It's the Iditarod!
For those of us who love the sport of dog mushing, early March is a nearly endless feast of fun and excitement. That is when the best dog mushers in the world are joined by a large pool of dedicated amateur mushers to pit themselves and their dogs against the best and the worst that the huge wilderness of
Known simply as “the ‘Rod” in mushing circles, this is the event that bills itself as The Last Great Race on Earth. In
The best and, really, the only way to do so is through the website: www.iditarod.com. If you want to truly get the feel of the race, spend the $20 to become an “Iditarod Insider”. This gives you access to the dozens of daily short video clips taken along the trail. You see dogs in action, sleds crashing, blizzards roaring—the whole giant event. This is the first year I’ve forked up the cash, and I’m really glad I did; it is well worth it, and as my dad said, “Hey, that’s less than one ticket to a football game!” And it is good for an entire year. You can watch archived video clips from the last few years if you want to.
The Iditarod begins in
The mushers endure this event somewhat grudgingly; they have no choice, as it is required. They generally understand how important it is to publicizing the sport. The crowds love it.
Dutch and I have a friend who lives in
The actual race begins the following day at the Restart, this year held in the small town of
This year has the largest field of mushers ever to leave the start line. Ninety-six teams left
As in the Ceremonial Start, teams leave the start line one-by-one in two minute intervals. With so many teams, it takes several hours to get the race launched. That time difference is made up later on, at the mandatory rest. There is strategy involved in where in the line-up a musher wants to start; most agree that starting early is better. The trail is not chewed up by lots of teams going through, and the early starters have to take a longer rest later on in the race when the dogs need it.
No matter how you look at it, a thousand miles is a long, long way to travel by dog team. The course of the race goes over a huge mountain range, down a precipitously steep gorge, through long frozen but usually snowless stretches of land in the central part of the state, along the mighty Yukon River, which is often a tunnel of wind, and up the stark, frozen coastline of the Bering Sea to the town of
These days the race is generally won in about nine days. In the early races it took nearly three weeks. This will not be a record-setting year, as the temperatures have been warm, +30s and 40s, which is not good for the dogs, and the trail has been soft and punchy, which does not allow the dogs to go their fastest. At this moment, the leaders of the race, Lance Mackey and Jeff King, are approaching Unalakleet, the first checkpoint on the
As the dog teams approach the final leg, there is still a lot of racing to do, and anything can happen. Weather may intervene, dogs may run out gas, mushers in their exhausted state may make mistakes. For the last few days, the leadership of the race has been a duel between two outstanding mushers, Lance and Jeff. The next three or four teams are within a few hours of them, and with this much distance left to travel, could move up. The next two days will see it out.
One of the things many people are holding their breaths to see is whether Lance Mackey can repeat the incredible accomplishment he pulled off last year, something many people said could not be done. Lance has won the last four Yukon Quest sled dog races, in 2005, ’06, ’07, and ‘08. The Quest and the Iditarod are the only two 1,000+ mile sled dog races held in
The Quest is held the first two weeks in February; the Iditarod, the first two weeks in March. Mushers have occasionally competed in both races, though usually not with the same dogs. Until last year, no one had ever won both races in the same year, and common wisdom was that it couldn’t be done. And then Lance Mackey did it. And he ran the same dogs in both races. That’s about like winning the Boston Marathon and the New York Marathon two weeks apart. Mackey was instantly dubbed the one and only “IditaQuest” champion.
Today he is only 200 miles away from possibly repeating that impossible feat, and, again, with the same dog team in both races. He has set a completely new standard in long-distance dog mushing. He is an incredible guy. Whip-thin. Focused. Driven. Seemingly tireless. A survivor of throat cancer that left him with no salivary glands, requiring him to drink water constantly to replace the saliva he can not produce.
As much as I would love to see Lance repeat his amazing feat, I would also love to see Jeff King win his fifth Iditarod. He is one of only four mushers who have won this race four times (1993, ’96, ’98, and ’06); the other three are Susan Butcher, Martin Buser, and Doug Swingley. Only one musher has won it five times, Rick Swenson—who, by the way, is having one of his best Iditarods in many years, and is currently in twelvth place.
At this year’s Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race here in
At this point the race will probably be won sometime on Tuesday. Will Jeff overtake Lance to win? Will Paul Gebhardt hold on to third? Will Martin Buser’s son Rohn take Rookie of the Year? Will Dee Dee Jonrowe beat Jessie Royer for first woman to finish? Will Aliy Zirkle make it back into the top twenty? Will Mother Nature play nice along the
Stay tuned, mushing fans, there’s lots more Iditarod to come!
photos by Peter Ashman, map from the Iditarod website
Labels: Dog Mushing