The Story of the Iditarod
last great race on earth
Every year in March, humans and dogs from around the world converge on the state of Alaska to take part in what has become known as the "Last Great Race" on the planet. This race is of course the Iditarod and though it doesn't have a long "official" history as a sporting event, dog sledding does have an lengthy history in Alaska. Today the race has become a popular event for many people throughout the world. The Iditarod race has deep roots in the state of Alaska and in dog sledding history. It all started with a diptheria outbreak in the small town of Nome, Alaska, 700 miles away in dangerous and unstable terrain. The only way to get the antidote to Nome was via dog sled. A train brought the medicine as far inland as possible until the snows stopped the passage and the serum was taken by dogsled the remaining 300 miles to Nome. The popular childrens movie Balto presents as sanitized version of these events.
The race today is a little different than its predecessor in the 1920's. For starters, mushers (the people who race the dogs) are racing for money and the fastest time. The first official documented race was in 1974, and since then mushers have been coming from around the world to try to win this race. But this is not a race for the faint of heart. In order to run in this race you need to have two things: a sponsor and a dog team. Training for the Iditarod takes time, money and patience. The key items in training are the dogs. Now when people think dog sled racing, they commonly think Siberian Huskies or Alaskan Malamutes and while these breeds may be suited to pulling sleds, they are not the kind that are used in this type of racing. The dogs that are used are particular to Alaska. Small to medium in build, heavily muscled and weighing no more than 75 pounds, the Alaskan Husky is a breed that has been developed particularly for this line of work. These dogs have been crossbred to combine the best attributes of several breeds in order to provide a dog that is high energy, light and well muscled. Before the race, mushers train their dogs on wheeled carts and atv's when there is no snow. A fully grown, well trained sled dog team can pull an atv without it even being on. During training, the distances get longer and longer until the dogs are running equal to the distance of the actual race. The most intense periods of training are between the months of November and March, with a break being taken for the summer months as sled dogs do not run well when it gets over 40 degrees Farenheit. They run best when it is 10 to -10 degrees, as the cold makes them feel energized.
Each dog team is made up of 12 to 16 dogs, with the ones that are the smartest and fastest being picked for the team. For the Iditarod, the race has two starts, one ceremonial and then the actual start of the race. The ceremonial start, the team consists of only twelve dogs, but the actual race start is sixteen. The front one or two dogs are called the lead dogs, running in the front of the pack. They are often the ones that are the smartest and wisest of your dogs. Those dogs that are the pivot or swing dogs run behind the lead dogs. They help to keep the sled moving evenly around the turns. These dogs are right behind the lead dogs. The next pair are the team dogs, the ones that provide stability for the team. The dogs closest to the sled are your wheel dogs. They are the strongest and not exactely smartest of the bunch. Think the big defensive back in football and these are your dogs. The number of dogs will determine how many of these pairs of dogs you will need. These dogs are all connected to one main line called the gangline or towline. From this line come the tug or backlines that attach each dog to the main line via a ring at the back of the harness. Once you have your dog team figured out, you can begin crafting your sled. Usually made of ash, oak, birch or maple, the sled is bent and glued into shape over a period of four to five months. When finished your sled will probably weigh about 100 to 150 pounds unloaded. Anything that is lighter could break down on the trail.
After you have all of your dogs and sled concerns taken care of, it is time to consider supplies. For the Iditarod, mushers need to have drop bags that can be put at the various checkpoints along the race route. Typically weighing around 60 to 70 pounds, these bags contain small portions of necessities that have been divided up by the musher for himself/herself and the dogs. Food and other necessities for the human are provided at some of the checkpoints. Must of the contents of these bags are for the dogs such as booties, food and treats. Sled dogs need a high calorie diet and the musher is responsible for providing these for the dogs along the trail. At the checkpoints, only the musher may take care of the dogs, unless he is taken the required 24 hour rest and then family members may help out. Typically, the musher may spend as much as $100,000 a year on dogs, supplies and entering races. It is a fun experience but can be very pricey.
Once you cross the finish line for the Iditarod, the winner receives a new Dodge truck and a large monetary prize. The lead dog or dogs get a big steak for all their work that they did. It is a truly invigorating part of Alaskan history and if you are in Alaska in the month of March, you should stop and watch. Or if you are abitious enough, enter your own team and try to become part of ancient history.