Iditarod- “The Last Great Race on Earth”

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?!

Can I just say that it was a cold morning? Very, very cold. I’m learning that you just layer up and go out anyway.

The news’ trucks were set up and ready to go. This is a big event around here!

We arrived very early, to wander around and get more up-close-and-personal with the mushers and their dogs.

These dogs were two year’s old, and Iditarod rookies. My girls were in love.

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!

Since it would be too heavy to carry all of their supplies for the entire race, extra sleds/supplies may be sent ahead to future check points. 

We saw many methods for transporting the dogs; crates inside a trailer,

 crates mounted to the back of a pick-up, (Matt liked the cost effectiveness of this option),

and everything in between! But, this was my favorite method. Aren’t they cute?

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.)

One trailer was decorated with motivational posters for the dogs. How can you get more motivational than Rocky? I can hear the theme song now. That even makes ME want to run!

Seventy-two mushers, from eight different countries, were represented this year.

There was definitely an international flavor to our wandering.

Watch out for yellow snow!

We enjoyed watching the TV interviews, live. 

And, we even got to meet Jeff King! Who is Jeff King, you ask? A four-time Iditarod winner, and somewhat of a celebrity in this circle. I loved the fact that Jeff is 61 years old and still racing.

Most of the dogs we saw were frisky and running around, but not Jeff’s dogs.

 The handler told us that this is how ‘seasoned professionals’ act before a race. They were calm, cool, confident and not rattled by the spectators.

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.

Each musher can bring a team of twelve to sixteen dogs. That’s a lot of responsibility! 

 Most of the mushers had a team of handlers to help.

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!

About an hour before start time, the spectators were asked to leave the holding area so the mushers could prepare for the race.

Anytime is a great time for hot chocolate in Alaska!

The dogs bark like crazy waiting for their turn. Patience is tough!

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. 

And they’re off! You can tell the dogs love it and are totally in their element.

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.

All of the dogs were wearing little booties, not for warmth,  but to protect their pads from snow, ice and rocky terrain. The musher is required to carry eight extra sets, per dog.

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). 

The musher is free to rotate positions, and just like children, the dogs can be separated when they are fighting.

We enjoyed the festive party-like atmosphere along the streets. 

Team Canada was having a tailgating party of some sort. Thank you USA for giving the world tailgating!

We walked about a mile down the course to the first turn.

This is one of the tightest curves in the race, and it easy for the sled to tip over if not handled precisely.

We watched a few take a spill, but this team handled it to perfection. The musher leaned back and to the right. I realized that there is quite a bit of skill involved with the musher, as well.

After each team, the snow was groomed for the next competitor.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Amara
    April 10, 2017 / 4:22 am

    Wow. This is even more impressive than I thought. I just didn't realize all that was involved. Now I will have to look up which team won!

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