hour runs except in the negative effects.

This is the most important lesson: that all the participants and interests must be considered and reconciled to have a successful event. Mushers are only as good as their teams and the critical factor is to know and understanding each member’s capabilities. The same is true for races. What are the definitions and purposes intended for any particular sled dog race? Some races are obviously held only for the competitors’ interests. Others apparently attempt principally or exclusively to satisfy the owners, organizers, or sponsors of the race. Any race that aspires to public success and recognition must consider all the interests involved and try to find the best compromise to the conflicts that exist. Those of us who survived Alpirod to remember the good experience are tough mushers, men and women. We have been there and done that. We will not deny or forget or apologize for what this important race meant to all of us. We do not despair for its loss but we also hope not to repeat the same mistakes again when we can avoid them.

This was written a few years back, but sorry to say there are many races that make the same mistakes and even the self-styled dog friendly events don’t get it either.

It reminds me of a conversation at Pirena race ten years ago. Monique Bene became the race marshal after Dick Mackey had a health crisis. I was one of the competitors, Monique the RM. We were standing out among the dogs at the race finish arguing amiably about one  of the Pirena rules which seemed to be counterproductive to the dogs interests and to the sport’s image. I don’t recall the rule but typically the offensive regulation would penalize a musher for doing something he or she would reasonably do for the dog team’s welfare or best interest. A musher should not be put in the position to chose between following the rules and caring for his dogs. Like… what help is allowed to recover a dog that for whatever reason gets loose from your team during a race.

Pep Pares came by. “Are you two still talking about that after half an hour?”

“What do you think? We have been talking about this subject for at least fifteen years!”

It is ironic that the Alpirod rules established an appeals committee that could overrule the RM and judges. This would have helped avoid many unfortunate results and given a better reality check on arbitrary or ultimately harmful rules. But I was not aware of the rule until carefully reading the regulations 5 years later, too late to help Joe Runyan when he was disqualified for assistance from race personnel to recover a loose dog. That particular accident happened in a dangerous spot where there was a metal stake in the middle of the trail, and Joe was one of many mushers who damaged their sleds or injured dogs. It was the RM himself gave Joe a ride on the snowmobile and then after the race disqualified him.

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