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The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Officially known as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the intense competition is held annually in Alaska. The race, also referred to as the “Last Great Race on Earth,” consists of a group of mushers, both men and women, and their team of dogs. Each team not only goes against one another, but often against the cruel forces of Mother Nature. Racers must pass through a terrain that is tough for even the most experienced musher, and weather conditions can be brutal. Blinding snow, harsh winds, and temperatures in the range of 50 above zero to 60 below zero are not uncommon. Learn more about the Iditarod race, its history, route, participates, records and awards, criticisms, and awards given to the finalists.

History of the Iditarod Race

The Iditarod sled-dog race is run each year on a trail that was originally used as a mail-supply route. When northern ports became too difficult for traveling, dog sleds would deliver firewood, gold ore, mining equipment, furs, food, mail, and other supplies between trading posts and settlements. The most famous event in the history of mushing in Alaska is the serum run to Nome in 1925. During this time period, part of the trail became a highway to save children who were sick and lived in Nome. A fluid serum used to prevent or cure a disease, had to be delivered to ill children, and was transported by a string of mushers and their dogs. The Iditarod race is a commemoration to remember the historic event. Mushers have been running the Iditarod trail annually since 1973.

Route

The trail is composed of two separate routes – a northern route which is run on even-numbered years, and a southern route which is run on odd-numbered years. Both routes follow the Iditarod trail a total of 444 miles, from Anchorage to Ophir, before diverging and rejoining at Kaltag. There are 26 checkpoints on the northern route where mushers must sign in, and 27 on the southern route. At these checkpoints, mushers are able to purchase food, headlamps for night travel, booties for the dogs, batteries, tools, and other supplies, which are then flown to each checkpoint by the Iditarod Air Force. The race begins on the first Saturday in March at the first checkpoint in downtown Anchorage. Before the race, a ceremony consisting of a ribbon-cutting is held under flags, which represent the states and countries in which the competitors reside. The first musher departs at 10:00 a.m. AST, and the others depart in the order of musher registrations. Once the dogs have been brought to the third checkpoint, the Iditarod race restarts the following day, a Sunday, at 2:00 p.m. AST at Willow Lake.

Participants

More than 50 mushers enter the Iditarod trail sled-dog race each year. The majority are from rural South Central Alaska, few are urban, and a small percentage are from Canada, the Lower 48, or overseas. Some participants are professionals who make their living by selling dogs, providing mushing instruction services, running sled-dog tours, through advertising contracts, or from speaking about their experiences in the Iditarod race. Other participants are amateurs who make their living from gardening, hunting, fishing, trapping, or with seasonal jobs. Surgeons, lawyers, veterinarians, airline pilots, CEOs, and biologists have also competed. Mushers must participate in three smaller races to qualify for a spot in the Iditarod race. Sled dogs that are used in the race were originally Inuit Sled Dogs bred by the Mahlemut tribe. Siberian huskies were introduced during the early 20th century. Each team consists of twelve to sixteen dogs, and no more can be added during the race. A minimum of six dogs must still be harnessed when crossing the finish line in Nome.

Records and Awards

In 1973, Dick Wilmarth won the first race, completing the Iditarod trail in 20 days, 0 hours, 49 minutes, and 41 seconds. The fastest time completing the race was in 2011, when John Baker finished in 8 days, 19 hours, and 46 minutes. In 1982, Rick Swenson was the first musher to win four races. Later in 1991, he became the only musher to win five times and in three different decades. Doug Swingley, Jeff King, Susan Butcher, Martin Buser, and Lance Mackey, are the only other four-time winners. The lead dog or dogs of the winning team receive the “Golden Harness” award. The “Rookie of the Year” award is given to the musher who finishes first and is completing their first Iditarod. The last musher who crosses the finish line is awarded a red lantern, signifying perseverance. Mushers may also receive cash prizes, depending on the size of the purse. A new pickup truck is given to the overall first place winner of the race.

Criticisms of the Race

Many animal protection activists believe that the Iditarod race is not a commemoration of the 1925 serum delivery, but is in honor of Leonhard Seppala. This criticism remains inconsistent as Leonhard Seppala was one of the many mushers who delivered serum in 1925. Activists also state that running the dogs in the annual race is a form of animal abuse. Dogs have died in the race, and many have been injured. Other criticisms include tethering dogs on short chains at checkpoints, dog drops, and in kennels by the mushers. The ASPCA also has general concerns about the health of dogs that participate in intense competitions that may push beyond their capabilities or endurance. Many believe that the number of dog deaths in the race is an inevitability due to the number of animals (over 1,000 each year), that participate.

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