All About the Iditarod
The Iditarod is an annual 1,161 mile dog race from Willow to Nome, Alaska that is often called “The Last Great Race on Earth”. The top thirty finishers share a purse of $510,000, with the other finishers getting $1,049 each. The current record time of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, and 2 seconds was set in 2002 by Martin Buser.
The grueling Iditarod currently starts on the first Saturday of March in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. After the opening ceremony, at 10 AM, the honorary musher leaves, followed by the other competitors leaving at two-minute intervals based on a selection process.
The race is incredibly demanding, with teams facing blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, harsh tundra, and gale-force winds along the way. During the even years of the race, teams take a northern route through Cripple, Ruby, Galena, and Nulato once they reach Ophira. During the odd years of the race, teams take the southern route through Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling, and Eagle Island.
History of the Iditarod
The Iditarod is thought to be the ultimate race of man and dogs against nature. The Iditarod Trail was once the mail and supply route to coastal towns. It also saved the town of Nome from diphtheria in 1925 as mushers and dogs brought in much needed serum.
To honor the mushers and dogs that saved Nome, the Iditarod race, which runs the same route, was created in 1973. The first race began with 35 teams with only 22 finishing. Dick Wilmarth completed the route in 20 days, 49 minutes, and 41 seconds.
Wilmarth would not win the competition again, but Rick Swenson, who finished 12th in his first Iditarod (’75), would go on to win five times (’77, ’79, ’81, ’82, and ’91), earning the title of “King of the Iditarod.” Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod (’85), but it was Susan Butcher who dominated the race for females, winning in ’86, ‘87, and ’88, then again in ’90.
Doug Swingley dominated the Iditarod in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, winning in ’95, ’99, ’00, and ’01. The last four Iditarods (’07-’10) have been won by Lance Mackey, who has also won the Yukon Quest four times. His father, Dick, was one of the founders of the Iditarod.
The Rules of the Race
Iditarod mushers must be at least 18 years old and have previously competed in the Iditarod, Yukon Quest, or finished qualifying races to enter. Each team, which is allowed only one musher, has between 12 and 16 sled dogs and there are mandatory stops, the longest one being a 24-hour period, along the way. Each musher is required to sign-in at each checkpoint.
When passing, the team being passed must stop and hold his or her dogs for a minute or until the other team have passed.
Because the Iditarod is all about sportsmanship, mushers are allowed to stop and help others in an emergency situation along the way. Teams must also clean up their litter, including excessive dog food, although leaving straw behind is allowable.
About the Dogs
The Alaskan malamutes, a crossbreed of Alaskan huskies, German shepherds, hounds, setters, spaniels, and wolves, were originally used as sled dogs in the Iditarod. Now, a mixed-breed husky is preferred due to its speed, endurance, attitude, and desire to run. Most dogs used for the sled weigh between 45 and 55 pounds.
The Iditarod is very concerned about dog welfare and health. In 1984, the race officials started demanding that all dogs be examined by veterinarians before the race. At checkpoints, veterinarians check each dog’s appetite, heart, hydration, weight (each dog burns approximately 11,000 calories a day), lungs, attitude, and joints. Mushers are required to keep a veterinary diary and each dog has a microchip implant and collar tags to help identify and track them.
Injured or exhausted dogs are removed from the competition by the Iditarod Air Force to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center at Eagle River to be cared for by inmates until they can be flown home.
Sled and Gear Used
Each musher must choose a sled or toboggan that is capable of carrying all their equipment and food as well as injured dogs. The musher cannot use more than three sleds during the competition and sleds can only be replaced when damaged beyond repair.
Mushers must have: proper sleeping bags, an ax, a pair of snowshoes, eight booties per sled dog, a cooker and pot that can boil at least three gallons of water, adequate food for dogs (including emergency food). veterinarian diary, adequate fuel, a cable gang line for securing the sled dogs, and any promotional material provided by the Iditarod Trail Committee.
The U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, but it didn’t become the 49th (and largest) state until 1959. Remote yet beautiful, half of Alaska’s population (550,043) lives in Anchorage. The state borders the Arctic and Pacific Ocean and is home to 430 different species of birds, bears, deer, elk, moose, and whales.
Mushing is now more of a recreational sport rather than a means of transportation in Alaska, despite the fact that half of the public roads there are unpaved.