Do 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?
Well 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.
The 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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