One of the world’s most famous races, and potentially one of its coldest, is the annual Iditarod competition. Believed to be derived from a local word which means “distant place,” this race is about 1,200 miles long and runs from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome. Run by sled dogs, the race itself has been designated as a National Historic Trail since 1978.
1. Three Rest Stops
There are three mandatory rest stops that racers must take during the Iditarod. There’s a 24 hour stop at any checkpoint, plus an 8 hour stop at the Yukon River, and then a final 8 hour rest stop at White Mountain. Beyond these three stops, racers and their dogs can continue running as they please. This means many racers don’t get much sleep over the 1,200 mile course.
2. Faster Than Horses
The sled dogs are remarkably agile draft animals for what they can accomplish. Their average speed of 12mph over long distances makes them faster than many horses. Sled dogs can even reach 20mph in short sprints from time to time. Pound for pound they also carry double the weight of a horse and feed off of animal proteins, making it easier to care for them along the trail as well.
3. More Modern Than Many Know
The first full-length Iditarod race didn’t occur until 1973. It was created as a way to honor the centennial year of Alaska in 1967 to honor the role that sled dog teams had in the development of the region, but that centennial race was just 27 miles long. Even in World War II, sled dog teams were patrolling the western lands of Alaska to prevent a northerly invasion by the Axis powers. Now racers from 14 different countries and 21 different US states regularly compete in this annual competition.
4. The State’s Largest Event
The Iditarod is easily the largest sporting event that is held in Alaska every year. Depending on the level of sponsorship, up to 30 different racers who finish in Nome may qualify for a cash prize. The winner of the Iditarod typically receives a prize of $50,000. More importantly, the race keeps the sled dog traditions alive in the villages along the traditional trail and shows that they are still a viable alternative to modern technology.
5. An Honorary Start
The Iditarod may start in Anchorage, but this part of the race is purely ceremonial. The time on the trail up to the first checkpoint doesn’t count toward the racer’s overall time. It’s actually a more difficult part of the race for many teams because the large crowds of people get the dogs overly excited and they struggle to stay on point. The true start of the race happens several hours later at the Eagle River check-in.
6. How To Qualify
Not just anyone can compete in the Iditarod. A sled dog team must first compete in three qualifying races in order to be included in the primary race. The cost of doing so are barely covered by the grand prize for winning the event. Between supplies for the animals, entry fees, and transportation costs, it is estimated that the average team will spend $30,000 per year just to compete in the Iditarod.
7. A Catch-22
To say that the Iditarod is primary a sport built for Alaska would be an understatement. It took 22 years from the first full-length race being run for a musher from outside of Alaska to win the Iditarod. That honor goes to a man named Doug Swingley and he was from Montana. Swingley has been victorious at the Iditarod 4x in total.
8. 1,001 Dogs
The average Iditarod race features 65 sled dog teams. Each team has an average of 16 dogs. That means there are more than 1,000 dogs that are racing in this event on any given year. Each dog is implanted with a microchip that is trackable along the length of the race. Each dog is treated at the checkpoints to make sure their health is being sustained and mushers are able to stock up on supplies. On of the first checkpoints, called Yentna Station, is famous because this 8 person community serves spaghetti dinners to racers in exchange for autographed posters.
9. The Story of Rick Swenson
Many mushers have competed in the Iditarod over the decades, but none may be more famous than Rick Swenson. He’s the only 5x winner of the event. He has also had his victories span over 30 years and is the only competitor with that distinction. It’s a remarkable accomplishment considering how tough this race course happens to be. As it was once described in National Geographic: “It’s not feats of strength or power lifting or anything like that. It’s just the ability to keep going.
10. A Photo Finish
Many of the Iditarod finishes have the racers spread far apart from each other. In 1978, however, the story was very different. Dick Mackey managed to be Rick Swenson at the finish line by just one second.
11. Four In a Row
Although he doesn’t have five victories under his belt, Lance Mackey is held in Iditarod lore for a different reason. He’s the only musher to have four consecutive Iditarod victories. He accomplished this in 2007-2010.
12. A Young Champion
In 2005, Dallas Seavey made history by becoming the youngest ever musher to compete in the Iditarod. At the time, he had just recently celebrated his 18th birthday. Now he’s creating history in a new way, having won the event 3x in total [2012, 2014, 2015]. Seavey also holds two out of the three top fastest times to Nome, at one point completing the journey in 8 days, 13 hours, and 4 minutes.
13. A Town Holiday
Anchorage and Nome are easily the two largest communities on the Iditarod course. Ranked #3 is the small town of Unalakleet, which has a population of just over 750 residents. There are two stores in the town and there are two restaurants. When the Iditarod is being run, the town treats the event as a holiday. Kids don’t go to school and there is a reception held to congratulate the mushers in reaching their community.
14. Everybody Wins
Some might call it a participation award, but the Red Lantern Award is still a noteworthy item to receive when racing in the Iditarod. It is given to the sled dog team which finishes in last place. The goal of this award is to honor the perseverance of the team because instead of giving up, they continued on into Nome to finish the race.
15. Everybody Competes
Another reason why the Iditarod is such a unique competition is that it is one of the few races where men and women compete together. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win the race and Susan Butcher won it four times. Butcher even managed to win three years in a row and 4 out of 5 years before retiring to begin raising a family. Butcher was also the first person to summit Mount McKinley with a sled dog team.
The Iditarod is an iconic race that celebrates the past, present, and future in a unique way. Although not everyone can race in this event, it is still something that everyone should experience in some way at least once.