The Last Great Race

The 1,100-mile Iditarod is Alaska's highest-profile event, and proof that the West inspires adventure like no other place in the country

Kimberly Brown Seely

The dawn is still pink, the streetlights in downtown Anchorage sparkling against the sky, when the dog people show up. Trucks packed with Alaskan Huskies, dog handlers, racers, and fans pull into Anchorage for the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Stroll past the wooden barricades lining Fourth Avenue, past the guy setting up a reindeer hot dog stand, and here are the Huskies shivering with excitement in the snow.

"If a dog gets loose, your job is containment!" a man yells to a group of volunteers wearing Official Dog Handler armbands.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ― or Iditarod, as it's more commonly called ― is the pinnacle of distance dog-mushing. The race, which begins the first Sunday of every March, pits experienced and first-time mushers not only against one another but also against roughly 1,100 miles of Alaskan winter wilderness, all the way from Anchorage to Nome. That's the equivalent, say, of mushing from San Diego to Denver ― but in temperatures ranging from 30º above to 40º below zero.

It sounds insane. But the Last Great Race on Earth, as Iditarod fans like to call it, has become Alaska's highest-profile event. This winter, tens of thousands of spectators will fly in to join the festivities. (For about $3,500, die-hard fans can take Anchorage-based outfitter Sky Trekking Alaska's trips that follow the race by bush plane.) Schoolkids around the globe will track the racers from checkpoint to checkpoint via the Internet. Top mushers such as five-time winner Rick Swenson, four-time victor Martin Buser, and four-time champ Susan Butcher have become media celebrities. And the Iditarod has inspired a West-wide craze for recreational dog-mushing, with dogsled tours offered everywhere from Whistler, British Columbia, to Vail, Colorado. Now in 2006, the Iditarod is proof that the West still challenges and inspires. After all, more people have made it to the top of Mt. Everest than have finished the Iditarod.

The first race was created by a woman. In the 1960s, snowmobiles were taking over Alaska's villages. That's when Dorothy Page decided to "stage a spectacular sled-dog race" to rekindle an appreciation for mushers, their dogs, and the role they'd played in Alaskan history. She recruited musher Joe Redington Sr., who organized a 50-mile race along part of the route mushers used during the gold rush ― the Iditarod Trail. That first race attracted 58 competitors vying for a $25,000 purse. In 1969 Redington extended the race all the way to Nome, Alaska, to honor the famous 1925 serum run in which 20 mushers and 100 dogs transported life-saving diphtheria serum to the town on the Bering Sea. This year about 80 mushers will compete for prize money that totals almost $900,000 ― first prize is $70,000 plus a new pickup truck.

The Iditarod and Alaska's other 1,000-mile sled dog race, the international Yukon Quest (held in February), represent the ultimate in endurance mushing. Once the Iditarod mushers leave Knik, Alaska, a few miles into the race, their route loses all contact with the road system. They and their dogs travel for hundreds of miles through wilderness where moose, caribou, and wolves still roam freely.

Last year's winner, Norwegian Robert Sørlie, completed the race in 9 days and 18 hours. (The final finisher took a little more than 15 days.) Racers are required to sign in at checkpoints along the trail, and they calculate their race strategies in advance to maximize trail time and rest time. Most racers stop for at least four-hour stretches to rest their dogs, but last year Team Norway set a relentless pace that factored in three-hour breaks.

Just what does it take to run the Iditarod? "If it were as easy as just pouring gas in the dogs and telling them to go, anyone could do it," Rick Swenson once observed. "But not anyone can do this."

Training for a thousand-mile sled-dog race requires a maniacal commitment that's hard to fathom. "In some ways running the race is the easiest part," says Libby Riddles, who in 1985 was the first woman to win the Iditarod. "Training is a year-round slog; it's pretty tough in mid-December when you're dragging yourself out of bed in the pitch dark to run dogs."

Wes Rau, an Oregon-based physical therapist and musher, trains four days a week on top of working a full-time job. An expert in canine physical therapy, Rau has a rare window into the level of obsession a race like the Iditarod breeds. In 2003 he flew to Alaska to help musher Ken Anderson's team. "A week before the race, Ken and I decided to have lightweight windcoats made for the dogs to keep them warm as they crossed the Bering Sea," Rau says. "We took each dog's measurements and found not only a seamstress but a canine seamstress who sewed for days and nights straight, delivering the coats 10 minutes before the race start."

Similarly, keeping dogs fed can be serious business. Studies show that a 40- to 50-pound sled dog can burn more than 10,000 calories a day when distance racing. "I have 40 dogs and go through probably 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of beef in six months during training season," Rau says. "Luckily, I live in ranch country."

The dogs, bred to pull hard and run fast, are the true stars of this race. Each Iditarod team is limited to 16 dogs; they're hooked up in pairs, with names like Hotfoot and Nugget, Digger and Goose.

For the dogs, running the Iditarod is not without risks, says musher Ramy Brooks. Part Yupik Eskimo and part Athabascan Indian, Brooks, 37, is competing in his 12th Iditarod this year. "Your dogs can get sick, or a moose might leave a big hole in the trail that one of your dogs steps into, spraining a wrist, just like a basketball player running down the court."

These perils have excited the anger of animal rights groups, who regularly condemn the more than two-week race as dangerous to the dogs. Race fans reply that in terms of food and veterinary care, the mushers treat the sled dogs better than they do themselves. Certainly Alaskans remain riveted by the event. "The Iditarod represents the kind of thing we're good at," Riddles says. "It's all about historic Alaskan pride."

Moreover, she continues, "What I love about the race is that the focus is very simple, it's very Zen. Once you get out there, it's just you and your dogs in the wilderness."

Brooks echoes the thought. "There are nights when the moon is out and the sky is clear and the only things you can hear are your dogs running fast and the northern lights cracking overhead. It's just incredible out there."

INFO: The 34th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (907/376-5155) starts March 4 in Anchorage. For race facts and to follow the race online, visit www.iditarod.com or call 907/248-6874.