03/06/2012 04:10 pm ET Updated May 06, 2012

Iditarod 2012: How To Follow Alaska's Sled Dog Race Like a Pro

Contested in remote, inaccessible places, long distance dog mushing is a hard sport to follow.

Often, it's hard to tell who's actually leading a race due to the idiosyncrasies of start-time adjustments, mandatory layovers, trailside camping, and general musher sneakiness. And the unknown is part of the sport's appeal.

Nowadays, with mushers carrying GPS units and real-time media coverage, following the race is easier. Still, how do you tell who's really doing well and what is going on between checkpoints?

Here are a few clues that dog mushing junkies will use to decipher mushers' strategies:

Run times most important tool to compare competitive teams

This may seem obvious, but it's tricky because mushers periodically stop along the trail to snack their dogs, adjust gear or switch dog positions. But there are a few runs that almost all top teams make with few or no significant stops.

Call them "marker runs."

By comparing times on the marker runs, race observers can accurately gauge the strength and speed of various teams. The best marker runs are Nikolai to McGrath (48 miles), Ruby to Galena (50 miles), and Unalakleet to Shaktoolik (40 miles). Some also look at the 18-mile McGrath to Takotna stretch, but typically that's too short to be meaningful. On those stretches, the musher with the fastest time usually has the better team. I especially like to look at the Ruby-to-Galena time because it is usually well after the musher has taken his or her mandatory 24-hour rest and is a relatively flat, easy section. Differences of even 15 minutes run time between top teams on this section of trail offer a lot of insight into which team is doing well. ...

Read the complete story here and follow Alaska Dispatch's special Iditarod 2012 coverage.