Surgeons learn lessons in team-building from world champion dogsled musher

A successful health care system and a champion dogsled racer have a lot in common, relying on teamwork, quality and safety goals, and learning to be better and more efficient every year.

Dallas Seavey said focusing on those challenges helped him to become a four-time winner of the Iditarod, a grueling, 1,000-mile race across the Alaskan wilderness. The key was building a strong team.

“I grew up seeing the world the way dogs see the world,” he said. “Viewing the way your teammates see the world allows you to customize the way you lead them.”

Dallas Seavey, four-time winner of the Iditarod, with Hero, one of his sled dogs, spoke at Christiana Care’s surgical grand rounds July 26 about how victories in the grueling, 1,000-mile race across the Alaskan wilderness came down to building and managing a strong team.

Seavey, accompanied by his sled dog Hero, spoke at a grand rounds on July 26 at the John Ammon Medical Education Center. He was introduced by Gerard Fulda, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery. Dr. Fulda noted that mushers and dog teams made an important contribution to medical history during a diphtheria epidemic in Alaska in 1925.

“They had run out of serum, and planes were unable to fly because of extreme cold,” Dr. Fulda said. “Mushers traveled over 1,000 miles in order to deliver serum to the city of Nome.”

The Iditarod commemorates that heroic event. Seavey, son of Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey, grew up with dogsledding. While his father picked his top dogs from his personal kennel of more than 120 dogs, Seavey started out with only 16, the minimum number required in racing. He called them his scrubs, the dogs sold off by their owners.

“The only thing they had in common was getting fired from their teams,” Seavey said.

He found good qualities in all of them. Guinness, only 43 pounds, was pronounced too small for racing but had good bloodlines. Other mushers thought she might be a candidate for breeding, but Seavey thought she had the makings of a champion due to her surefootedness.

Christiana Care staff meet and greet with Hero after the talk.

He looked for ways to build his team and squeeze waste out of the process. Instead of the standard training regimen of taking dogs for a run and then back to the kennel, Seavey and his pack stayed on the trail, just as they would in a competition.

“The dogs don’t know if it’s race day or just a training day,” he said. “It’s just a day, and you have to give 100 percent every day.”

Soon, Seavey’s strategy was reflected in the dogs’ improved performance.

“We started to see confidence in our team, leaning into the harness and pulling a little harder,” he said.

Rather than run his dogs for 60-70 miles, then rest for six hours, he broke their work into shorter segments, running for about 45 miles, and then resting for four hours. More frequent stops also gave him the opportunity to monitor his dogs more closely for illness and injury.

“We saw that the dogs that ran for longer distances slept first, then ate,” he said. “When our dogs ran for a shorter distance they ate first, then slept, which is more efficient.”

He videotaped himself packing and unpacking his sled, studying the tapes for wasted movements. If checkpoints were noisy or crowded, Seavey would camp further down the road where it was quiet and his dogs would not be distracted.

“We have to do it quickly and efficiently if we are going to be competitive,” he said. “If the dogs are not running, eating or sleeping, it’s wasted time.”

On warmer days, Seavey would sleep on the straw next to his dogs, saving the time of unpacking and packing his sleeping bag. He put booties on his dogs starting with their hind legs, a process that shaved three crucial seconds off each bootie.

Seavey demonstrates how he put booties his dogs starting with their hind legs, a process that shaved three crucial seconds off each bootie.

“Over the course of a race, that saves 64 minutes,” he said. “Three of the four races I won were by less than one hour.”

When Seavey won his first Iditarod in 2012, he was 25, the youngest musher to claim the prize. Guinness wore the garland of yellow roses, signifying the top lead dog. She also won the Golden Harness, the highest honor in dog sledding. She ultimately retired to breeding and is the mother of Hero.

Seavey said his winning strategies can be applied to a variety of sectors that value quality, safety and efficiency, including health care.

“It’s not so much about racing, it’s about managing a team,” he said. “If you build a healthy team, the rest will take care of itself.”