The Iditarod is a unique event and unlike any other in the world. The race is over 1140 miles in some of the most beautiful yet extreme terrain known to man. For those of you who are not familiar with the Iditarod, it is an annual sled dog race held in Alaska. It can take anywhere from eleven to seventeen days to finish, although a new record was broken in 2002 by Martin Buser when he finished the race in eight days, twenty two hours, forty six minutes, and two seconds. Teams have been known to race through treacherous conditions in freezing cold temperatures and wind chills that can reach -100 degrees Fahrenheit. While most of the competitors are natives from Alaska, competitors from at lease fourteen countries have also completed the race. Martin Buser as previously mentioned was a Swiss competitor who won his first race in 1992 and then again in 2002.
Many parts of the Iditarod train were believed to be used by the Native American Inuit people hundreds of years prior to the race. The first means of communication and transportation in this part of Alaska used was the steamship, but during the months from October to June the most northern parts became icebound. Dog sleds began to be the only means of delivering mail, firewood, food, mining equipment, and other needed supplies between the trading posts. By the 1960s however, dog sledding was hardly seen as the use of snowmobiles had become a more popular and fast way to travel.
The very first dog sled race was extremely popular with the Natives to Alaska and was held in 1908. It ran 408 miles from Nome to Candle and then back; Alexander Allan, or “Scotty” was the man who started it all. These initial races introduced the Siberian Huskies to Alaska and they were soon found to be the favorite among dog racing. The main route of the Iditarod extended 938 miles from Seward in the south to Nome in the northwest. Walter Goodwin was the first to survey the land. It was then cleared and marked by the Alaska Road Commission in 1910 and 1911, making the entire area 2450 miles long. Modern Racers today follow much of the same parts of that historic trail.
More than fifty Mushers enter the race each year in hopes of a victory. Some are professionals who actually make a living selling their dogs and running sled dog tours. Others are amateurs that make their living from hunting, fishing, or other seasonal jobs, or such people as lawyers, doctors, and even biologists. Only experienced mushers are allowed to enter and compete in the Iditarod however. If you are new to mushing, or a “rookie” you must pre-qualify by finishing an array of qualifying races before you are allowed to run in the Iditarod. The entry fees for one musher can be anywhere between $20,000 to $30,000 but can vary depending on what kind of dogs you have, what you feed them, and how you choose to live during those grueling three weeks. Most modern teams can use between $10,000 to $40,000 running their team, and some of the top sled teams have spent $80,000 to $100,000.
The original sled dogs were the Alaskan malamutes which were bred from wolves. They were crossbred with the Alaskan huskies, hounds, setters, German shepherds and wolves because of black market demands. Siberian huskies were introduced in the 20th Century and became the most popular racing breed. The racing dogs today are bred and trained for toughness, endurance, good attitude, and of course the desire to run. There has been some controversy with animal rights groups since the beginning of the races. Animal protection activists say that the Iditarod is dog abuse, and does not qualify as a test for human perseverance. They are critical of the races because some dogs have died and been severely injured during the race. Their case has been justified in some instances wherein the competitors have been suspended for abusing their dogs.
The Iditarod is unique in itself because you can’t compare it to any other race in the world. With the unknown terrain and weather conditions you never know what you’re up against.