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
The dawn is still pink, the streetlights in downtown Anchoragesparkling against the sky, when the dog people show up. Truckspacked with Alaskan Huskies, dog handlers, racers, and fans pullinto Anchorage for the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.Stroll past the wooden barricades lining Fourth Avenue, past theguy setting up a reindeer hot dog stand, and here are the Huskiesshivering with excitement in the snow.
“If a dog gets loose, your job is containment!” a man yells to agroup of volunteers wearing Official Dog Handler armbands.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ― or Iditarod, as it’smore commonly called ― is the pinnacle of distancedog-mushing. The race, which begins the first Sunday of everyMarch, pits experienced and first-time mushers not only against oneanother but also against roughly 1,100 miles of Alaskan winterwilderness, all the way from Anchorage to Nome. That’s theequivalent, say, of mushing from San Diego to Denver ― but intemperatures ranging from 30º above to 40º belowzero.
It sounds insane. But the Last Great Race on Earth, as Iditarodfans like to call it, has become Alaska’s highest-profile event.This winter, tens of thousands of spectators will fly in to jointhe festivities. (For about $3,500, die-hard fans can takeAnchorage-based outfitter Sky Trekking Alaska’s trips that followthe race by bush plane.) Schoolkids around the globe will track theracers from checkpoint to checkpoint via the Internet. Top musherssuch as five-time winner Rick Swenson, four-time victor MartinBuser, and four-time champ Susan Butcher have become mediacelebrities. And the Iditarod has inspired a West-wide craze forrecreational dog-mushing, with dogsled tours offered everywherefrom 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 thanhave finished the Iditarod.
The first race was created by a woman. In the 1960s, snowmobileswere taking over Alaska’s villages. That’s when Dorothy Pagedecided to “stage a spectacular sled-dog race” to rekindle anappreciation for mushers, their dogs, and the role they’d played inAlaskan history. She recruited musher Joe Redington Sr., whoorganized a 50-mile race along part of the route mushers usedduring the gold rush ― the Iditarod Trail. That first raceattracted 58 competitors vying for a $25,000 purse. In 1969Redington extended the race all the way to Nome, Alaska, to honorthe famous 1925 serum run in which 20 mushers and 100 dogstransported life-saving diphtheria serum to the town on the BeringSea. This year about 80 mushers will compete for prize money thattotals almost $900,000 ― first prize is $70,000 plus a newpickup truck.
The Iditarod and Alaska’s other 1,000-mile sled dog race, theinternational Yukon Quest (held in February), represent theultimate in endurance mushing. Once the Iditarod mushers leaveKnik, Alaska, a few miles into the race, their route loses allcontact with the road system. They and their dogs travel forhundreds of miles through wilderness where moose, caribou, andwolves still roam freely.
Last year’s winner, Norwegian Robert Sørlie, completed therace in 9 days and 18 hours. (The final finisher took a little morethan 15 days.) Racers are required to sign in at checkpoints alongthe trail, and they calculate their race strategies in advance tomaximize trail time and rest time. Most racers stop for at leastfour-hour stretches to rest their dogs, but last year Team Norwayset a relentless pace that factored in three-hour breaks.
Just what does it take to run the Iditarod? “If it were as easyas just pouring gas in the dogs and telling them to go, anyonecould do it,” Rick Swenson once observed. “But not anyone can dothis.”
Training for a thousand-mile sled-dog race requires a maniacalcommitment that’s hard to fathom. “In some ways running the race isthe easiest part,” says Libby Riddles, who in 1985 was the firstwoman to win the Iditarod. “Training is a year-round slog; it’spretty tough in mid-December when you’re dragging yourself out ofbed in the pitch dark to run dogs.”
Wes Rau, an Oregon-based physical therapist and musher, trainsfour days a week on top of working a full-time job. An expert incanine physical therapy, Rau has a rare window into the level ofobsession a race like the Iditarod breeds. In 2003 he flew toAlaska to help musher Ken Anderson’s team. “A week before the race,Ken and I decided to have lightweight windcoats made for the dogsto keep them warm as they crossed the Bering Sea,” Rau says. “Wetook each dog’s measurements and found not only a seamstress but acanine 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. Studiesshow that a 40- to 50-pound sled dog can burn more than 10,000calories a day when distance racing. “I have 40 dogs and go throughprobably 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of beef in six months duringtraining season,” Rau says. “Luckily, I live in ranch country.”
The dogs, bred to pull hard and run fast, are the true stars ofthis race. Each Iditarod team is limited to 16 dogs; they’re hookedup in pairs, with names like Hotfoot and Nugget, Digger andGoose.
For the dogs, running the Iditarod is not without risks, saysmusher Ramy Brooks. Part Yupik Eskimo and part Athabascan Indian,Brooks, 37, is competing in his 12th Iditarod this year. “Your dogscan get sick, or a moose might leave a big hole in the trail thatone of your dogs steps into, spraining a wrist, just like abasketball player running down the court.”
These perils have excited the anger of animal rights groups, whoregularly condemn the more than two-week race as dangerous to thedogs. 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 Iditarodrepresents the kind of thing we’re good at,” Riddles says. “It’sall about historic Alaskan pride.”
Moreover, she continues, “What I love about the race is that thefocus is very simple, it’s very Zen. Once you get out there, it’sjust you and your dogs in the wilderness.”
Brooks echoes the thought. “There are nights when the moon isout and the sky is clear and the only things you can hear are yourdogs running fast and the northern lights cracking overhead. It’sjust incredible out there.”
INFO: The 34th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race(907/376-5155) starts March 4 in Anchorage. For race facts and tofollow the race online, visit www.iditarod.com or call907/248-6874.