The Iditarod. Twenty-five checkpoints, 1,000 miles, 900+ dogs, and over a week in sub-zero temperatures make up the Last Great Race on Earth. Since the first race in 1973, the Iditarod (held every year in early March) has continued to bring mushers from all over the world, to try their hand at this seemingly impossible feat. In fact, more people have reached the summit of Mt. Everest, than have finished the Iditarod!
The Iditarod trail varies from year to year due to conditions, so this year, after the ceremonial start in Anchorage, the mushers headed up to Fairbanks for the official timed start, then it’s a race to the finish in Nome, Alaska. The trail winds through vast, rugged and dangerous terrain! What other sport has details for how to handle the need to kill(self defense only), and gut, a moose in the rule book?!
The sleds must be large enough to carry injured or fatigued dogs, as well as all of their supplies, which include; food and dog food, water, sleeping gear, first aid items, an ax, etc. On the trail, mushers have only three mandatory breaks, one for 24 hours and two for eight hours. So, sleep deprivation prevails!
The young lady pictured below was a rookie Iditarod musher, who first fell in love with the race back in 2006 while doing research for a homeschool project. Now, eleven years later, at the age of 20, she was running her first race. A dream come true! (There are a series of qualifying races and times, in order to participate. In fact, it usually takes a minimum of two years to prepare for the experience.)
Speaking of dogs, only northern dog breeds such as Siberian and Alaskan Huskies are permitted to run the race. This rule was instituted in the early 1990’s, when someone raced standard poodles. Sadly, the poodles did not fare well in the conditions, and had to be left behind at various check points, with matted fur and frozen paws. Northern dog breeds have thick double fur coats for protection, and are bred for the conditions.
What does a sled dog eat, anyway? They were served a bowl of warm kibble, bacon, salmon, and tripe (cow stomach). I don’t know about the tripe, but the rest of it doesn’t sound too bad. Also, each dog eats up to 10,000 calories per day while racing. Move over Michael Phelps!
Care and ethical treatment of the dogs is the number one priority of the race. As with any high profile athletic competition, random drug testing is also enforced at the Iditarod. Urine samples from the dogs, are collected at the start, finish and throughout the race. Not sure how it’s accomplished, but apparently they have their ways!
We found a spot near the start, and I enjoyed being able to hear the commentary about each musher and their team. There was a staggered start, so a team was sent every two minutes, for about two hours. A few days prior to the race, there is a draw for start order.
In the extreme weather conditions of this region, dogs have always been the preferred type of pack animal, even over horses. They are faster than horses with the ability to run 12 MPH for hundreds of miles, and pound for pound, can pull twice as much weight as horses.
Each dog is chosen for a specific position. Team positions are; lead dogs (the ‘brains’ of the team that lead and set the pace), swing dogs (help steer the pack during turns), team dogs (the ‘brawn’ of the team that maintain the speed), wheel dogs (usually the largest and able to withstand the brunt of the sled weight).
What do you take home if you win it all? A new Dodge Ram truck and $75,000. Not bad for a weeks work, I suppose. Three-time winner, Mitch Seavey was the champion this year with a record breaking 8 days, 3 hours and 40 minutes. At 57, he was also the oldest winner on record.
Everyone up to 31st place gets a monetary prize, and the last finisher gets the red lantern award, which signifies perseverance and pride in the accomplishment.
So there you have it. One thousand miles of untamed, extreme, and dangerous wilderness. The Last Great Race on Earth. And now, I can see why it’s been given that name.