On Saturday, March 2nd, sixty-six mushers and their teams of between 12-16 dogs received a rousing send off from enthusiastic fans in Anchorage, Alaska, as they began the first-leg of the grueling world-renowned trail sled dog competition - The Iditarod!
The ceremonial start held so that fans could get an opportunity to view all the competitors at the same time, is only an 11 mile trek to Anchorage's Campbell Airstrip. From here the mushers loaded their dogs onto trucks and transported them to Willow, where the official race began in earnest, at 3pm (PST) on Sunday, March 3rd.
The first contestant out of the gate was veteran musher Martin Buser, who has completed a total 29 iditarod races - a record 27 consecutively, and won four. He is now hoping to add one more title to his distinguished sled dog racing career.
Also racing for the same honor, are two other four-time champions, Jeff King and Lance Mackey who nailed it for four consecutive years from 2007-2010. All of these older veterans will however have to contend with last year's champion, Dallas Seavey, who at 25, also happens to be the youngest winner of this grueling race.
While nobody expects 54-year old rookie musher Cindy Abbott to win the race, just completing it will elevate her into an exclusive category of one - The first woman to climb the Everest and complete the Iditirod. If that is not impressive enough, the fact that this California professor is blind in her left eye and suffers from a rare disorder that causes an inflammation in blood vessels, which in turn constricts blood to some organs, often leaving her dizzy and disoriented, sure is.
Now in its 41st year, the competition often referred to as 'Last Great Race On Earth', involves sledding about 1,000 miles across the Alaskan wilderness, through jagged mountains and frozen rivers in below freezing temperatures and against blinding winds. The race began as a way to commemorate twenty hardy souls and their dog teams, who braved minus 40° 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 pace, entails the competitors checking in at 25 pre-designated areas, normally small towns along the way. While the race always takes place on the historic Iditarod trail that runs from Anchorage to Nome, the actual 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 the race's namesake, the ghost town of Iditarod.
The first person to cross the finish line takes home $50,400 USD and a new truck, while the next 29 split the remaining $600,000 USD purse. But that is not the reason competitors participate in this extreme event - it is more to obtain bragging rights of having completed the 'Last Great Race On Earth'.
And while the humans get the glory, it is the brave dogs who cover as much as 100 miles a day on all kinds of harsh terrain, that are the true heroes. As with all sports teams, they too have a leader or captain to guide them to victory. Also important are wheel dogs, the workhorses that help pull the sled out of the snow. Other positions include 'point' and 'swing' dogs.
As you have probably guessed, only select dogs can endure a competition this hard. Though there are several sled dog breeds that can be used, the most popular are purebreds like Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes, both known for their endurance, speed and dependability.
Though the spirit of the Iditarod remains the same, a lot has changed since the first race was held 41 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 outdoor equipment, which includes custom built sleds and Global Positioning Devices (GPS), that help in tracking their progress. And of course, they now also write blogs and stream live, as they race across the treacherous route! To follow this exciting race minute-by-minute check out : www.iditarod.com.
Resources: sbation.com,alaskadispatch,com,abcnews.go.com, iditarod.com