A look at using GPS for sled dog racing and training.
For some, the sport of mushing is a very traditional practice. In many ways, the way we travel over a snow covered trail is the same today as it was one hundred years ago. But as with just about anything these days, technology creeps into our daily lives to the point of being inescapable.Science and technology have made the sport of mushing safer for the dogs and ourselves. Advances in nutrition and clothing are two of the first things that come to mind. The modern GPS unit is one of these advancements also. A GPS receiver uses signals from satellites to pinpoint its exact location on Earth, any time, anywhere. It can tell you where you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going. It can tell you what time you’ll get there, how long it took to get there, what you had for lunch and what color your toothbrush is. Well maybe not all those things, but they are very useful. Today for less than $100, you can get one of these pocket-sized gadgets. How did we exist without these? Were we constantly lost, unable to get from point A to point B all by ourselves? A few years ago, I had the fortunate opportunity to hear Martin Buser speak at a New England Sled Dog Club meeting. When asked about the legality of using a GPS system to help navigate during the Iditarod, he said, “Right now they are not legal, and I think we will pay for that. Someday someone could die out there, and a GPS may be able to prevent that.” When a musher with his experience and record speaks this frankly and candidly, it tends to burn into my memory. The Yukon Quest board has legalized the use of the devices, to the applause of some, and also to the jeers of others. “Mr. Quest” Frank Turner has been outspoken about not allowing their use. At La Grande Odyssee in France, teams were given GPS units so the race management, and media were able to track them. Unfortunately, for that race, they became necessary. So the use of GPS as a navigational aid is still being debated at the top levels among mushers and race giving organizations. In sprint racing in recent years, the smaller, wrist or sled mounted GPS units have become pretty popular. I’ve seen units on the handlebars or wrists and arms of many top mushers from club races to world championship events. This article will focus on the use of this tool in training and racing sprint teams, perhaps in the future we will look into its use for distance training and racing.Data: I run a 6 and 8 dog sprint team that I train mostly in the Adirondack Mountain region of upstate New York. Most of the mushers who congregate at this training site are sprint mushers also. We almost all use a GPS. The Garmin Forerunner 201 being the model of choice. We use it mainly to keep track of our mileage, our average speed, maximum speed, total run time and other things. The trail we use starts out with about a 1 mile descent. It is the general feeling among those who have used this trail, that it is important to keep the speed of the team under control going down this initial drop to prevent injuries, and mental burnout among the dogs. Without a GPS it would be very hard to tell exactly how fast you are moving along, because the sensation of speed is determined by so many variables. We use the GPS and set it to beep, or flash a warning—it actually says “Slow Down” when going over a predetermined rate. I usually set mine to 20 mph, and use a large drag mat on the sled to keep the team at this rate for the first mile. I want them to learn to run fast, but I don’t want them to get injured. It is useful and entertaining to see the data stored for each run. Specific comparisons can be made between trail and environmental factors and the speed of each run. We were always able to time our teams before GPS, but now we know how fast we did each mile. I know my team is in decent shape when we can maintain a certain speed throughout the run, and still have some left for the “go home” command to speed up. Another interesting comparison is to watch the real-time speed readout while changing positions on the sled such as squatting or standing, or pedaling vs. not. I’ve found that unless we are going really slow, maybe about 16 mph or slower, pedaling doesn’t help. Crouching down and getting out of the wind seems to increase speed about .25 to .5 mph. This specific unit, the Forerunner 201 allows the user to split each run into “laps.” Most people I know set each “lap” for 1 mile. At the end of each run, the unit displays the time it took to run each mile or “lap.” Want to know what the laps look like for a ONAC top team? With a little gentle coercion, we got ’em. e