FINISHING STRONG: THE COASTAL STRATEGY OF THE SMYTH BROTHERS
©2006 Sled Dog Sports Magazine, originally published in the April 2006 issue.For those that run the Iditarod we all know that the last stretch from Unalakleet to Nome is gut check time. There’s strong winds, the wide-open monotony of Norton Sound and Golovin Bay, the steep climb up and over Little McKinley, the painfully long runs with minimal rests, and then there’s the Smyth brothers.Since they started running the Iditarod in the mid-90’s, Cim and Ramey Smyth have built a reputation as someone you don’t want breathing down your neck leaving White Mountain. If you don’t have an hour and a half cushion between you and a Smyth, chances are good you’ll be passed. If you’re fortunate enough not to get passed by them, you’ll at least have a sore neck to contend with for the next few days from looking over your shoulder. This year Cim Smyth had another incredibly fast run from White Mountain, moving from 15th position leaving White Mountain to 12th place, a run that made him an extra $6,900 in prize money. Those that saw his team finish were in complete shock and awe at how he could get his dogs to finish so strong after running 1000 miles in less than ten days. I asked Cim if he’d share some of the Smyth family secrets with me and the rest of the mushing world. He humbly obliged and over the din of the Iditarod finishing banquet I got this interview.KA: So, the big question I have about how you guys finish so strong is how do you step the dogs up to it in training?CS: Well, in training we always try to finish faster than we start out. We try to start slow and finish strong every day.KA: Is there a point where you kick the dogs in or is it just their natural speed doing that?(Break for loud fiddle music)CS: Well, one of the things we do every day, both Ramey and I have always done it every day, we were taught by our dad, is we stop once, right before we come to the dog lot. The place we stop now is about sixty yards from the dog lot. I may not stop a while before we get there but they always get that stop before the dog lot. Always, we stop there, no matter what. Even if it’s a seventy-mile run we stop. Even if you think they shouldn’t run into the dog lot fast, that they’re too tired, we still stop. And then we just say “go home”. And if you don’t want them to go home fast, just let them go home. They’ll probably go home faster. The big thing is to dig that command into them- “go home”. When you say “go home” at that last minute being the only time you ever say it; and it’s close enough that they can always run in. And to remember that a dog can’t run for more than 200 yards at top speed.KA: Okay?CS: Yes, when I was a little kid we’d go out and time them with a stopwatch. A dog always starts losing speed from its top speed after 200 yards. So if you want to have full performance you have to keep your distance under 200 yards. KA: Do you worry about injuries finishing so strong? CS: Well, that’s the drawback. You certainly have to be careful. If I have a dog that’s struggling I may hold the whole team back for that dog. Sometimes I’ll load the dog or just tie it out and come back to get it after I put the others away.KA: How fast are we talking about?CS: I’m not sure exactly, but it’s top speed.KA: Okay, do you do anything else like clapping? I thought I saw you clapping in White Mountain.CS: Well, that’s a different part of the program. It has to do with just trying to communicate to the dog what your distances are and what’s expected on any given run. If I’m going to go out for a long run I try to let the dogs know that we’re going for a long run. I’ll be calm with my hooking up procedure and tell them “easy” before we take off. I’ll usually make them be quiet before I take off. If I’m going for a short run and I’m expecting some speed, I’ll clap beforehand. If I know they’re going to be barking and flipping out before a run, I’ll clap. So that when I get to a place like White Mountain when the dogs are dead out I can still let them know that it’s a short haul from there.KA: You never clap anywhere before White Mountain though?CS: No, not in the race. That’s one of the main things about the program to get them to run fast at the end is honesty with the dogs. They always know they can count on you holding up your end of the deal. If you say it’s short, it’s short. If you say they can make it and go all out, they can make it and go all out.(Break to sign a couple of fan’s programs)KA: Okay, back to what you were saying about stopping 60 yards from the dog lot. What kind of reinforcement is there? Like what if a dog doesn’t get with it and give you 100%? Then what?CS: Well, in that last 60 yards into the dog lot, in my lifetime I’ve never whipped a dog. That should come before that. If they can’t run that 60 yards into the dog lot, they’re probably too finished to do it anyways. And when you’re that close to the dog lot the reward is the dog lot. My dad taught me from when the time I was a kid that when the run’s over, it’s over. There’s nothing a dog should be disciplined for after the run’s finished. That last 60 yards extends to that I believe.KA: After a while I assume they learn it and they know it’s coming and they just naturally pick it up.CS: Yes, and they pick it up from the other dogs as well. If you’ve got a few older dogs in there they’ll learn from them. And you started out doing it when they weren’t tired as well, so they learn it by habit.Jessie Royer asks: When did you tell them to “go home” this year?CS: I told them to “go home” in this race when I left Safety. I clapped in White Mountain. When I pulled out of Safety I wanted one more jump to their spirits. Because that was a tough place; I had driven them twenty miles hard already and I wanted another big boost to their spirit there and I got it. It was real impressive leaving Safety.KA: I guess the question is: if your dogs have that much energy at the end of the race do you feel like you under-raced them? I mean what’s to say you couldn’t have gotten that out of them earlier and gotten to Nome faster? Maybe it would equal out, but the way your team finished it was clear they had a lot of energy left. Why don’t you start pushing sooner?CS: Well, I think that’s a fallacy of logic I think a lot of people have. It’s not the body of the dogs that are giving it; it’s the minds. In any human racing it’s shown over and over and over again that what they call a ‘negative split’ is a more efficient way to race. If you pump them full of lactic acid early and use up their glycogen reserves they’re just going to go downhill from there.KA: Do you ever start pushing though before White Mountain? Do you go your normal Iditarod speed up to White Mountain and then all of a sudden shift it into a totally different gear? Or do you partition that out earlier, like say Unalakleet or Koyuk and start pushing the dogs there?CS: Well, if you look at my times you’d notice that where I started pushing them was Nulato. You’ll see that all of a sudden I sped way up. I rested them before I did it but I started pushing them a little bit all the way from Nulato.KA: You mean their running speeds? They were running more intensely because of a verbal command you gave them? CS: They were running more intensely because I was pushing them slightly. To make a drive it’s important to build on your usages like you don’t say “All right, Go Home!!” That’s the ultimate command for ultimate speed. You don’t say that way back in Nulato. That would just be lying. But you might give them a little click or a hiss or call a dogs’ name if they slow down more than you expect. Or show an attitude of being in a hurry.KA: The dogs pick up on your demeanor? CS: Yes. And try not to use up your commands. One of the things that’s most important is having a lot of different commands. Maybe they’re just a little different; maybe they mean the same thing, because they get used up in the process of the race and a long drive. A person should have half a dozen voice commands for speeding up and then maybe a dozen or so squeaks, whistles, hisses, and clicks for various speeds and attitudes.KA: Okay, let’s go back to your race in particular. I left right behind you from White Mountain and I saw you going up Topkok just a few miles ahead of me but by the time I got to Safety you were an hour ahead of me. You made up an hour on me in like twenty miles! So, at what point did you really put the dogs in gear.CS: When I got to the bottom of the hill, maybe five or six minutes after I saw you. Before that everything was prep. I got the dogs psyched up in White Mountain to leave; all the drive across the hills was all prep to start a drive when I hit the bottom of Topkok if necessary. I had wanted to wait until Safety.KA: Do the dogs get to where they look forward to that, that they enjoy it? Watching your team leave White Mountain was very impressive. You went back to your sled, pulled your hook and there was a definite authority in your voice that I hadn’t heard before and your team just exploded out of there, and they looked like they enjoyed it.CS: They definitely look forward to it to some degree but that’s a real fine line between looking forward to it and dreading it. In the last three miles before White Mountain I started my prep by stopping six times and petting them between pushing them for a quarter mile or so. I was just letting them know that we were going to drive and have some fun soon. By this time they’re getting sour in their heads a little bit. You’ve been pushing them and they’re starting to feel a little over-worked and under-paid by that time. So they need some reinforcement that the rewards are at hand.KA: Have you ever had dogs bail out on you in one of these drives, and what do you think causes it?CS: I haven’t had too many bail on me in a drive, in a race. I had a dog three years ago that I hadn’t trained but for a month before the race that just refused to drive. He went on the neckline and stayed there. I attributed that to him not knowing me well enough to drive for me. But the next year I got the same dog back and only had him three weeks before the race. He didn’t want to drive prior to the race but in the race he finally started picking up and took to trusting me. He was in the 5-dog team that I ran from Safety to Nome in an hour and fifty-two minutes, so I guarantee you he was doing his share. He had given it over mentally to me by that time. KA: Wow.CS: Of course, they can bail because of injury or being too skinny.KA: Do you do anything to change their diet to get them ready for that type of run?CS: Well, it’s nice to get plenty of water into them, but the biggest thing is just keeping their diet usual.KA: And when you’re pushing them like that what do you feed them? I mean, how often do you snack and are you trying to shy away from any type of foods, like fatty foods?CS: I think I may have made a mistake this time and fed them too much. Right at the bottom of the hill there I fed them half a cooler (he had eight dogs) and had a couple of dogs throw up coming into Nome. But other than that I mostly snacked with fish. I gave some dogs I thought were skinny some turkey fat. KA: But you feel it’s probably not too good to give them a full feeding along the trail and really tank them up?CS: I think making sure their hydration is up is the most important thing. And if you do tank them up, you should do it an hour or two before you start driving. That was my mistake. I should have fed an hour back in the hills instead of right before driving.KA: Now, I’ve never seen your team finish to see which speed you’re actually running. At the very end, at peak speed, how fast do you think you’re traveling?CS: This year I don’t really know, but I assume at peak speed it was around 15 or 16 miles per hour.KA: Yes, Gwen (my wife) saw you coming in and she said your team was completely stretched out like a sprint team. She said she wants to borrow your leaders for the North American next weekend! CS: I’ve timed the miles out there a few times. In the past I’ve run some four-minute miles and a few seconds better. KA: Wow, at that point most teams are just stuck in the Iditarod shuffle, about 7-8 miles per hour. To get that kind of speed out of your dogs at the end of the race is truly amazing. Congratulations on your strong finish and thanks for sharing this info.CS: No problem.