Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A closer look at the Buser shortcuts in the Kusko

I think at this point most distance mushing fans are aware that both Rohn and Martin Buser left the trail during this past weekend's Kuskokwim 300, and that they received no penalty for having done so despite the trail they took being somewhat shorter than the race trail.

The Kusko 300 rules say:
"Racers must follow the marked and/or broken race trail. Leaving the marked and/or broken trail for the purpose of gaining a competitive advantage over other racers is not allowed."
Right there is an obvious problem: it implies that if someone leaves the trail and follows a shorter route by accident, they will not be penalized.  It requires the race judges to attempt to determine intent, and that's both difficult and unfair, as it introduces a highly subjective element into the decision.  There's also the question of incentives - if you kill a moose with your car in Alaska, you don't get to keep the meat, antlers, or any other valuable part of the animal because the state doesn't want you accidentally-on-purpose killing a moose.  Same with killing wildlife in defense of life and property - you don't get to keep anything of value from the animal because they also don't want you accidentally-on-purpose having a dangerous run-in with a bear.  Setting up a situation in which it's okay to leave the trail under particular circumstances removes some of the disincentives for leaving the trail.

But, this doesn't apply in Rohn's case, as he was told that he was off-course and given the opportunity to return to the race trail, which he did not do.  So.

What interests, I think, a lot of us is whether or not these shortcuts had an impact on the outcome of the race.  We can use several Trackleaders' tools to look at that question and try to sort it out.

First, let's look at the shortcut itself.  If you go to the Trackleaders page for the race, down the right-hand side of the map you'll see a column of buttons.  Click on "Map layers."

That will expand to a series of checkboxed menu items: Weather Conditions, Cloud Cover, All Musher tracks, Tent layer, and Scratch layer.  Click on "All Musher tracks."  That will draw all of the tracks for all of the mushers who are being tracked.  I've done that in the following image, and zoomed in on the trail near Bethel (I've also switched to satellite view, as the tracks stand out better on the map).

Clearly there's no question that Martin and Rohn did not follow the same trail as everybody else, and it appears that the trail they did take was shorter.  So, was it shorter, and if so, how much of an advantage did they gain?

To try to suss that out, let's look at the race flow chart, which can give us a pretty clear look at average traveling speeds and team speeds relative to one another, as well as showing us speed anomalies in the track.  Here's the race flow chart from Tuluksak to the finish.  Note the big vertical jag in Rohn's and Martin's curves - that's where they left the trail (to digress a bit, Trackleaders appears to calculate musher trail mile by comparing the location of the GPS reading to the track that they were given by the race organization).  Note, as well, that both Rohn and Martin had slowed down and were losing speed relative to the teams around them.  On the race flow chart the x-axis (horizontal) represents time since the race began and the y-axis (vertical) represents trail mile.  The steeper the slope of a musher's curve, the faster they're going, and the less steep it is, the slower they're going.  So, that they were losing ground is very clear, and that they got a bump from their shortcut is also very clear.

There are several things we can do in looking at the data.  One thing we can do is look at the bumps and try to figure out what it did to "effective" speed on the trail.  Switching over to looking at Rohn's individual tracker map, it appears that he left the trail right at about mile 253.5 and rejoined at mile 266.   Again, according to his individual track,, that would mean that he left the trail at about 4:37am and rejoined the trail at about 5:36am.  So, as far as the race is concerned he covered 12.5 miles in 59 minutes, or averaged a hair over 12.5 mph over that section of trail (again, as far as the race is concerned).  If you take a look at his traveling speed prior to that (looking at the slope on the race flow chart) at hour 32 he was at mile 234.5 and at hour 34 he was at mile 253.5, so was traveling about 9.5 mph in the two hours prior to leaving the trail.  That is to say, he got about a 1 mph boost.

Now, if he'd stayed on the trail and continued traveling at about 9.5mph, would he still have beaten Jeff King to the finish?  More arithmetic.  He left the trail at about 4:37am, at trail mile 253.5.  The finish in Bethel is at about trail mile 267.3.  That's 13.8 miles.  If he'd been traveling at a constant 9.5 mph over that 13.8 miles he'd have arrived in Bethel about an hour and 27 minutes after the time at which he left the trail, or around 6:04 am.  Jeff got in around 5:58.  That's close enough, I think, to be questionable, but Jeff probably would have finished earlier and gotten the $17,000 check instead of the one for $11,500.

Just for fun, let's try extending Rohn's curve long its original path to see if it results in something much different, and as a way of validating (or not) the values I've been using for time and trail mile.  Also, pictures are just plain easier to understand.  So, what happens if I extend Rohn's line on the race flow chart along its original path?  This, which shows him finishing at about the same time as Jeff:

Note that Rohn's line, however, was not straight - it bulges a bit on top of the straight line because ... he was slowing down.

Running some numbers on Martin's track, he left the trail at about 5:54 am and returned to it at about 7:04am, so as far as the race is concerned he ran that section at 10.9 mph, while otherwise running about 8.7 mph.  If he'd stayed on the trail at a constant 8.7 mph, he would have arrived in Bethel in the general vicinity of 7:30, or right about the same time as Brent Sass.  This one is a lot fuzzier than the Rohn/Jeff situation.

So basically, yes, I think that if Rohn hadn't left the trail Jeff would have beaten him into Bethel, but not by much.  I don't understand why the Busers weren't penalized for leaving the trail and taking a shorter route and I especially don't understand why the race organization has said absolutely nothing. Given that the Kusko organization hasn't said a word about this I think it would be nice if Rohn would take responsibility and then donate the $5500 difference between a 2nd and 3rd place finish to a local charitable organization in Bethel.  The way the race ended just leaves a bad feeling all around.

[Update: KYUK reports that both Busers have been penalized 10 minutes and 10 percent of their winnings.  I do think that both received substantially more than a 10-minute benefit from their adventures on Church Slough, but I'm glad that the problem has been formally recognized by the race.]


  1. I am surprised there has been no announcement from the race officials. They said there would be one. It is their race, and I suppose they can handle it any way they want, but I don't think the option of not saying anything, is the right one.

  2. I think your analysis is spot on and hope the K300 makes some changes, for the future at least.

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  4. I am confused. It was only the two Busers who deviated from the race route. Everyone else stayed on course. If it was just the two of them, how did that work? Did they plan this ahead of time, or were they communicating during the race? Are they saying that it was an accident? Am I missing something here?