Even the non-canine obsessed have dogs on their mind at this time of year, thanks to the Iditarod race currently taking place up in Alaska. For an event that gets so much media coverage every single year…I’m surprised at how little people (myself included) actually know about this historical race.
The Iditarod Trail itself was used by native Alaskans hundreds of years before Russians even arrived in the 1880s. Between the 1880s and 1920, mining camps, trading posts, and settlements popped up along the trail…due to the gold rush. There was only one way to quickly (and relatively safely!) travel this land…and that was by dog sled.
In 1967 (the 100th anniversary of Alaska being purchased from Russia) Dorothy Page – the chairman of a committee formed to oversee historical events in Alaska – got the idea to organize a sled dog race along the Iditarod Trail. After generating some excitement, she was able to hold short races in 1967 and 1969, but general interest soon fizzled. A few Alaskans (including some mushers) struggled to keep the dream alive – both to save the sled dog culture and to preserve the Iditarod Trail itself. They persevered, and in 1973 the first long distance Iditarod race was held.
While the race always starts in Anchorage and ends in Nome…the route used for the race actually changes depending on the year – a northern route (a whopping 1,112 miles) is run in even numbered years and an southern route (a just as daunting 1,131 miles) in odd numbered years. There are currently 26 checkpoints on the northern route and 27 on the southern route.
Each team is made up of 12-16 dogs, at least 6 of which are required to be harnessed when crossing the finish line. Microchips and collar tags are both used to keep track of racing dogs. There are three mandatory rests that must be taken during the race – a 24 hour layover (which can be taken at any checkpoint) an 8 hour layover (which can be taken at any checkpoint on the Yukon River), and an 8 hour layover at White Mountain. Injured or exhausted dogs (surely they all are exhausted by the end!) are carried to the next checkpoint – where they are cared for until picked up or flown the the finish line for transport home. Just to give you an idea of how amazingly athletic these dogs are – an Alaskan husky running the Iditarod will burn about 5,000 calories a day. Based on body/weight ratio, that is 3.5 times more than a human Tour de France cyclist.
Obviously, the athletic ability, incredible skill, and hours of practice that go into making these amazing human/dog sled teams could fill a book…so I don’t have time to expand on them here. What is incredible to me…and I definitely think is worth mentioning…is that for all the race’s fame and media coverage it gets annually – the prize for the winner is $50,400 and a new 2013 Dodge Ram pick up. That is for the biggest race in the sport! (Compare that to the $1.5 million Jimmie Johnson earned for winning the Daytona 500.) To put it in perspective – the prize money covers about half of a team’s dog food bill for the year. Luckily, some teams are able to pull in a few major sponsors which can help cover the costs of kibble, clothing, and kennels. In other words – these racers are not doing it for money, but for true love of the sport and the dogs who participate along side them.