Monday, March 09, 2009

Iditarod 2009: "The Last Great Race"

Iditarod Race in Anchorage, AlaskaDo you know about the Iditarod?

It is the most amazing race in the entire world. In simple terms it's a sled-dog race here in Alaska but that doesn't give you any idea of the scope of what the race encompasses.

Named after the Iditarod Trail the Iditarod Sled Dog Race starts in Anchorage in southcentral Alaska and then each musher with their team of 12-16 dogs crosses 1150 miles of the harshest terrain on the planet in winter to the finish line in Nome on the Bering Sea on Alaska's western coast.

In 8-15 days.

It isn't surprising I suppose, given the fact that this is an amazing state and so many interesting things are always happening here but can you imagine getting on a sled with your dogs and heading off into one of the most desolate and dangerous places on the planet all by yourself with nothing between you and death but your sleeping bag?

Iditarod Race in Anchorage, AlaskaWell the Iditarod begins the first Saturday in March and we took the kids downtown to see the start of the race. It's actually a little deceptive because what we see in Anchorage is actually a "false start" and is mostly for show and to build up the crowds (as if we need any more excitement about this event). After sledding through downtown Anchorage along 4th and Cordova Avenues (they stop traffic when a team goes by) they move the mushers and dogs further up the Trail to Wasilla where the race actually begins and they have the real start for the race there.

The Iditarod Trail has been around for ages and ages but the Iditarod Race started in 1973 as a way to celebrate dog sled racing and Alaska's heritage but it's grown until mushers from all over the world train and compete. The race course between Anchorage and the coast alternates to go through Cripple, Ruby and Galena one year and the next to go through Shageluk and Anvik. There isn't any one particular strategy for finishing first but there always a lantern hung in Nome (the "Widow's Lamp") which stays lit until the last musher has crossed the finish line.

Iditarod Race in Anchorage, AlaskaThe record time is held by Martin Buser who finished the full 1181 miles in just over 8 days, 22 hours if you can even imagine such a feat.

There have been various groups over the years that have objected to the Iditarod, thinking that perhaps the dogs were being mistreated or misused, and while there have been isolated and infrequent accounts of dogs being abused those reports are anomalies and the dogs are treated like the star athletes they are. I'm not someone who has ever bonded with an animal but I'll tell you, seeing a team of these dogs go by is impressive--they are really are athletes.

You'd think that holding the race at a warmer time would be better for the dogs and mushers but actually there have been times when the temperatures rise enough that it causes the dogs to get overheated. This year's race has had good conditions so far--lots of snow (in some instances, they've had to clear off the trail) and temperatures around 20 which allow the dogs to maintain a good body temperature. As long as the trail is easy to find it should be a good race.

Anyway, the Iditarod has become the "it" event for Alaska over the years. My cousin who works at the Anchorage Daily News told me that only Sarah Palin could come close to driving the same amount of traffic to the ADN website as the Iditarod.

This year there are 67 mushers but the one to watch is Lance Mackey, a father of four who lives with his wife in Fairbanks and who has done things no one thought possible. It's interesting, I'd never been much interested in the Iditarod in the past but last year I saw a program about Mackey that was so inspirational it really changed my feelings about the race.

You see, Lance Mackey comes from a dog mushing family--Iditarod royalty you'd say--his father Dick Mackey helped found the race and won by 1 second over Rick Swenson in 1978 and his half-brother Rick has also won. All three Mackeys won the race on their 6th attempt and each one was wearing bib number 13 when they won. Funny huh?

In Lance's previous attempts he'd had difficulty completing the race at all some years and had never done particularly well. Then he was diagnosed with cancer and had to drop out for treatments and healing time. He eventually got back into mushing but had some residual damage to the nerves in his finger that made things so painful that he eventually elected to have his finger amputated.

His story had more to it but it was all very interesting and touching and after it was over you couldn't help but root for him again this year while he's wearing bib number 47.

But Mackey's story is just one of the many associated with the race and the historic Seward-to-Nome Iditarod Trail. My children's school classes often assign each child their own musher whom they are required to track from check point to check point but you can visit Iditarod.com to see for yourself how it's going.

As for me? I can report that they left Anchorage looking might fine--see for yourself! No wonder they call this "The Last Great Race."


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35 comments:

branda50 said...

The race is so interesting...
It's one thing(not race)I wanted to do when we went to AK but as there's snow July it was hard to ride on the back of a snow sled..We did meet Susan Butcher..
Thanks for the video and the story...So cool..I wish I could have been there....

Michemily said...

So cool!

Sage said...

They have just showed the 2008 running of this race on UK tv and it was fascinating... fantastic to see the bond between dog and men/women.. (go Deedee Jonrowe) and the conditions of the race.

CWDkids said...

I love hearing what is going on in your state. I can't wait to share your post with my children!

Ashley, with CWDkids

Kathy G said...

Sled-dog racing is SO exotic; I think perhaps that's why non-Alaskans are so interested in it.

a Tonggu Momma said...

We have a children's book about Balto the dog. I've always wondered if the Ititarod began because of the medicine trek. Do you know?

jacjewelry said...

1150 miles! That is amazing. From the pictures it looks like the dogs have little shoes on - I wonder if they last the entire race or get worn out and have to be replaced?

CountessLaurie said...

Wow, very cool! Now I have to go google this, because I have sooo many questions. Thanks for sharing!

Lisa said...

Our elementary school does a program on the Iditarod. So when we made it up to Alaska this past summer, we made sure to visit a dog camp. It was really cool to see the dogs and the puppies and hear about the race. Very interesting!

Scribbit said...

JaC-The shoes are felt and yes they get replaced though the dogs don't always run with them on. It depends on the weather and conditions if I remember correctly. I went dog mushing one year with my family and at the kennel they had the little booties in a cup and they really are pretty thin, it's just to protect those pads.

Tonguu--the 1925 serum run to Nome is part of the history of the trail but the race didn't start until many years later. I'm afraid that at that time dog sleds were a way of survival more than a way of recreation :)

Heather said...

I think those dogs actually enjoy pulling the sleds don't they? I suppose it's hard to know for sure, but I'd guess they enjoy it.

Scribbit said...

I think so Heather--it's probably not that different from race horses or other animals that compete. These dogs are very lean and rather high strung and used to working together. Most of the mushers are very connected to their animals and the checkpoints along the trail are designed to help take care of both the musher and the dogs' health to avoid any tragedies.

J Fife said...

Love the Iditarod! Thanks for sharing your view of the race.

Tim Appleton (Applehead) said...

Eating Lamb from a million miles away and now this?!?! Writing about poor little dogs being tortured, Having to drag men trough the wilderness in freezing temps...

Thank for sharing the video. I would to see it live.

Mindyleigh said...

I just posted a link to some pictures from the Willow restart and linked to this post! Great pictures. Thanks for sharing. Two other great children's book about the race are "Togo" and "Granite."

Hairline Fracture said...

Fascinating. I knew about the race but not all the details. Thanks for sharing.

Qtpies7 said...

What fun! I'd love to watch the start, even if it wasn't the real start.

angie said...

I had NO idea that the iditarod encompassed so many miles or days. Just amazing.......and how exciting that you get to witness it first hand! :)

ThisFullHouse said...

Oh, how fun and I boy...yeah...you still have lots of snow. I showed my youngest the video and she asked, "Does she know Balto" and I bet you get that a lot, huh?

Lucy said...

I a.l.m.o.s.t. got to go to the Iditarod in 2005 with a group from the elementary school I worked at. But I just couldn't justify the nearly thousand-some dollars for just Friday through Sunday night. So I turned it down. That would have been only one complete day there. Someday.

Kelly @ Love Well said...

This whole post made me smile, Michelle. I'm SO READY for spring, but as it's still weeks away, it's fun to see people enjoying the winter that remains.

(There was a story in the Minneapolis paper today about a musher from MN competing in this year's Iditarod. From one cold place to another....)

Suzie B. said...

Looks exciting! (I feel guilty, though, having watched that in the comfort of my warm living room.) Thank you for sharing.

Jenn said...

I loved this post. I will follow the race after reading your post. I have heard of it before, but never knew when it started. I could never remember the name of it either. Thanks. My kids will also enjoy following too!

Darcie - Such The Spot said...

The participants (human and not) in that race are so amazing. And brave!

Amy @ Experience Imagination said...

I didn't realize that the race was only 35 years old. I guess I'd seen some movie or other years ago and was thinking the history went back to the turn of the (previous) century.

Enzie at World Market Portraits said...

This post was very interesting! And there is still so much snow on the ground - wau! In California the poppies are blooming and for the most part we have warm spring weather.

Mommy Cracked said...

Oh wow! I wish I could see that in person. The pictures are fabulous! I just recently read an article about the Iditarod in a truck driver magazine, of all places! Haha! It was a great article and really explained how tough the dogs and the people who lead them are.

SabineM said...

Always wanted to see it live! What an amazing post! Thank you for sharing!

Maddy said...

I'm not quite sure why but I thought it had been going for a lot longer than that. This either means that I am much younger than I thought or alternatively that I am far older!
Cheers

Heather said...

I don't know about there, but down this way, we can watch televised updates on the Iditarod in the evenings. My hubby and I love it.
I grew up with race dogs and hunting dogs and these dogs are bred for what they do. They live for it.
Thanks for the great post!!!

JENNIFER said...

SIGH....my list of "things I must see in Alaksa" is growing longer and longer I better stop reading your blog or my 7 kids, hubby and I may end up your house guests. :) JK

cndymkr / jean said...

I just had my son watch this video. Great job. Then we watched the claymation video. Hysterical. Now he wants to do one. What have you started?!!

Erin said...

I remember keeping track of the race in elementary school! I lived in Fairbanks for grades K-3 and every year there would be a huge "dog sled tracking mural" in the hallway of my school. Each class would pick one or two teams to track and would decorate a paper life sized dog to represent the class's team. As the team advanced in the race the dog would advance along the wall. Fun!

Dana said...

Well, living in Fairbanks, of course I *have* to correct you that the Yukon Quest is the toughest sled dog race in the world (why else would it take longer if it is the same person running the iditarod or the quest?) :)

The booties are to keep snow balls from forming between the dog's toes, and also to protect the toes from icy sections of the trail. The mushers go through a lot of them, and if you ski on a trail where a race was held, you can find many.

Related, a couple links:
http://newsminer.com/news/2009/mar/09/conn-makes-ground-snare-one-dog-class-junior-north/
for a nice pic of a young kid racing this past weekend here in Fairbanks, and a really funny profile of Sebastian Schnuelle http://www.yukonquest.com/site/news-articles/?articleid=1706, partly because the guy sounds like a character, and partly in response to one of the above comments regarding mistreatment of animals - most of these people care a ton about their dogs.

And, by the way, the new 42c alaska stamp has a pic of DeeDee Jonrowe in Rainy Pass during some iditarod.

Nice job, Michelle, keep it up!

ooglebloops said...

Very cool - did I see booties on the feet of those dogs?? Good point about the temps having to be low enough so the dogs don't get overheated. I wouldn't have thought of that in Alaska!!!