10 Personal Finance Lessons From the Iditarod

This post comes from Donna Freedman at partner site DonnaFreedman.com

Every year in early March the city of Anchorage puts snow on downtown streets, so the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race can have its ceremonial start. For the next nine or 10 days Alaskans talk about wheel dogs, snub lines, mandatory 24s, and towns with names like Ophir, Shageluk, Shaktoolik, Unalakleet, Koyuk, Kaltag, and – my personal favorite – Safety.

“Safety.” Just what I’d be thinking about if I were standing on sled runners in the middle of the night, on zero sleep, with wind chills well below zero.

This year’s race was won by 53-year-old Mitch Seavey in 9 days, 7 hours, 39 minutes, and 56 seconds. He’s the oldest person ever to win – and this year, he beat his son, Dallas, who finished in fourth place.

Like they say: Youth and vigor can often be overcome by age and treachery.

The Iditarod is an expensive race to run. You’ve got to feed and care for your dogs all year long, ship supplies ahead to checkpoints, and fly your team back from the race’s end in Nome (or from checkpoints, if you lose them to illness or injury). Some have sponsors to help cover expenses; others do it out of pocket and on a shoestring.

The grand prize: $50,400 and a new truck. People don’t run it to get rich. They run it because it’s in them to run it.

Trail tactics, money tactics

I look for personal finance lessons wherever I can find them, and the Iditarod is no exception. Here are 10 dogteam-fueled ways to look at your money differently.

1. Pack light. The average musher carries up to 100 pounds of food, clothing, and gear – not much, given that s/he faces such challenging conditions, but it’s enough to get through almost any situation. The less weight you carry the easier it is for your dogs. However, there’s a phenomenon called “rookie bulge,” the tendency for newcomers to bring lots of extraneous gear. Don’t overburden your life with things that cost a lot (in dollars or in figurative drag) and that are ultimately unnecessary.

2. Take care of the team. Mushers spend a lot of time bootying the dogs (that refers to protective footwear, not their rear ends) and later un-bootying them. They feed and bed down the hounds before seeing to their own needs. They check their feet, their overall condition and provide affectionate head noogies as needed. Whether you’re CEO of a company or the chief financial officer of your family, making sure your crew is cared for means smoother sailing for all.

3. Take care of yourself. Mushers push through horrendous conditions on very little sleep, which is why they start hallucinating giant lobsters or crying relatives along the trail. They make it through in part because they’ve trained for this and in part because they will ultimately lie down and rest, if only for a couple of hours, once their bodies scream “Enough!” Burning the candle at both ends can become a way of life. Don’t forget to pencil some R&R in among the chores on your perpetual to-do list. (Hint: Turning off e-devices and taking a long, hot bath once the kids are asleep can be a blissful respite – and it doesn’t cost a thing.)

4. There’s no substitute for preparation. As noted, the mushers train for this. But they also need to be ready for everything from attacks of doggie diarrhea to attacks from cranky moose. Their own experiences are incredibly useful but they also listen to more experienced mushers, and research topics like canine nutrition and outdoor gear. Just because you’ve run a dog race – or a company, or a family – for a long time doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels. Stay sharp.

5. Ask for a mentor. One way to learn dog mushing is to sign on as “handler,” an unpaid person-of-all-work. Imagine scooping for 60 dogs, every day – but if you stick with the gig you learn invaluable stuff. If you want to learn more about your chosen field or to start a business of your own, look for someone who’s willing to be a mentor. (Hint: Make sure s/he doesn’t have 60 dogs.)

Dream big

6. Take chances. Sometimes they don’t pan out: Martin Buser tried a new technique dubbed “a slingshot start,” racing out far ahead of everyone. It might have worked, but it didn’t; he came in 17th. Then again, Libby Riddles mushed into a 1985 storm and became the first woman to win the race. Risks are, well, risky; make yours educated risks vs. wild-ass guesses.

7. Give credit where it’s due. When Seavey’s sled stopped in Nome the first thing he said to a reporter was, “I gotta go congratulate my lead dog, Tanner. He’s probably the best I’ve ever had.” If someone is helping you meet your money goals – business partner? life partner? financial planner? – then say so. That person would probably appreciate hearing it, and sharing the credit reminds you that very, very few of us succeed completely on our own.

8. Pull your own weight. Mushers “kick,” i.e., push with one foot while the other stays on the runner, to give the dogs a boost. They also get off and run behind the sled, or alongside it, to lighten the load. Don’t sit there on your butt expecting your co-workers, employees, or family members to implement your brilliant plans. Get out there and kick. Or how about running ahead of your team, to lighten the load but also to inspire?

9. Dream big and dare to fail. That was the motto of the late Col. Norman Vaughan, who competed in 13 Iditarod races – his first one at age 72. More than a few mushers do the race with a bunch of homemade gear, knowing they have very little chance against more experienced racers who have sponsors and better sled bags. It doesn’t keep them from dreaming. If you’ve got an audacious plan – start a business, retire early – you might be able to make it a reality. Research your dream, prepare for your dream, and then launch your dream. Don’t plan to fail, but don’t be afraid of it, either.

10. You lose, you learn. Mushers take mental notes on what does and doesn’t work. Some of them ultimately win the race. When your new business struggles or your personal finances tank it’s tempting just to stamp your tiny feet with rage. Go ahead and do that – but afterward, sit down and figure out what you need to do differently. Edison tried a lot of light bulb designs before he came up with one that works. (Which begs the question: When he finally did pick a winner, did an image of it appear over his head?)

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