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Articles Blog

The Iditarod

Karyn Planett

World’s Longest Dog Sled Race 

For more than six thousand years, dog sleds have been the transportation backbone for native people of the north. As the Alaska and Canadian territories were settled, dog sleds were used to haul mail and supplies into and gold out of the interior during harsh winter months. One of the major Alaskan routes ran from Seward on the Kenai Peninsula to Nome on the Bering Sea.           

In the winter of 1925, a diphtheria epidemic struck Nome. There were no roads to Nome at the time, air travel was dicey at best, and the sea routes were blocked by ice. So, a relay team of 18 dog sleds and mushers was organized to rush the life saving serum 674 miles over the Iditarod Trail from Nenana to Nome. The hero of that effort was a dog, named Balto. A statue of him now stands in New York’s Central Park. 

In 1974, The Iditarod Race was inaugurated to celebrate this epic event and to help preserve a sled dog culture that was fast being forgotten in an era of snowmobiles, airplanes and highways.

The Route 

The Iditarod follows a northward route from Anchorage to Nome. Officially, it covers 1049 miles (reportedly because Alaska was the 49th state) but the actual mileage varies depending on which of two routes is used in a given year (much like the Tour de France).           

The race takes dogs and mushers from sea level to 3500 feet. They endure temperatures from just above to well below freezing (one year the temperature on the course with wind chill was minus 130 degrees). And while the first race required three weeks to complete, the current record is just under nine days and one hour.

The Race 

Between 55 and 75 mushers usually start the race. In 2000, there were 82 teams on the start line. But the rippingly-harsh conditions of the Alaskan wilderness take their toll on both dogs and mushers. 

Race rules require between 12 and 16 dogs on each team. But if a dog is “dropped” during the race he is flown home and cannot be replaced. The reasons for dropping dogs vary from sore wrists and shoulders to a common cold, either of which can slow down the dog and therefore the entire team. Most teams finish with 8-10 dogs though five is the minimum allowable. Mushers are not immune to the same types of injuries and often have to retire themselves for the safety of their team. As a result, the most teams ever to finish a race was 63, and in years with more extreme conditions, there are many fewer than that. 

The race has 22 checkpoints with three mandatory rest stops. At each checkpoint there are race officials, veterinarians who check the dogs (though nobody to check the mushers), food drops, indoor rest areas, and campsites. 

Although teams can pull a typical 40-pound racing sled packed with about 100 pounds of mandatory equipment, they also carry a male musher who may weigh 200 pounds. Perhaps that’s why women have usually done well in this race! And teams reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour though 11 or 12 mph is more efficient as it conserves the dogs’ stamina. The dogs can run for about six or seven hours without getting too tired and teams will generally follow a six hours on/six hours off schedule, averaging about 60 miles a day.

The Dogs 

The modern racing dog is a mutt—a mixed breed that has Malamute, Siberian Husky, hound, pointer and probably a wee bit of wolf coursing through its veins. Taken together they add up to the breed known as Alaskan Husky. And, according to their admirers, these dogs love to pull (though it’s unclear how this information was obtained). They’re friendly to a fault so non-lovers of sloppy dog kisses best beware. Their favorite temperature swings between +10 (t-shirt weather) and –20 degrees Fahrenheit (fur coat weather). They live up to 17 years and can do sled work for most of that time, no doubt competing on the Seniors Tour. 

Sled dogs claim specific positions in the team and, while versatility is desirable, different positions require different characteristics. Lead dogs are willing to run in front, find and follow the trail, set the pace, and respond to their musher’s commands. Swing dogs occupy the second row. They help the lead dogs set the pace and turn the sled. Next are several rows of Team dogs. They basically follow the tail in front of them and provide the “horsepower” for the team. Last in line are the Wheel dogs that act as the steering wheels for the sled.

The Food 

Always a subject of great interest to fans … the modern sled dog diet is a thing of appetizing complexity, even envy. For fans of Burger King burgers, think “The Whopper”. 

Every day during The Iditarod, each dog will consume between 10,000 and 14,000 calories. Their metabolisms are designed to burn carbs, fat and protein with great efficiency (oh, the unfairness of it all). The mushers, by the way, are not named not for yelling “mush” to make the dogs go. No, “mush” is a prepared stew of dry dog food, hamburger, an extra helping of lard, and water that a hungry husky adores. And, these dogs are fussy when it comes to getting the temperature of this repast just right. In higher outdoor temperatures (near freezing) the stew is served cold. On colder days, this mush is warmed on stoves carried along on the sleds. 

So, all in all, knowing about this pampered life, the dogs are also two pairs of custom booties to protect their paws, and about 3,000 training miles per season, it’s no wonder these dogs love to pull.