Your First Race

by Stephen R. Lee

This material is copyright 1996 by Stephen R. Lee. Permission to use and distribute is granted so long as the author, and this web page, are given credit.


This information is intended to help those competing in their first race. It discusses what to expect, what to watch for, and what to do and not do. I cannot take credit for everything in this document. Some of this information comes from the collective wisdom of the sleddog-l email list.

In addition, Carol Kaynor, of the Alaska Dog Mushing Association, has put together an excellent document titled Racing with ADMA. Some of the information from that document has found it's way here, but not all. Some of the suggestions and "rules" discussed there are specific to the ADMA. I have tried to make this document applicable to any novice entering their first race. However, it is heavily tainted with my own experiences in sprint races in the lower 48.

Finally, this document does not address the specific race rules (passing, free zones, cautions, etc). Nor does it address caring for your dogs. These, while connected, are separate topics in and of themselves.

Signing Up For A Race

Sometimes getting the race entry or signing up for the race can be difficult, particularly if you are not connected in the mushing community. The best thing to do is join a mushing club in your area, or in the area in which you wish to race. Most races are entered by filling out an entry form and sending it to the race giving organization, along with the entry fee. Some organizations (like the ADMA) expect you to sign up in person. Most clubs that I am familiar with do not expect you to be a member of the club to attend a club-sponsored race, but this varies widely from place to place (to compete in ADMA races, for example, you must be an ADMA member). Check with the racing giving organization for the race you are interested in to be sure. Finally, before race day, the week before the race, call the race giving organization or race marshal to verify snow and trail conditions, and that the race is still a go.

Be sure you understand the race rules for the race you are attending. Passing rules, free zones, and so on are not something you want to try and figure out while on the trail. Most organizations have their own rules or abide by another organization's rules, such as ISDRA. Ask the race giving organization if in doubt.

Above all, all of these things should be done ahead of time! Don't wait until a week before the race to figure this stuff out. Plan your race season out and send in your entries early. Call ahead for your lodging early. In some small areas (particularly in the lower 48), lodging can be difficult to come by as the race date approaches. Most people keep a small journal or a few notes on races, the town, where they stayed, whether the liked it, and so on. It makes it easier the following season if you don't have to sit down and try and remember everything without notes, or call information for phone numbers.

Mushers Meeting

Most organizations have some sort of mushers meeting. Sometimes it is the first day of the race, sometimes it is the night before the first day of the race. The entry form should provide this information. If it does not, call the race giving organization to be sure.

Whenever it is, be sure to attend. At this meeting, starting orders will be given, and mushers will be able to pick up their bibs. Be sure to pay attention at the meeting, as the race marshall will discuss the trail, any caution areas, or other special instructions or considerations. Also, the race times will be finalized at this time. Be sure you know when the start time for your class is. Hopefully, in your mushers packet you will have a list of people and bib numbers for your class. Hang on to this and keep it handy, as it will help you know when to go out and who to follow on race day. If you are unfamiliar with the names on the list, particularly those near your number, make a point of finding them and introducing yourself. This will help you recognize them on race day. At the race site, find out where they are parked so that you can watch for them to leave as you are preparing to go out.

Be sure you know where the race area is. If you do not know, and it has not been brought up at the meeting, ask! You will also find that any special parking considerations will be discussed at the drivers meeting. In some races, particularly the larger ones, those running larger teams are allowed to park closer to the starting chute to facilitate getting their dogs to the chute without having to weave around the staging area. If there are any special instructions, be sure that you understand and follow them.

Race Day

You should arrive at the race site in plenty of time for your class. At minimum, you should plan on arriving at least 30 minutes before the start time for your class. However, unless you don't mind parking a good distance from the starting chute, you should arrive at the race site before any of the scheduled start times. This is also courteous to your fellow mushers, as they do not have to deal with you parking your vehicle while they are getting ready for their class. It is also a good idea so that you can help handle dogs in the other classes, should the number of race volunteers be low (as it usually is in the races I attend).

Parking.When you arrive at the race site, be sure to follow any instructions you may have recieved at the mushers meeting the previous evening. If no such instructions were given, keep your eyes open for anyone directing traffic. There may be a special area for you to park given your racing class. Select any spot that you like. Most prefer to be reasonably close to the starting chute, so that it is easier to hear announcements and get your dogs to the line.

When you do select a spot, be sure to leave ample room for people to park adjacent (or behind, depending on the geometry of the staging area) to you. If parking next to someone, be sure to leave plenty of room for their dogs and yours. You do not want dogs fighting with one another or trying to reach one another's food. Don't park too far away from them, as that would inefficiently use possibly valuable parking space, but don't park so close as to make it difficult for you or your neighbor to take care of dogs and prepare for the race. If you have doubts, just ask the person you are parking next to what they would prefer.

You should make a mental note of where you parked, so you can return to the same parking space the next day. Many mushers, myself included, carry a tall (6 ft), light wooden stake with their name on it. I stick this in the snow in front of my vehicle and leave it there, thus marking the spot as mine so that I can return to it the next day, and no one else will take it. The reasons for this are simple. It's not so much because mushers are territorial, as it is for health reasons. You really don't want to bed your dogs in the same spot as another musher did the previous days. This is a excellent way to spread disease.

Bibs. Either at the driver's meeting or the morning of the race, you will receive your racing bib. This must be worn outside your clothing in plain sight. Usually the race giving organization expects to get the bibs back. In fact, you may pay a bib deposit which you will get back upon return of the bib on the last day of the race. Be sure to return your promptly at the end of the race. Most races hand out different bibs for each class, but some races re-use the same bibs in different classes. If this is the case, you'll need to return your bib right after you return each day. Also, if you have entered multiple classes, you may have two or more bibs. Be sure to keep straight which bib is for which class. You don't want to have to ask one of your handlers to race back to the truck and bring you the correct bib as they are counting down for you to start!

Pre-race Meeting. Usually, there will be a brief pre-race (driver's) meeting at the race site. This is used to provide any last minute instructions or information about the trail. Be sure and attend this brief meeting. Depending on how far from the starting area you are, and how good the public address system is, you may have to stay sharp to make sure you know when this meeting is.

Handlers. In most of the races I compete in, mushers handle dogs for one another. Just as you will want someone to help you get your dogs to the starting chute, other mushers will need your help to make their start times. Be available to volunteer to help other mushers up to the line. Be sure and follow their instructions. Some mushers may be very picky about how you handle their dogs. It is important to listen to their instructions and follow them. If you do not feel comfortable handling a particularly strong or excited dog, then don't. Both you and the driver will benefit from your honesty.

For your own handlers, be sure to line as many up as you will need prior to your start time. Don't expect someone to come up and help you when it is time for you to go out. Ask for help ahead of time. Often, the drivers you help go out in their classes will help you go out in yours. Don't be shy about asking for help! Usually other mushers and spectators are more than happy to help get you to the line. Spectators often particularly enjoy being involved.

It is a good idea to ask one or two of your handlers (depending on the size of your team) to wait near the finish line for you to help you get your tired team back to the truck. They can guide your team to your truck and help you secure your dogs to their drops and give them water.

Equipment. Most races, whether ISDRA sanctioned or not, require dog bags and snow hooks in order for you to compete. When you get up near the starting chute, a race official will briefly examine your sled to make sure you have all required equipment. Be sure you know ahead of time what is required, and conversly, what is not allowed (e.g., a signal whip). When you get to the race site, get your sled, gangline, and other equipment out and ready to go. Don't wait until the last minute and be rushed.

Carefully inspect all of your equipment for frayed lines and snaps in poor condition. It is a good idea to carry a double snap with you when you race. A double snap is device with a snap on both ends. This will allow you to quickly replace a broken snap in the starting chute or a broken neckline on the trail.

Race Rules/Timing/etc. This document is not intended to summarize rules for passing and trail marking. The ISDRA rules are usually used as guidelines in non-sanctioned races, and always followed in sanctioned races. Contact the race giving organization for more information on the rules they use. Obtain a copy of the ISDRA rules and read and understand them prior to the race.

Your time is started at your appointed starting time. While in the chute, you will be counted down from 5 or 10 seconds, 5,4,3,2,1,GO!. Your finish time is calculated from this start time and the time at which the nose of your first dog crosses the finish line. This can vary, however, as in some races the brush bow of the sled is used.

When you have completed your race, be sure and clear the finish area as soon as possible, to allow other teams to come in without obsitcles. In some races, your bib will be re-used in different classes. If this is the case, turn your bib in as soon as possible. In other races, you don't turn your bib in until the last day of the race.

Day 1

The starting order for the first day is done by random draw. In your mushers packet, you should have gotten a starting list for your class. Be certain that you know when you should go out and who you follow. Some people may have scratched from the race, so you might be following someone one or two slots ahead of the person listed as right in front of you. Make sure the person you follow is there. In most races, if the person in front of you is absent a ghost team is run at that drivers time. However, sometimes this is not the case, and your start time will move up. Make sure you understand how scratched teams will be handled in your class.

Get your equipment in order and your dogs harnessed and ready to go in plenty of time. There are few things more stressful than having to race around at the last minute and get your dogs harnessed and to the line before you miss your time. This kind of stress can take the fun out of a race for you and your dogs.

Before the start of your class, walk the parking area up to the starting chute and plan your route. Minimize contact with other dogs and interference with other drivers. In some races, the path to the starting chute is laid out for you. In most races, however, it is not.

The races are run in different classes. You will have entered one or more of these classes. Classes are run one at a time until completion. Usually there is 15 minutes or more between classes to allow the race marshall to reset the gates on the trail and prepare for the next class.

In most races, mushers enter the chute one by one and are sent out behind one another in 1 minute intervals. In some races, dual or mass starts are used. If dual or mass starts are used, rules for them will be discussed in the musher's meeting. If you miss your start time, you will have to wait until all other mushers in your class are on the trail before you can start. However, your time starts when you were supposed to leave.

Day 2

On the second day, starting order is based on finish times for the first day. Therefore, if you finished 5th overall in your class on Saturday, then you will be 5th out of the chute on Sunday. Once again, drivers are usually sent out in one minute intervals behind one another.

Don't be surprised if the class orders are reversed on the second day. Thus, if the classes went out 3 dog, 4, 6, 8, and 10 on Saturday, the classes will probably go out 10, 8, 6, 4, and 3 on Sunday. All of this information is important as it will help you prepare you dogs for the race (when to water, feed in the morning, and so on).

After the Race

After the race is over, be sure to carefully clean up the area around your dog truck. This includes cleaning up excess straw and other debris. Try and leave the area better than it was when you arrived. Sponsors and the race giving organization will apreciate it. Be prepared to take all trash with you and dispose of it at your home. Not all race sites have recepticals or are willing to take bags and bags of dog poop. Before you leave, be sure and write down any results that you want to have. Don't assume that someone will provide this information for you. Sometimes, once you leave the race site, the information is gone.

In some races, santioned or not, the race giving organization will ask you to fill out a driver's report for the race. This form will allow you to rank everything from the trail to the parking area. This is a useful feedback tool for the race giving organization and will help improve the race for all the following year. Be sure to fill this out.

Finally, it is usually a nice gesture to thank the race organizers after a race. They have worked hard to put the race on, and appreciate the kind words.


Hopefully, this information will help take some of the mystery and confusion out of your first race. You will know what to expect and what is expected of you. If you ever have any questions, just ask your fellow mushers. You will learn that most are very friendly and willing to help you out.

Above all, have fun at your race! Don't be so up tight and wound up that you cannot enjoy your first experience. Being nervous is natural. However, try and over come your nervousness and make the race fun for both you and your dogs. Your first race is something that you will always remember.