TANANA, Alaska — Yukon Quest champion Brent Sass, of Eureka, mushed his Iditarod team home Wednesday, heading in the opposite direction of other competitors coming into the village checkpoint after he was disqualified here Tuesday for having an iPod Touch.
The disqualification under Rule 35 of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was due to the device’s ability to connect to wireless Internet, theoretically allowing a racer to gain an advantage by getting updates from outsiders. The Iditarod and Yukon Quest rules both hold self-sufficiency in high regard during the race, but such devices are allowed in checkpoints for posting social media or website updates in the Quest.
While walking from the Tanana checkpoint to the store before leaving midday, Sass uttered some choice words and said he had made a stupid mistake. Someone had seen him in Manley Hot Springs with it, he said.
The iPod was on “airplane mode,” which means Sass would have had to switch that off to access the Internet. It did not matter, both he and Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman said, because it could easily be taken out of that mode.
“I was just oblivious,” Sass said. “I never had any intention of using the Wi-Fi at all. It just never dawned on me. I didn’t think anything of it. I don’t know what I thought. I thought cellphone. But it’s Wi-Fi enabled. It can’t hook to Wi-Fi.”
Sass said he thought it was a fair call for his team to be disqualified.
“I think it’s fair in that they made it clear there’s no devices that have two-way communication. I just looked that my Wi-Fi-enabled device that I use for my music and alarm clock was that. I just was not at all thinking it was that type of device.”
Nordman said the rule is to prevent someone from getting help from outside the race, which features a GPS tracker online. Another person could provide tips for managing the race, Nordman said. And mushers looking over checkpoint information often do those calculations on their own, on the fly, he said.
“The technology we have available to us could change that competitiveness,” Nordman said. “There’s so much fog before the race, and (Sass) had such a great Quest, and he was definitely in the hunt for the winner’s trophy in Nome. I think it was just one of those things, you’re so used to the same thing.”
“How many of us have walked on a plane with .22 shells or a knife in our pocket knowing that it’s not allowed?” Nordman said.
Sass had said earlier that he used the same device racing in the Quest. That race issued a statement Wednesday clarifying that the devices were only allowed in checkpoints, not on the trail, and for updating websites.
“Should we have had an indication that any musher used any two-way communication device in any manner other than those sanctioned by the organization during the race, we would have dealt with it accordingly,” Yukon Quest Race Marshal Doug Grilliot said in the statement. “That is not the case at this time. With the advancement of technology and changes in communications, it is important that we adhere to the intent and spirit of the rules.”
There was no “wiggle room” with the rule, Nordman said, noting that, as a five-time Iditarod racer, it had been personally difficult to him to have to enforce.
“He’s heading back to his home right now. A lot of time to think about it. I’m sure it’ll never happen again. It’s just one of those things that happened,” Nordman said.
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter and is covering the Iditarod this year. Follow him on Twitter: @kcgrove.