The Iditarod Trail, the toughest race in the world, is underway

This great race, the last great race in the world, is underway. It is “a race extraordinaire, a race only possible in Alaska.” An extreme race without compare.

The Official Map of the Iditarod: Northern Route (Even Years)

This is a race that is over 1,150 miles of the roughest, most beautiful terrain Mother Nature has to offer. The mushers and their dogs have to contend with jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast. Add to that temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills, and you have the Iditarod.

From Anchorage, in south central Alaska, to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast, each team of 12 to 16 dogs and their musher cover the mileage in 10 to 17 days. thanks to AssociatedPress for the video.

Dick Wilmarth won the first Iditarod in 1973 with a time of 20 days 0 hours and 49 minutes. In 1974 Emmitt Peters took the Iditarod into the world of faster racing with a time of 14 days, 14 hours and 43 minutes. Rick Swenson was the first to break the 12 day time with a winning run in 12 days 8 hours and 45 minutes. After that there was talk within the mushing community about whether or not the Iditarod could be run in 10 days. Martin Buser answered that question for us in 1992 with a winning time of 10 days 19 hours and 17 minutes. It is worth noting that since 1992 the Iditarod has always been won in ten days or less. Doug Swingley broke the nine day barrier. And in 2002 Martin Buser ran the fastest Iditarod ever with a winning time of 8 days 22 hours and 46 minutes.

A thousand miles traveled by sled dogs in 20 days, down to 8 days and 22 hours.

How can it have become so fast?

The basics from the earliest Iditarod are still the same, it’s still about the dogs. But a lot of time, effort and experimentation has gone into learning more about how to take care of dogs and to help them reach their top performances.

Mushers have learned more about caring for sled dogs and canine nutrition by working together and sharing their knowledge with other experts in that field and, with the help of dog food manufacturers and veterinarian researchers, better foods and feeding practices have been developed.

Dog harnesses have improved dramatically. In the early days they were made of materials that froze once wet. Mushers worked with harness designers to develop harnesses made of materials that didn’t freeze and were more comfortable for the dogs. This process is still going on today.

Changes in dog booties has definitely led to faster race times. When the Iditarod started booties were primarily used to help a dog that had developed a foot problem whereas now booties are used by all dogs to keep their feet from ever getting sore and to protect them from abrasive trail conditions. The materials that the booties are made from has also improved dramatically and newer “high tech” materials that don’t collect snowballs and are lightweight so as to not slow the dogs down have been and still are being tested.

Over the years there have been huge changes in equipment from storage of gear that you take with you, to quicker and more economical cooking methods, to hi-tech dried and frozen foods, to better headlamps for night vision, to hugely improved cold weather clothing, and then, of course, some fairly major improvements to the sled itself. One of the most important   innovations in sled technology is the quick change runner plastic system invented by Tim White, an early Iditarod racer. The invention uses an aluminum dovetail device to quickly slide different types of runner plastic on to the runners of the sled. Not only was this a faster way of changing runner plastic to keep a slicker running surface but it also allowed mushers to change to different types of plastic for different trail and snow conditions.

A major innovation and a huge contributing factor to racing technology.

All these inventions and improvements, along with improvements to the trail,  have been brought about by the mushers themselves, sometimes with the help of outsiders.

If you add all of the changes that have been developed over the years, it’s easier to understand how today’s Iditarod gets from Anchorage to Nome so much faster.

Reports about the trail this year are that there are light snow levels running up into the Alaska Range but enough for a safe, manageable trail. Snow continues to fall up in the Finger Lake, Rainy Pass area.  On the north side of the range there are reports of snow on the areas out of Rohn that often have some of the toughest trail conditions, but there is a short area of trail on the way to Nikolai that is reported to have no snow, just grass and frozen bare ground.

The Iditarod Insider will be providing live, streaming coverage of the Restart around the world beginning at 1:45 pm (AT). The Iditarod Insider Tracker will begin deploying From Willow Alaska as the teams leave the starting line. To find out how to become an Insider, click here.

Good luck to all…

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