The 1,100-odd mile, long-distance sled race begins in Anchorage, in south central Alaska, and winds its way to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast. There are 25 checkpoints along the way.
Each team of 12 to 16 dogs and their musher cover the mileage in 10 to 17 days. This is no mean feat. Carrying what you and your dogs require for the duration of the race puts a fairly heavy toll on the dogs. An average size husky can consume 10,000 calories during the Iditarod race. They need to eat many small meals per day… many small meals adding up to 10,000 daily calories can means countless kgs in weight…
After the team leaves the starting line in Wasilla, no help is allowed from outside people. The only exception is that mushers are allowed one helper for the first ten miles out of the starting line when the team is fresh and excited. Apart from that, no crew is waiting at any of the other checkpoints to help the mushers.
The most mushers ever to start the Iditarod was in the 2000 race when 82 mushers left the starting line. The most to ever finish was in ’92 when 63 mushers successfully made it to Nome. No limit has been imposed on the number of entries, but talk has been made of limiting the number to 100 teams if the demand for places should rise in the future.
The Iditarod is more than just a dog sled race, it’s a race in which unique men and woman compete. Mushers come from all walks of life whether it be a fisherman, a lawyer, doctor or miner; and whether he/she is Canadian, or Swiss, French, American or wherever… men and women each with their own story, each with their own reasons for going the distance.
The other amazing thing about this annual race is that it is organized and run primarily by volunteers, thousands of volunteers, men and women, students and village residents. Their headquarters are at Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Nome and Wasilla. They fly in volunteers, veterinarians, dog food and supplies. They act as checkers, coordinators, and family supporters of each musher. They are absolutely indispensable to the race.
And yet ultimately the race is about a man (or woman) and his dogs. A relationship that has been built up over time and has turned into trust and reliance, love and mutual respect.
It is also a race that pits man and his dogs against some of the most ferocious climate on the planet. Not to be undertaken lightly, the Iditarod requires each team to be thoroughly prepared for the endurance test at hand, the unforgiving climate, and the harsh and endless terrain. Some mushers spend an entire year getting ready and raising the money needed to get to Nome. Some prepare around a full-time job. In addition to planning the equipment and feeding needs for up to three weeks on the trail, hundreds of hours and hundreds of miles of training have to be put on each team.
Most mushers attempt to log around 1,400 training miles between September and February. In addition to this they run several two and three hundred mile races. The yearly mileage grand total for a competitive sled dog is over 3,200 miles counting the Iditarod! Most mushers who compete in the Iditarod beginning training about 30 dogs in early fall. Dog mushing is a sport, and like other professional sports, mushers want to have a pool of athletes to select the best team from.
There are many people who believe that this endurance race is cruel. Nothing could be further from the truth and there is ample evidence to prove this should you disbelieve it!
The maximum number of dogs to start the race with is 16. The minimum number mushers can start with is 12. The mushers usually finish with between 8 and 12. The remainder of the team is dropped off with the vets at the checkpoints along the way for various reasons from These vary from sore feet, wrists and shoulders to just a common cold.
The current record for the fastest finish was set by Martin Buser of Big Lake, Alaska in 2002 when he completed the race in just over 8 days 22 hours. On average, the top 20 teams usually finish in under 11 days, and the last place team finishes in 14 or 15 days. The “middle of the pack” is somewhere in between.
An Arctic parka, a heavy sleeping bag, an axe, snowshoes, musher food, dog food and boots for each dog’s feet to protect against cutting ice and hard packed snow injuries are pre-requisites for the race.
But at the end of the day, its you and your dogs and a race to enjoy… they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t enjoy it.
Quite frequently a particular sport will have a ‘fun’ prize for the person who comes last. Where we played polo, for example, our club had one particularly important tournament a year. The team that came last generally got something spectacular like a paid for trip for each member of the team to bungee jump! Fitting indeed. In the case of the Iditarod, a red lantern is awarded to the last musher to finish. The longest time for a Red Lantern was 32 days, 15 hours, nine minutes and one second by John Schultz in 1973. The quickest Red Lantern musher was David Straub with a time of 14 days, 5 hours, 38 minutes and 12 seconds.
Follow live coverage of the race on Twitter: @IditarodLive
Main photo courtesy FLICKR: expertinfantry