Monday, December 31, 2012

The first big race is in the bag

... and there's no question that Lance Mackey won the Top of the World 350 decisively.  I'm a huge fan of his and I hope that he has an outstanding season. I don't think there's a smarter, tougher musher, and his dogginess is second to none.  In the meantime, the extremely talented Jake Berkowitz put in a blistering run in the last leg, from Chicken to Tok, and came awfully close to second place, gaining about 45 minutes on Gerry Willomitzer in just 75 miles.

The season got off to a late start thanks to the weather, which seems to have become the new normal (not just here in Alaska, but across the globe).  We went from no snow to a lot of snow to a brutal cold snap (trailbreakers for the TOTW reported temperatures below -60F in Chicken, and at least one was frostbitten).  Now it's warmed up a bit and the Knik 200 is reporting on their Facebook page that a thaw down in south central Alaska is causing trails to deteriorate, possibly so badly that they may have to delay or cancel the race.

Other important races in Alaska in January include the revived Copper Basin 300, the Northern Lights 300, and the Don Bowers.  It is striking how full the race rosters are, and how diverse the fields in some races can be.  I'm particularly tickled to see as many as three purebred teams in some races (the Copper Basin, the Don Bowers), friends from Two Rivers, and a nice blend of experienced, top-level teams, familiar names from the middle- and back-of-the-pack, and new up-and-comers.

One of the issues that deserves some continuing attention is how to handle online presence, particularly given the very surprising number of online fans from around the world.  For example, the TOTW, a brand-new race, has over 1000 Facebook fans, and the Two Rivers Dog Mushers Association has more Facebook fans than there are people who actually live in Two Rivers.

This means that there's a large number of eyeballs looking at race pages, race data, race Facebook (and other social media) pages, etc., and they'll see things that race organizers and social media managers won't.  It's just a given.  Mistakes happen, and they're only a big deal if they're dealt with badly, or if fans see a problem but never see it resolved because it's handled entirely behind closed doors.

It's often aggravating when someone points out a problem with the data, or complains about slow updates, etc., but I think it's pretty excellent that we've got fans who 5 years ago had no interest in dog mushing at all, and in particular fans who are paying such close attention to our events that they notice when there's a problem.  This is a very, very good thing indeed - their enthusiasm buoys the mushers and the race committees, they often provide financial support to particular kennels or races, and they love our sport.  When they find a problem, the best response is a "Thank you!" and an attempt to find and correct the problem when there really is one or provide an explanation when there isn't.

But I do think there are things we can do to reduce the likelihood of certain classes of mistakes (for example, there was a problem with start differential calculations in the TOTW).  An Iñupiaq friend recently bemoaned that we are no longer tool builders and we no longer cherish our tools, but I'd argue that we still are, only in many cases our tools have changed.  And so I think that we can build tools to make life easier for dogsled race organizers, reduce the likelihood of errors, etc.  For example, we can make calculators to correctly compute start differentials, and then add those differentials to an arrival time to find - correctly - the earliest time-to-leave for the checkpoint where differentials are taken.  And so on.

So, this is one of my goals (in addition to having a polkariffic year!) for 2013 - to start to put together a toolset for race organizers and managers to make our lives easier, our results more correct, and our fans less confused.  I hope that organizers from other races will have ideas and/or opinions about the problems they have to deal with, and what can be done to make their lives easier.

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