By Chas St.George

Today is the day… the beginning of the IDITAROD XXXIX Rookie Musher Conference.  It’s a time for the rookie class of 2011 to get to know one another, and it’s also a time for some very serious learning to take place.

In the education field there’s a saying that teachers use when they connect with their student.  They call it a teachable moment. That’s exactly what Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Marshall Mark Nordman is focused on.

I sat down with Mark and asked him about the conference and why it is so important for rookies to not only show up… but to also connect to what’s being communicated.

Mark:    “Well, let’s see in order to answer your question,   guess I would have to go back to March 1983… my rookie meeting took place on the Wednesday before the race began… and it wasn’t a two day conference… it was more like a hand full of hours. What I remember about the meeting and the experience I had on the trail was something I’ll never forget.  The meeting was very insightful, but it was information that  would have helped me a lot more had it been delivered before I started training for the race in December then when I was preparing for running the race three days prior.”

Chas:     So, what can rookies expect to learn during this mandatory two day conference?

Mark:    “Our conference is really designed to emphasize to the rookie mushers what kind of infrastructure is in place in order for their team to succeed. Our presenters include veteran mushers who share what works and what doesn’t, our Chief Veterinarian (Dr. Stu Nelson) who goes over protocols and the Iditarod veterinary workflow, representatives from our Iditarod Air Force, Logistics, and Communications, as well as our Iditarod staff who present their roles in supporting the teams in preparation for, and during the race.”

Chas:     So how much attention is given to the care of the four legged athletes?

Mark:    “I’d say it’s definitely our main focus. The Iditarod isn’t just any long distance race.  It requires the musher to be totally focused on his or her team from preparation for the race to the race itself. That basically mandates that the musher has to understand and apply best practice models that give his or her team the opportunity to succeed.  That’s why Dr. Nelson spends the majority of his time with rookies focusing on canine health and well being.  And we spend an entire day (Sunday December 5th) at (4 time Iditarod Champion) Martin Buser’s “Happy Trails” Kennel. Martin goes over the key elements of successful kennel management from A to Z. “

Chas:     You said earlier that this conference is designed to help teams succeed. So, what’s your definition for success in relation to a rookie team’s journey from Anchorage to Nome?

Mark:    “I tell rookies at the conference that if they hear any of the presenters repeat a statement… then that’s a signal that they ought to write it down, because it’s probably important. These rookies are going to experience their highest highs and the lowest lows on the Iditarod Trail. Sometimes that can happen over the course of a single hour. They need to understand that this is a race. Success is about how they manage their team. I guess it would be fair to say that when a rookie takes accountability for his or her decisions no matter what the outcome… well that to me is success. And that outcome has to be what’s in the best interest of the team as a whole.”

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