Why the Iditarod? Of course it is a bit mind-boggling: why would a late middle aged desert rat who’s spent the bulk of her life in Arizona and New Mexico become a very intense fan of dog racing, in particular a special event held in Alaska well before the spring thaw sets in? Most years it is still close to the depths of winter in early March when the event takes place. This year has been unusually mild but last year they were inundated with snow! I am not going into the arguments about why—climate change does happen and from a complex and wide range of causes. ‘Nuff said.
Okay, back to my reasons. First the history of the Iditarod appeals to me. The race was established in the early 1970s to commemorate a real historic event when desperately needed vaccine and medicine was carried by dog sled across the frozen northland to the beleaguered folks of
Nome when a diphtheria
epidemic threatened the population. Featured on the weather channel a few years
back and in various documentary films and books, this is a tear-jerker,
especially for the heroic dogs. There is a statue to the lead dog in Nome and it’s stature is
right in there with Lassie and Gray Friar’s Bobby and Rin Tin Tin, a true
Next, it is an eclectic event. Old and young, male and female and people from as diverse places as
New Zealand, Brazil and Norway have now competed! This year
alone at least two known cancer survivors are competing and doing quite well
with three quarters of the race run now. They are veteran mushers Deedee
Johnrowe and Lance Mackey. Mackey is a four time winner of both the Iditarod
and the Yukon Quest, the other 1000 miler. There may be others but I know of
those two. Last year Dallas Seavey, a third generation musher, became the
youngest Iditarod winner to date at the age of 24. This year the sixty plus
mushers range in age from 19 (Rohn Buser, son of musher Martin Buser) to 73 year old Jim Lanier. There are several
in their sixties. The average age is
around 45 I would say without actually doing the math. There are even a pair of
identical twin sisters running this time and sticking together on the journey,
not going for the win but just to complete the race and demonstrate their love
for the sport. A number of the racers have a similar philosophy but some are
So consider this—they are traveling 1000 miles (this year’s course is actually 998 due to some minor changes in the start and initial short leg of the route.) and much of it walking or running by the sled or at least pushing, a bit like riding a scooter, to help the dogs. They are crossing rivers and mountains, wading through snow drifts and other than one 24 hour mandatory layover near the middle and another two eight hour stops, they seldom rest more than 4-6 hours out of each twenty four at various check points or spots they choose to camp. They travel this distance in about ten days of actual sledding. The fastest run to date made by John Baker, the 2011 winner, was 8 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes and 39 seconds!! Now I call that a real athletic feat!
Sure, you can talk about the speed, the endurance needed to run a 25 mile marathon, or the Iron Man triathlete style competition of run, swim and bike but such pale in comparison in my not-humble opinion! And many of these mushers are middle aged people or even ‘seniors’. Heck yes, I admire them!
Add to that the fact I am a real dog lover. Dogs that have jobs and perform them with their whole heart will win my affection any day. I love the herding dogs, admire and appreciate those used by the military and law enforcement, and service and therapy dogs. But the huskies and other breeds and mixes that are used for dog sledding again are the champs among the champs! They are given excellent care, monitored by veterinarians at all stages of the race, and watched keenly by their mushers, but they give their whole to this race and others in which they run.
They run for the love of it and for their musher handlers. There is a strong bond between musher and team; occasionally someone will run dogs they have not raised and trained but often the dogs each musher runs come from his or her kennel and have been bonded from puppyhood on. They are all named and spoken of in terms of partners and family. They have their place in the lash up as well. Of course the lead pair are the alphas and carry the burden of being the leaders. A good lead dog or pair is essential!
For the major races, most mushers start off with sixteen dogs. This allows them to drop or take out of the harness any animals that become lame or have problems. It is not unusual to drop several dogs during the course of the race. If a dog gets sick or lame in route it’s not uncommon for the musher to put it on the sled and ride it in to the nearest check point. Dropped dogs are given whatever care they need and flown out if their issues are life threatening. Volunteers help care for them at the checkpoints and if they are moved. All eventually return to their kennels or the start or end point to be reunited with their mates and musher.
If a musher gets down below a certain number in the team, I think it is eight, they must scratch for that is not enough ‘power’ to race without harm to those dogs. A musher can voluntarily drop a dog or a dog may be removed by a veterinarian at any check point. Very few whole teams complete the entire race despite the rigorous training and conditioning they are given. Now and then a musher realizes he or she cannot go on and scratches but that is rare. So far this year, six racers have left the competition for various reasons.
So that’s my reasons. They do not call it “the last great race” for nothing. I will never participate and probably never even watch part of it in person but I can still be a fan and maybe make some of the booties the dogs run though in dozens or help in some other small way because this is truly a great thing!.