FAIRBANKS - Recreational dog musher and computer scientist Melinda Shore follows distance dog mushing more analytically than most fans.
While other fan stare at GPS race tracking maps to follow the progress of their favorite dog teams, Shore wrote a computer program to store the data from the maps in a format she can use to calculate statistics like average speeds and run/rest ratios.
She also compiles the race roster of the major mushing events.
This year these rosters span 269 mushers who signed up for at least one of 19 Alaska races this winter.
Shore blogs about mushing and the trends she observes on her Facebook group Mushing Tech.
In addition to the usual Iditarod favorites like Dallas and Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle, one Iditarod musher Shore is watching closely after this year’s Yukon Quest is Jessie Royer, of Fairbanks.
Royer finished ninth, near the back of the Yukon Quest pack this year. But she turned heads at the race’s finish banquet by talking about how she got lots of sleep along the trail. The Yukon Quest trail isn’t usually known as a place where mushers get enough sleep.
“(Royer) always does well (in the Iditarod) but she just put 1,000 miles on her dogs at a very moderate pace. She gave them a ton of rest, an insane amount of rest during the Quest,” Shore said in an interview last week. “I think she’s going into the Iditarod really, really strong.”
According to Shore’s data, Royer ran her team for an average of five hours at a time before stopping to rest the dogs for an average of eight hours, by far the largest rest-to-run ratio in the race. Her team passed up teams that took less rest by running significantly faster.
Royer was running the Yukon Quest for the first time this year. She’s run the Iditarod 14 times and has placed as high as fourth in the 2015 race.
Royer’s climb up Eagle Summit also caught Shore’s attention. Eagle Summit is the steepest section of the Yukon Quest trail.
“I was looking at runtimes from Central into 101 (i.e. over Eagle Summit) and thought “No, that can’t be right,” Shore wrote on her Mushing Tech Facebook page. “But I double-checked against the tracker, and Jessie Royer has the fastest time over Eagle Summit that I can find in the history of the race run in this direction.”
Another musher who Shore is watching in the Iditarod is Scott Smith of Willow. Smith cracked the Iditarod top 10 for the first time last year, but Shore thinks he’s duefor an especially strong run in 2017 based on his last few seasons.
“I think if anyone is likely to surprise people who follow (the race) casually, it’s probably going to be Scott Smith,” Shore said. “He’s consistently strong. He does well in the races, he’s a few years into building his kennel and his dogs are mature.”
Although she enjoys applying data analysis to dog mushing, Shore acknowledges that there’s a large part of the sport that not easy to study with numbers, the disposition of the dogs. Mushers constantly re-assess the condition of their dogs .
“It does come down to how the dogs look,” she said. She added that race spectators at checkpoints get a small and not-very-useful window into how the dogs are doing.
“It’s hard if you’re in a checkpoint because they always come in with their tails up looking happy because they know they’re going to get food, they know they’re going to get a break. They like seeing people because dog are social.”
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.