How the Iditarod Works


Iditarod Image Gallery An Iditarod competitor at the beginning of the race. See more pictures of the Iditarod.
Kevin Horan/Getty Images

It's offi­cially known as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog ­Race, but it's often referred to as the L­ast Great Race on Earth, or simply the Iditarod. It's a competition that pits one dog driver, called a musher, and a team of dogs not only against other racers but against the (often cruel) forces of ­Mother Nature.

Named for a town in Alaska, the race ceremonially sets off from downtown Anchorage, Alaska, on the first Saturday in March. The next day, the official start of the race occurs farther north. Over the course of the next nine to 19 days, competitors cover roughly 1,131 miles (1,821 kilometers) in a race to reach the finish line in Nome, Alaska.

­The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has been held every year since its inception in 1973. The number of participants varies each year (110 mushers, both men and women, entered to compete in the 2008 race). In 2007, 58 mushers finished the race, 23 dropped out and one was disqualified. The current record is held by Martin Buser, who completed the race in 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds in 2002.

The terrain that racers must pass through is tough for even the most experienced musher, and the weather conditions can be brutal. Temperatures range from 50 above zero to 60 below zero, and blinding snow and whipping wind aren't uncommon.

In this article, we'll look at how the Iditarod got its start, what it takes to compete in the race, and some of the hazards encountered on the trail.

Iditarod History

The Iditarod defies imagination: a 1,131-mile (1,821-kilometer) dog sled race through desolate tundra, dense forest, snow-swept mountains and the frigid Alaskan coast.
The Iditarod defies imagination: a 1,131-mile (1,821-kilometer) dog sled race through desolate tundra, dense forest, snow-swept mountains and the frigid Alaskan coast.
Sunset Avenue Productions / Getty Images

Long before the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was held in 1973, dog sleds carried indigenous people and explorers along snowy and icy Alaska paths. The Iditarod trail is the same route used during the gold rush of the early 1900s to reach mining towns, including Iditarod, Alaska. And the same trail was later used to transport diphtheria serum in 1925, when the diphtheria epidemic had spread to even the remote outreaches of Nome, Alaska. Sled dogs and mushers made it possible to cross the nearly 700-mile treacherous path from Nenana to Nome to stop the outbreak. A statute honoring one of the lead dogs, Balto, was erected in New York City's Central Park in 1926.

Fast-forward almost a half-decade to when Joe Redington Sr. and Dorothy Page, bemoaning the replacement of dog sleds with snowmobiles, decided to form a race to honor the Alaskan tradition. In the 1960s, they organized a 50-mile race, but it was the 1973 race from Anchorage to Nome that launched the now world famous Iditarod competition. They chose the Iditarod trail to commemorate the 1925 diphtheria run. That first race in 1973 commenced with 34 teams, 22 of which made it to the finish line.

Over the years, the race's popularity has grown and changes have been made to the competition. Complaints from animal rights groups caused some corporations to drop their sponsorship of the race. As a result, the race committee put in place more safeguards for the dogs. But as more competitors sought to take home the first-place prize, the competition grew fierce, with race entrants going all out to win. The record time for winning the race was lowered to less than nine days in 2002, versus the 20 days it took in the race's first two years.

In the early 1990s, both a ceremonial and an official start to the race were introduced. The ceremonial start kicks off from Anchorage, followed by an official start a day later. The official start had originally been in Wasilla, north of Anchorage, but beginning in 2004, a lack of snow forced the competition to begin farther north in Willow.

The race has followed almost the same route, with the exception of the addition of a southern route that is used every other year. The two routes are the same except for a 300-plus mile portion in the middle of the race.

Many mushers hold jobs outside of sled dog races. With corporate sponsorships, race winnings and other sources of income, mushers manage to cover the costs of this expensive sport. Expenses can easily rise to $20,000 for each musher to prepare for and compete in the Iditarod -- including gear, transportation and caring for dogs.

In the next section, we'll learn about the race's competitors, both canine and human, as well as the gear they use.­­

Dogs, Mushers and Sleds

Musher Jeff King prepares meals for his sled dogs during the Iditarod Trail Race in Eagle Island, Alaska.
Musher Jeff King prepares meals for his sled dogs during the Iditarod Trail Race in Eagle Island, Alaska.
Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport/Getty Images

Each team competing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is made up of a dog driver, the dogs and a whole lot of gear.

The dogs that race in the Iditarod are primarily of a mixed breed, called Alaskan husky, which is not a breed recognized by the American Kennel Club. People sometimes assume the Iditarod sled dogs are Siberian husky or malamute, both official American Kennel Club breeds, but they are not the preferred dogs for most mushers. Alaskan huskies are bred for their speed and endurance. Dogs that weigh around 40 to 45 pounds are the ideal size. The most intelligent and fastest dogs are picked to be lead dogs and run in the front of the pack. Behind them run swing dogs, whose job is to direct the team around turns and curves. At the back of the dog team are the wheel dogs or wheelers, who are right in front of the sled and are usually the largest and strongest of the team. The rest of the dogs are known simply as team dogs.

The training for each team of dogs varies by musher (or whoever is preparing the dogs to race). Conditioning the dogs to run long distances is vital, and teams may cover 2,000 to 3,000 miles in the course of their training leading up to the race. Since training may take place year-round, the dogs sometimes run on dry land, and sometimes pull all-terrain vehicles.

Sled dogs need to eat around 10,000 calories per day. During the Iditarod race, that translates into about 2,000 pounds of food for one team for the entire race. Meat is the main ingredient, but other fats, oils, dry dog foods and vitamin supplements are also included. The dogs are fed at each checkpoint but they also get snacks every few hours. Before the race, mushers ship food and gear to points along the trail through the race committee so it is waiting for them at checkpoints. Gear for dogs includes fabric booties to protect their feet from the elements, and each team may go through 2,000 booties during the race.

There are a maximum of 16 dogs on a team. At the race's start there must be between 12 and 16 dogs per entrant. At the race's end, at least six dogs must be part of the team that crosses the finish line. During the race, teams typically travel 5 to12 mph.

Mushers

Though competitors may have people who assist with race preparations the rest of the year, when it comes time for the Iditarod, the musher must compete on his or her own. What makes a good musher? Strong leg muscles and good balance help, but mental stamina is clearly required.

For the race, mushers are required to pack a sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, and a cooker or pot and fuel for boiling water. They outfit themselves in attire that will protect them from the harsh elements, including warm boots and eye goggles. Ski poles, a gun, a headlamp and food are among the other supplies carried on the trail.

Mushers sleep very little during the race. There is a designated sleeping area for the dog drivers at each checkpoint, but other than one 24-hour and two eight-hour mandatory rests, competitors push themselves to stay awake.

Sleds

The official race rules require that "some type of sled or toboggan must be drawn" but specifications are up to each racer. Typically, the sleds used weigh around 100 pounds (easily twice that once loaded with gear) and cost around $1,500. They have a basket where gear is carried and a tired dog can rest, and are outfitted with a braking device. Mushers stand on the sled's runners, which are usually made of wood and covered in plastic or Teflon, and extend out from the sled's basket.

The dogs are attached to the sled with a series of lines called rigging. This includes the tow line (or gang line), tug lines and neck lines. The dogs each wear a collar and a harness. The tow line connects the dogs to the sled. The tug line connects the dogs' harnesses to the tow line. The neck line connects the dogs' collars to the tow line. There are no reins, and dogs respond to the musher's vocal commands.

Tether lines and stakes are used to secure dogs during breaks. A snow hook or ice hook, a heavy piece of metal that can be set into the snow, is also used to restrain the team as needed. A snub line is a piece of rope that connects the sled to a tree or other object when not in use.

In the next section, we'll look at the hazards competitors face on the Iditarod trail.

Hazards of the Iditarod Race

2007 Iditarod rookie, Norwegian Segrid Ekran, runs her team through a practice trail in Wasilla, Alaska.
2007 Iditarod rookie, Norwegian Segrid Ekran, runs her team through a practice trail in Wasilla, Alaska.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Like any competition, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has its risks. But in the Alaskan wilderness, where racers are going strong for at least eight days straight, things are especially precarious.

There is no doubt that the weather plays an important role in the race. Temperatures range from 50 above zero to 60 below zero, and falling snow and piercing wind are common. If it's too warm, the trail can be too slushy and wet. If it's too cold, it can be nearly impossible to continue racing.

Moose, wolves, caribou, buffalo and other animals can threaten race teams, with moose being the most troublesome. Snowmobiles also can pose a problem on the trail, as they can damage trails and snow bridges and affect the snow's surface. It's possible for a race team to fall through the ice, as Susan Butcher's did in 1984; her two lead dogs managed to pull the team out.

To ensure the well being of the race dogs, around 37 veterinarians tend to them during the race, and prerace exams are required. Still, overexertion leads to death for some of the race dogs. A host of medical problems can crop up, from foot problems, dehydration and viruses to ulcers, hypothermia and heart problems. A seemingly content team of dogs can engage in a dog fight. When a dog team gets tangled up, dogs can be strangled. Dogs can break free of the harness and become lost; microchips implanted in the dogs and collar tags help identify lost dogs (and also assist in keeping track of dogs that are dropped off at checkpoints during the race).

For the mushers' and dogs' well being, they are required to take checkpoint breaks. A mandatory 24-hour stop must be made, but where and when that happens is up to each competitor. Two other eight-hour stops at designated checkpoints are required. Beyond that, racers are free to trudge on, making fatigue unavoidable.

The physical and mental demands for mushers are high. Frostbite can set in. Snow blindness, broken bones and illnesses can occur. Lack of sleep can bring on hallucinations. Dogs can make a wrong turn and a team might end up off course, with the musher desperately trying to get the pack to rejoin the trail.

Mushers are allowed to assist each other on the trail, but help from outsiders is not permitted. If any outside assistance is accepted for emergencies, it has to be reported to officials and a penalty may be imposed.

The assistance that the hundreds of race volunteers do provide helps avoid and deal with many hazards. Before the race starts, volunteers act as trailbreakers, passing over the path on snow machines and placing markers. More than 30 volunteer airplane pilots, dubbed the Iditarod Air Force, transport dog food and supplies to checkpoints; provide transportation for dogs that are dropped from the race, for officials and for others; and conduct search-and-rescue operations for teams that may have veered off course.

All of these measures are required for a race that takes place over eight days, covers more than 1,000 miles and requires large reserves of mental and physical stamina in the harshest of conditions.

For lots more information on the Iditarod and related articles, please see the next page.­­­

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Sources

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