On Saturday, March 4th, a thousand Alaskans gathered at Willow Lake, Anchorage, to cheer the 62 mushers and their crew of between 12-16 dogs participating in Alaska's world-renowned trail sled dog race, the Iditarod.
Often referred to as the 'Last great race on Earth' the competition, which officially began on Sunday, involves trekking across 1,150 miles of jagged mountains, frozen rivers and dense forests in below freezing temperatures and often, against blinding winds. Now in it's 39th year, the race began as a way to commemorate twenty hardy souls and their dog teams, who braved 40° below temperatures to rush a diphtheria serum from Anchorage to the isolated town of Nome, saving it from an epidemic.
The journey, which lasts anywhere from 11-16 days, depending on the speed, entails the competitors checking in at 25 pre-designated areas, which are normally small towns along the way. While it always takes place on the historic Iditarod trail, from Anchorage to Nome, the route alternates between even and odd years. This year, the competitors will be traveling the Southern route, which means that they will be passing through its namesake, the ghost town of Iditarod.
Amongst the participants this year, is defending champion and four-time winner, Lance Mackey, who hopes to become the second person to win the race five times and the first one, to do it consecutively. While that in itself is impressive, what is even more so, is the fact that Mr. Mackay is a cancer-survivor who competes without any pain-killing medicine because it is forbidden by the rules of the competition.
Also competing, is the current record holder, Rick Swenson, who has won the race five of the twenty-one years he has competed. Along with them, is another four-time champion, Mark Buser, who also holds the record for the fastest race ever - 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, which he set in 2002.
As in all sports, the team is only as good as its individual members, which in this case means the selection of strong dependable dogs. While there are several sled dog breeds that can be used, the most commonly used are purebreds like Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes, both known for their endurance and speed.
The most important canine member of the team is the leader. Also important are wheel dogs, the workhorses that help pull the sled out of the snow. Other positions include 'point' and 'swing' dogs.
While the spirit of the Iditarod remains the same, a lot has changed since the first race was held 39 years ago. For one, the leading contenders are all professionals who are financed by corporate sponsors and spend all year training for the race. The competitors are also equipped with cell phones and high-tech outdoors equipment, which includes custom built sleds and Global Positioning Devices (GPS), to track the participant's progress. And of course, just like every sports event, the competitors will be writing blogs and streaming live, as they race across the treacherous route! To follow the exciting race minute-by-minute go to: www.iditarod.com/race.
sources: iditarod.com, alaskadispatch.com,redorbit.com