Sunday, March 09, 2008

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 Alaska can throw at them. It is the 1,049-mile-long Iditarod Trail International Sled Dog Race.

Known simply as “the ‘Rod” in mushing circles, this is the event that bills itself as The Last Great Race on Earth. In Alaska, where dog mushing is the state sport, everyone knows about this race, and most people follow its progress to some degree. The top mushers are household names: Jeff King, Martin Buser, Mitch Seavey, Lance Mackey, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Rick Swenson, Paul Gebhardt, Aliy Zirkle. In the 36 years of its existence (first run in 1973), the Iditarod has been almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the sport of dog mushing back from extinction. The ‘Rod is so well publicized that many people in the lower 48 who would not otherwise know much—or care—about dog mushing love to follow it.

The best and, really, the only way to do so is through the website: 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 Anchorage each year on the first weekend in March. There is a Ceremonial Start to the race which has all the feel of a parade, and is nothing like the race itself. Crowds line the streets of Anchorage three deep and cheer the mushers as they leave the start line one-by-one wearing bibs with their starting number and lead dogs dressed in coats with commercial messages. The sleds are empty of gear and hold only an Iditarider, a person who pays big bucks for the thrill of riding with a musher the twenty or so miles out of town to the Campbell Airstrip, the untimed end of the Ceremonial Start. The only things missing from this parade-like event are a brass band and confetti.

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. Anchorage television stations carry the event live with three to four hours of coverage.

Dutch and I have a friend who lives in Anchorage, a judge who is an incredible amateur photographer. I have suggested to him that when he retires from the bench, he should turn pro with his camera; he thinks that might take the fun out of it. Earlier in the week he emailed me the following link (and permission to share it here) for his photo set on Flickr of the shots he took at the Ceremonial Start: There are nearly a hundred photos in the set, which can be viewed as a slide show. Click on it and enjoy! He did a fabulous job of capturing the excitement on what was a gorgeous day in Anchorage. Thanks Peter!

The actual race begins the following day at the Restart, this year held in the small town of Willow, north of Anchorage. Dogs are trucked there from Anchorage, sleds are loaded with gear for the trail, and Iditariders are things of the past. Television coverage of the Restart is broadcast live and good-sized crowds show up to watch real start of the race.

This year has the largest field of mushers ever to leave the start line. Ninety-six teams left Anchorage in the Ceremonial Start; one musher, GB Jones, announced ahead of time that he would scratch at Campbell Airstrip. He is retiring and this was his farewell to mushing. So 95 dog teams were lined up in Willow to run the 2008 Iditarod. With sixteen dogs per team, that is 1,520 dogs. Yowza.

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 Nome. There can be intense blizzards, bitter cold, and frightening wind. Dogs and mushers are battling elements, distance, and exhaustion in their quest to make it to the finish line.

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 Bering Sea and the beginning of the last leg of the race. From Unalakleet it is 219 miles to the finish line. There are currently 87 teams still actively mushing towards Nome, with nine having scratched for various reasons, and they are spread out over hundreds of miles. The Red Lantern (last place) is currently headed towards the Yukon River with over 500 miles to go.

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 North America. The Quest is not as famous as the Iditarod and is a different type of race; it has fewer checkpoints, more mountains, and deeper snow. It also has a much smaller field; generally between ten and twenty mushers compete for the Quest title.

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 Bethel, Dutch and I were handlers for Jeff and were able to get to know him a little, which was very nice. He is a good dog man; you can see and feel the energy between him and his dogs. I would love to see him move into the five-time Iditarod winner’s circle.

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 Bering Sea coast?

Stay tuned, mushing fans, there’s lots more Iditarod to come!

photos by Peter Ashman, map from the Iditarod website



Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

Unbearably cool. And you're right: those pictures are magnificent.

Sunday, March 09, 2008 5:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TOTALLY rooting for Lance. He's been the underdog for so long, and is finally coming into his own. He is SO down to earth, so good to his fans, just such a nice, nice, nice guy. And he loves his dogs more than any other musher I have ever met. Jeff, umm, not such a nice guy. Good dog man, business-wise and all, but not much patience with other people. He also has so much more financial sponsor support, and has had for years, that how can you HELP but root for Lance. I figure if he wins the Iditarod this year (and he's REALLY holding out for the AA Sweepstakes as the "ultimate win") then, after 4 years of the Quest, and two back to back Iditarods, and the Sweepstakes, hopefully, then he'll no longer BE the underdog, and I can then root for someone else next year!
All just my own humble opinion of course, and I'm often accused of knowing not of which I speak.
Also, let me take this opportunity to say how much I L-O-V-E your blog. It is fantastic.

Monday, March 10, 2008 4:23:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen Cornell said...

Excellent post. I can't believe the race is more than 1,000 miles long. That's more than the distance from Philadelphia (where I am) to St. Louis. Traveling that far by airplane is a pain in the neck.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 7:01:00 AM  

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