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Iditarod: The Last Great Race
Since the 1970s, I have been fascinated by the Iditarod; the 1,000-mile, approximately 10-day sled dog race in Alaska. In more recent years, I’ve seen mushers who tend their sled dogs in Alaska on TV shows, and have been impressed by the mushers’ devotion to their dogs, who are specially trained, love to run, and are well-cared for. This past Sunday, this year’s Iditarod officially began, so I decided to share what I’ve learned about the competition, the mushers, the care of the dogs, the Iditarod’s history, and its controversies.
This year there are 33 mushers with their dogs, a much smaller number than in past years:
- There are quite a few longtime Iditarod mushers who have stepped away from mushing in recent years, and there isn’t a big group of teams to replace them. Aside from the Seaveys, Aaron Burmeister and former champ Joar Leifseth Ulsom say they’re taking a break to be with family. Four-time winners Jeff King and Martin Buser, plus fan-favorite Aliy Zirkle also aren’t racing. Race icon Lance Mackey died last year.
- There’s also the cost. Many mushers say inflation has hit them hard with dog food prices doubling in the last couple years, plus many missed out on tourism income during COVID-19. Some estimate that running the Iditarod takes at least a $20,000 investment, and prize money has been stagnant for years as the Iditarod loses big-name sponsors.
Still, many long-time followers of the race say that those who have chosen to race will make it very competitive.
The dogs are conscientiously cared for by their owners:
Starting in 1984, all dogs are examined by veterinarians/nurses before the start of the race, who check teeth, eyes, tonsils, heart, lungs, joints, and genitals; they look for signs of illegal drugs, improperly healed wounds, and pregnancy. All dogs are identified and tracked by microchip implants and collar tags. On the trails, volunteer veterinarians examine each dog’s heart, hydration, appetite, attitude, weight, lungs, and joints at all of the checkpoints, and look for signs of foot and shoulder injuries, respiration problems, dehydration, diarrhea, and exhaustion. When mushers race through checkpoints, the dogs do not get physical exams. Mushers are not allowed to administer drugs that mask the signs of injury, including stimulants, muscle relaxants, sedatives, anti-inflammatories and anabolic steroids. As of 2005, the Iditarod claims that no musher has been banned for giving drugs to dogs. However the Iditarod never reveals the results of tests on the dogs.
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One man, Joe Reddington Sr., was dedicated to reviving the sled dog tradition:
He is quoted in Nan Elliot’s book, I’d Swap my Old Skidoo for You, ‘When I went out to the villages (in the 1950’s) where there were beautiful dogs once, a snow machine was sitting in front of a house and no dogs. It wasn’t good. I didn’t like that I’ve seen snow machines break down and fellows freeze to death out there in the wilderness. But dogs will always keep you warm and they’ll always get you there.’ He was determined to bring back the sled dog to Alaska and to get the Iditarod Trail declared as a National Historic Trail [which occurred in 1973].
Criticism for the sled dog races comes primarily from PETA. I have no doubt that there are some people who mistreat their dogs even when they are not racing, and house them in poor conditions. I also have no doubt that PETA publicizes the worst possible situations as representative of all mushers and their dogs.
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For me, the Iditarod represents the best of human beings vying for excellence and success. The mushers tolerate bitterly cold temperatures, treacherous routes that they encounter not only in the daytime but in the darkness; they fight exhaustion and draw on resilience. I have watched sled dogs jumping with excitement for the opportunity to run their hearts out. It is a demanding encounter that people and their dogs share against the elements.
They represent a rugged and powerful part of our American history and are a beacon to us today.Published in Culture
On the one visit to Alaska we went to a summer training camp for sled dogs and were pulled by a team in a wheeled cart. It was an amazing experience. The dogs love to run. Mostly the musher who was training the team in addition to providing us tourists with a ride was working to keep them on a gently pace rather than the flat out run the dogs wanted to give.
What a great experience! I’ve watched enough on TV to know if they are going fast enough and hit the path just right, they’ll toss you off! Not intentionally of course, but it’s quite amazing to watch and is harder than it looks.
I have been reading Craig Medred for years. He is an Alaska-based independent reporter who has written extensively about the Iditarod. Three articles are great background for anyone following this year’s race: Changing times, Iditarod rising, and Ever faster.
Wow, I looked over one of them: drama, excitement, controversy, speed–anything a good adventurer could ask for! Thanks, Rodin.
I moved to Anchorage in 1978, just five years after the first Iditarod (which I learned only recently–I thought it had been going on for much longer), and used to see teams doing practice runs in lengthier city parks along the roadsides. It’s really very exciting.
One thing to highlight in this “women’s history month,” or whatever, is that women have been consistently competitive in the races, with one period in the 80s featuring a popular T-shirt design: ALASKA where Men are Men and Women win the Iditarod. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win, in 1985, and Susan Butcher (4 time winner) came in 1st or 2nd the next five years straight, during which she broke or held time records. Tough ladies! All on their own. It was cancer that took out Susan, though a moose along the trail in 1985 tried pretty hard, killing two of her dogs and taking her out of the race. From 1980 to 1993, other than ’85 when she didn’t finish and one other year, she finished in the top 5. From 1979 to 1994, she finished in the top 10. Impressive athlete and team leader.
For those that don’t know the history, it is meant to commemorate a diphtheria outbreak (well, not commemorate the outbreak…keep reading) that was halted by an anti-serum run by dogsled from Nenana to Nome in late January/early February 1925. It’s a fascinating story featuring bravery, tenacity, and incredible strength of body and spirit by both men and dogs. They made it in just 5 1/2 days, using multiple teams in a relay, in incredibly difficult conditions. Wikipedia does a nice job–with Jack London short-story level excitement–describing the events. It’s one of those heroic public health stories worth noting and celebrating. I heard about it at length both as an Alaska resident of many (still, officially) years and while studying epidemiology of infectious disease in graduate school. Cool stuff!
Thank for drawing our attention to it, Susan, and for providing me a trot down memory lane.
Susan, this is interesting, but I’m confused by the title. Why did you call it the “last” great race?
It’s not the last Iditarod, is it? I don’t get that impression from your post.
So I take your use of “last” to mean that there are no other great races on the planet. I do have to disagree about that. I’m not a particular fan of races, but we still have the Dakar Rally, the Indy 500, the Triple Crown, the Tour de France, and others.
I read a little about Riddle and Butcher but had no idea about the anti-serum. Thanks for bringing that to us!
That must have been an incredible experience living in Alaska. The reality shows on Alaska are really something.
Good question! Here’s what I found on iditarod.edu:
The answer is pretty simple. It is called “The Last Great Race on Earth®” because in 1978, a reporter for the London ….. Ian Woolridge, wrote an article about the race. In the article, along with lots of other information, the reporter used the words, “The Last Great Race on Earth®” to explain his thoughts and observations about the race. What the reporter meant by those words was that the Iditarod was ‘the only really great race left.
A few years later, the Iditarod contacted the reporter and got permission to use the phrase. “The Last Great Race on Earth®” was trademarked and is a phrase still used today. (The emphasis is on GREAT RACE!)
I think the races you mention are great races, but all in their own categories.
Love to hear about dogs “jumping with excitement” … Great Race, great post.
The Iditarod isn’t the only mushing race that is declining. The Yukon Quest used to run from Fairbanks to Whitehorse (in Yukon Territory, Canada). There was a disagreement between the Fairbanks and Whitehorse committees and now the race is run separately in the two countries.
Even then, the number of entrants were declining before the breakup.
Mushing is an international sport (Wikipedia has a list of races worldwide). I don’t know about this year, but in previous years, the Iditarod has had entrants from outside North America.
Only in Iditarod are some contestants attacked by belligerent moose!
I guess until it happens to you, moose can be thought of as whimsical happy go lucky critters.
But they can really deliver quite a blow to either the musher or the dogs.
Also only in the Iditarod can the ground beneath your sled split away from the mainland and carry you and your sled and the dog team out to sea!
Try and beat those tight circumstances, NASCAR racing buffs!
Not only in Iditarod, Carol Joy. I clearly remember when this happened and was reported on TV news (I was living in Juneau by then). We were horrified, but especially by the lack of attempt to rescue the poor man. Short version of a short story: a mother moose trampled a 71 year-old man to death on the University of Alaska, Anchorage campus. Students had apparently been harassing the moose and her calf before the poor man tried to slip past to enter a building. Despite people hanging around, with cameras, it doesn’t seem like anyone tried to intervene or distract the animal long enough for the man to get away. Horrible story.
There are also dog sled races on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Upper Michigan.
That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve visited Michigan a few times, and the culture in the Upper Peninsula is similar to Alaska’s, as is the population density.