Dog is My Copilot

Look out, Alaska: Doug Swingley is coming back. And this time he's… happy. The author picks the brain of the greatest musher in the Lower 48 and reveals his cunning plan to slay that 1,100-mile-long monster of the North, the Iditarod, for the fourth time.

Bruce Barcott

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Judy Walgren

Let’s go play in the backyard: A team of Swingly’s huskies hits the trail at their owner’s Montana ranch

YOU CAN HEAR THE HUSKIES HOWL. Deep in the Blackfoot Valley of Montana, a pack of sled dogs raise their muzzles and bawl in a chorus that could make the dead cry mercy. They know the man is coming. They know it’s time to run.

Doug Swingley, 47, three-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, parks his four-wheel ATV in the middle of the dog yard and hitches a gang line to its front end.

“Are we A and C today?” asks Melanie Shirilla, Swingley’s 28-year-old girlfriend and mushing protégée.

“A and C,” says Swingley.

If it sounds like code, it is. By splitting his 27 racing dogs into three teams of nine, he can train every day and rest each dog every third day. Today groups A and C will run; tomorrow, B and C; then A and B. Now that Swingley is here, though, the yard is an exercise in Pavlovian conditioning run amok. “Diesel over there,” Swingley says, pointing out the dark-haired wheel dog that powered his Iditarod 2000 team to the fastest race time ever posted. “He’ll stand on his doghouse to get our attention. The howler, that’s Copenhagen.” Bundled up like a dairy farmer to fend off the 22-degree chill, the maestro stands amid the cacophony and plugs his ears.

As Shirilla goes about hooking up 18 of the strongest racing athletes in the world to the Kawasaki Bayou 300 for a strength-training run, Swingley tosses me a blaze-orange vest. “Here,” he says. “Put this on so you don’t get shot.” It’s late October, the third day of hunting season, and we’re heading into prime Northern Rockies elk territory. If Lincoln, the closest town, rings a bell, it’s probably because the Unabomber used to live nearby. This is get-yourself-lost country.

I zip up the vest and park myself on the back of the Kawasaki. The huskies are now yapping, howling, and hopping in the air. Swingley throws his leg over the saddle. “Hold on now,” he mutters. As soon as he releases the brake, the rig leaps forward and I nearly tumble into the mud.

“All right, there you go,” Swingley says—to the dogs, not me. He clicks his teeth—”ck-ck-ck“—and we’re off, careening through the ponderosa pine–sweetened air of Stonewall Mountain.

About nine days after the mushers set off on March 3, the winner of the 2001 Iditarod will glide to a finish under the burled wooden arch in Nome, Alaska. Sportswriters and local wags will trade wisdom about how the race was won between Galena and Nulato, or maybe out on the windswept ice of Norton Sound. Yet if Doug Swingley rides to his fourth victory this year—and his third in a row—he will have won it not in the frozen interior of Alaska, but right here on the logging roads of northern Montana. And to the half-million Alaskans who live and breathe Iditarod, that just ain’t right.


Judy Walgren

Leader of the pack: Swingley at home in Montana.

IDITAROD MUSHERS ARE to Alaska what NASCAR drivers are to the South. Entire towns are known for them. Utter the name Shishmaref and people think of Herbie Nayokpuk, the legendary “Shishmaref Cannonball.” Mention Galena, they recall the late Carl Huntington, the only musher to win both the Iditarod and Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sprint. But Lincoln—where’s that again? When Swingley went up to Alaska with his Montana dogs and snatched the silver cup in 1995—the first non-Alaskan ever to win the 1,100-mile epic—the locals were nonplussed. It didn’t help diplomatic matters much that this usurper of the dogsled throne also managed to embarrass the field with a record time: nine days, two hours, and 42 minutes.

“I heard a lot of people commenting, ‘We can’t let an outsider win,’ ” recalls three-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser, who moved to Alaska from Switzerland in 1979. “Alaskans take it pretty seriously. Sometimes I joke that when I’m doing good I’m from Alaska, and when I’m not doing so good I’m a Swiss immigrant.”

Outsider: In Alaska, it’s a loaded term, denoting not just an alien quality, but a certain naïveté and softness. An outsider may have the steel spine to survive up there, but until he cashes his Permanent Fund check—an annual oil-revenue dividend issued to residents who survive a full year in the state—he’s not an Alaskan. Outsiders have been a regular staple in the Iditarod ever since it started, in 1973, but strictly as comic relief. They’re the heartwarming feature story, the English dandy running poodles—not serious competitors.

But this outsider refused to go away. He posted second-place finishes in 1996 and 1997. In 1999, he won again. The 1,500 residents of Lincoln threw a parade to thank him for making their town known for something other than Crazy Ted. Alaskans offered no such tributes. The day Swingley pulled into Nome, Leo Rasmussen, former mayor and then-president of the Iditarod Trail Committee, made noises about race winners needing to prove themselves as “true champions.” True champions? In eight straight Iditarods, Swingley had never finished out of the top ten. Still, the grumbling was that the Montanan hadn’t paid his dues. “It may be hard to quantify,” wrote Anchorage Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman that March, “but the anybody-but-Doug feeling is real.”

Swingley let it all roll off his back. “The hard-core Alaskans had a difficult time after the ’95 win,” he says. “Now they seem more resigned to the fact that I ain’t going anywhere.”

Last year the champ returned to Anchorage with his strongest team ever, and a new strategy. Top mushers are always spying on each other, looking for ploys to shave time—like how the other guy gets 64 booties on and off his dogs at a rest stop. Swingley had seen Rick Swenson, a five-time Iditarod winner, pull psych jobs on others, so he decided to try a little mind game of his own. For the first 500 miles of the race, he deliberately maintained a sluggish pace. “Everybody’s coming up saying, ‘Y’know, Doug, everybody says you’ve got a good team, but it’s not as good as the one you had last year,'” Swingley recalls. “And I’d say, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right. I dunno; sometimes you get kennel blind.’ “

After five days of sandbagging, Swingley took his foot off the brake and floored it. Two hundred miles from Nome, Swenson was asked to gauge Swingley’s lead. “Nobody’s going to catch him with dog power,” he said ruefully. Swingley beat his ’95 time, clocking in at nine days and 58 minutes. It was a new race record, and tantalizingly close to the Holy Grail of the sport, the four-minute mile of mushing: an eight-day Iditarod.

Judy Walgren

The results of his effort to build the perfect running, barking, Iditarod-winning machine.

DOUG SWINGLEY LOOKS a little like Bruce Willis—with more hair, that is, and a sharp-cut nose—and his 40-acre spread resembles something the actor-cum-gentleman rancher might call his clubhouse: a former hunting guide’s log cabin fronted by a golden meadow. Behind, national forest land rolls 150 miles to the Canadian border. It’s all the training ground he needs.

It costs about $30,000 to run the Iditarod, but it costs a lot more to win—up to $200,000. Like most elite mushers, Swingley maintains a kennel of 50 to 80 dogs. It’s a full-time business financed with prize money (the Iditarod winner takes home upward of $60,000 and a three-quarter-ton Dodge Ram pickup), sponsorship deals, personal appearance fees, and dog sales.

Like auto racing, sled-dog racing tends to be a family affair. At the track you’ve got the Petty and Unser dynasties; on the trail you’ve got the Redingtons and Mackeys, dog-smitten families that have turned out generations of mushers and hordes of huskies. This clannishness tends to make interlopers like Swingley, who didn’t start racing until he was 36, all the more conspicuous. But what his opponents don’t seem to realize is that he’s been preparing for the race most of his life.

Swingley’s parents, fourth-generation Montanans, owned a cattle ranch in Simms, a few miles west of Great Falls. In classic Western tradition, they raised their three daughters and two sons to be hard-driving athletes and experts in animal husbandry. Doug won a baseball scholarship to Stanford; his brother, Greg, two years younger, competed in gymnastics at the high school and college levels. After graduating from Stanford with a business degree in 1975, Doug returned to Montana and animal husbandry. He started a mink ranch, got married, had a couple of kids. By the late 1980s he’d built up one of the biggest mink operations in the state, but he was burning out. At the time, Greg had just taken up the mushing game, studying at the knee of Terry Adkins, a Montana dog breeder who had run in the Iditarod since the mid-1970s. Doug soon came down with mushing fever. In 1991 he sold the mink farm, signed on as Greg’s partner, and began investing in huskies, traveling to remote Alaskan villages to seek out promising pups. One summer day he showed up on Joe Runyan’s porch and talked his way into the dog yard. “Doug understood genetics and the importance of bloodlines,” recalled the 1989 Iditarod winner. “He’d raised horses, cattle, rabbits, bird dogs, mink. And mink are real touchy animals.”

The Swingleys took a team of rejects from the kennels of Adkins, Runyan, now-retired four-time-winner Susan Butcher, and Rick Swenson, and quickly turned them into overachievers. While Greg became a perennial front-runner in premier mid-distance tests like Minnesota’s Beargrease 500, which he won twice (he stopped competing three years ago), Doug set his sights on the 1,100-mile-long monster of the north.

In March 1992, the Montana rookie shocked Iditarod fans by bolting out of Anchorage and pacing the field for the first two-thirds of the race. Three years after entering the business, in his first Iditarod and only the fourth dog race of his life, Doug Swingley finished ninth. Always tight-lipped, he let his actions tell the story: Gentlemen, I’m not racing poodles here.

Judy Walgren

“WATCH CAESAR’S ears as we come up on this Y,” Swingley tells me. The ATV rumbles down the mountain at 20 miles per hour. Just before the road splits, the lead dog’s ears flip straight up.

“Gee!” Swingley yells. The team cuts right. “Good dog, Caesar!”

“That’s a hundred-percent-dependable lead dog,” he says. “If I said ‘gee’ right now”—gee is right, haw is left—”he’d cut straight over the ditch and into the trees.” As if calling his own bluff, Swingley hollers “Gee!” a few minutes later, and Caesar pitches us headlong into the woods. The point is to keep the leader’s ears pricked, so that he’s not caught off-guard by a surprise turn.

Since 1992 the Iditarod has been won by only three mushers: Swingley, Martin Buser, and Jeff King (three times each). In any given year about ten of the race’s 75 mushers have an honest shot at victory. (The elite corps includes veterans Swenson and Rick Mackey; Tanana River trapper Charlie Boulding; up-and-comers Paul Gebhardt and Ramy Brooks; and crowd favorite DeeDee Jonrowe.) It’s a long haul against tireless adversaries, requiring the stamina of an ultra-marathoner and the relentlessness of a Sherman tank. “Your whole body feels tingly and numb during the race, like when your hands fall asleep,” says Swingley, who loses as much as 20 pounds and sleeps, on average, less than three hours a night over the nine days of an Iditarod.

“There’s actually not a lot of time to think,” he continues. “You’re watching over 16 dogs, working the sled, keeping everyone out of moose holes.” The racer’s bane. When a moose crosses a trail it drills four postholes in the snow. If your lead dog hits one and hyperextends his leg, you’re down one engine. “You’re plotting your next move,” he adds. “The Iditarod is like playing chess on a board the size of Alaska.”

Mushers rarely know exactly where their competitors are. They usually rest their dogs at checkpoints, grab a cup of coffee and a faxed update from a race official, and steal a few minutes of cookstove warmth. Swingley loves to camp just outside checkpoints; it makes others think he’s running slower than he really is. “As I’m traveling down the trail in the 2000 race,” he says, “I’m already planning my 2001 race. I’ll take notes on good camping spots, on maybe replacing—” He cuts himself off.

“Fungus!” The one-eyed wheel dog—named for the infection that left him cycloptic—has made a mistake so minute only he and Swingley know it. He looks back sheepishly. Sorry, boss.

There’s an astonishing depth to Swingley’s operation. There is no part of the Iditarod, or the sled dog’s life, that he hasn’t analyzed down to near-molecular level. Take his dog food. For years Swingley worked with a nutritionist at Royal Canin, one of his sponsors, to develop the optimal mix of protein, fat, and carbs. He charted the passage of 30 tons of kibble per year, right down to the issue of, as they say in the trade, stool formation. “He’s stubborn, and he’s thorough,” says Greg Swingley. “Once he gets involved in something, he has to dig into every little thing.”

Victory lies in the details, but Swingley doesn’t ask for much. Only perfection. Perfect genes. Perfect training runs. Perfect teams. He talks of the perfect race like a surfer dreaming of the perfect wave. But after his ’95 win, he and his wife split up, and he found himself adrift. “Sometimes it takes that first win to make you realize you had the wrong goal all along,” he says. “You spend six years trying to win the thing. Then you win it. Then you’re faced with the question, Now what?”

Swingley regained his focus by learning to shed his hatred of losing. After second-place finishes in ’96 and ’97, he found himself once again competing for the two-spot during the ’98 race as Jeff King pulled away from him and Martin Buser along the Norton Sound coast. Instead of leading his dogs into a duel, Swingley did the math, decided to take the long view, and let King roll into Nome unchallenged. “If you’re pushing young, tired dogs along the coast, they’re gonna get a negative vibe about that critical part of the race,” Swingley explains. “So the next time they get to the coast, they’re like, ‘Oh God—this stretch again.'”

In the village of Elim, a mere 120 miles from Nome, Swingley sat his dogs down and watched second place go by. And third. And fourth. And fifth. By the time he left, 18 hours later, he was mushing for ninth place. But for the first time, he didn’t care. He was smiling. “My dogs were fired up along that last stretch,” he recalls. “They were having fun.” And so was he. The mushers around him were finishing the 1998 race. Swingley was racing for 1999.

Twelve months later, when Swingley’s huskies reached the coast in first place, they remembered: Bering Sea ice? Good times! A relaxed Swingley and a team he later described as “mentally bombproof” stretched an already sizable lead into an insurmountable nine-hour victory margin.

Judy Walgren

TWO HOURS INTO THIS MORNING’S workout, the tongues are flying like little pink scarves. The huskies bite snow for water; they crap midstride. As the team trots down the road, a couple of miles from home, Fungus lifts his tail and adds a piquant fragrance to the morning air, giving Swingley an immediate report on his gastrointestinal health. Stool formation: excellent.

People unfamiliar with sled-dog racing think the Iditarod is won by the best musher. Mushers will tell you it’s won by the best dogs. The right bunch of huskies could pull Pavarotti to Nome. (He wouldn’t win, but he’d get there.) Two years ago, in fact, Swingley fractured his ribs on the first day of the race—took a corner too sharp and drove a battery pack into his chest. He survived the next eight days on Aleve. And won.

Back when it was just him and Greg, it was solely about winning. These days, it’s about building the perfect running, barking, stool-producing machine, and having a good time doing it. Beyond that, Swingley doesn’t divulge much about his victories. “To be honest,” he says, “by the time you get to Nome, you’re so damn glad it’s over that winning is just a bonus.” But ask him about his dogs—now there’s a juicy topic. “I’ve got this dog named Elmer,” he says. “Named him after Elmer Fudd, ’cause he’d make a great cartoon character. One ear flips up, the other flips down, and he’s got a dorky looking nose. But he’s run seven Iditarods, six as my leader, twice as champion. We bred him with 15 or 20 females, and now his kids and grandkids are on my first team—his son Peppy, daughter Stormy, granddaughter Cola. That dog loves his work more than anybody.”

A great football team takes on the character of its head coach, and the same can be said of a great dog team. There’s a lot of Swingley in Elmer, and now there’s a lot of Elmer spread around the team. Elmer’s 77 in dog years. Later this month he’ll run the Iditarod again, the old man breaking in Swingley’s yearlings. His coach expects nothing less of himself. “I’m already the oldest Iditarod champion,” Swingley says. “And if the dogs keep getting better, I’ll still be winning in my sixties.” Not that winning is the point. “The race—ahhh, I can take it or leave it sometimes. But it allows me to keep working with the dogs, to do what I love the most.” He smiles. “That’s what makes me so dangerous.

Contributing editor Bruce Barcott lives in Seattle.