The Iditarod

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In 1973, 34 mushers and their dog teams lined to take part in a race that recreated a 1925 event where medicine was delivered by dog sled to the remote town of Nome, Alaska.

Since then, the race has become a global phenomenon and is the best-known dog sled race in the world. 

Learn more about the Iditarod on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

For at least 2,000 years, humans have been using dogs to pull sleds in the Arctic. 

Horses were not in North America and even if they were, as was seen in Siberia, they weren’t a good option so far north. There would be nothing to eat in the winters as there was no grass to graze on. 

The use of sled dogs as a common and regular means of transportation lasted well into the 20th century in Alaska. It wasn’t until the development of automobiles, bush planes, and snowmobiles that dog sleds declined in popularity. 

There was one particular case when dog sleds were of vital importance. In 1925 there was a large outbreak of diphtheria in Nome, Alaska. There was a serum that could be used to treat the people who had the disease, but the closest supply was in the town of Nenana deep in the Alaskan interior, and almost 600 miles away.

A relay was set up of 20 different sled dog teams which managed to bring the serum to Nome in only 6 days. 

The lead dog on the last team which arrived in Nome was named Balto and he became famous. There was a movie about Balto and there is a statue dedicated to Balto in Central Park in New York City.

Fast forward to the 1960s and dog sledding was quickly losing popularity in Alaska. Mechanized transportation had taken over the job formerly handled by sled dogs. 

In 1964, the new state of Alaska was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the purchase of the Alaskan Territory from Russia. To celebrate, the idea was hatched to hold a sled dog race along the Iditarod Trail.

The Iditarod Trail was a collection of trails used by native Alaskans and eventually was used by European settlers to connect Nome and Western Alaska to the rest of the state by land. 

The first race along the Iditarod Trail was held in 1967. The race had a large purse of $25,000 dollars and it attracted 58 mushers. 

However, the next year it was canceled due to a lack of snow, and in 1969, the prize money was only $1,000, which depressed interested in the event. 

The modern race was started in 1973. They did a fundraising campaign, got corporate sponsors, and raised the prize money to over $50,000 dollars. 

The route was between Anchorage and Nome, although nowadays Anchorage is only the location of a ceremonial start for the press and the public. The official starting line is now in the town of Wasilla, just outside of Anchorage. 

The route is just under 1,000 miles long. 

The first winner in 1973 was Dick Wilmarth who won the race in 20 days, 49 minutes. 

In 1977 they added a southern route which is now used in odd-numbered years, and it changes about a quarter of the total route. 

There aren’t a lot of people who compete in dog sledding, and the vast majority of them, not surprisingly, live in Alaska. It isn’t a very lucrative sport as there are only a handful of competitions each year, and the prize money, if you are the very best in the sport, will usually only cover your cost of dog food for the year. 

In the 48 year history of the race, you will find a lot of repeat winners. 

7 competitors have won the race four times, with the record of 5 held by Rick Swenson. 

There is no women’s division, and there isn’t really a need for one. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win the race in 1985, and Susan Butcher is one of the four-time champions. 

There are also several families which have been heavily represented. 

Mitch Seavy is a 3-time winner and his son Dallas is a 4x winner. In fact, in 2017 Mitch, the father beat his son who took second place. Mitch became the oldest Iditarod winner at the age of 58. He also set the record time in 2017 at 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes, and 13 seconds.  

Dallas Seavy is the youngest winner ever at the age of 25.

The other family which is heavily represented is the Mackay family. Dick Mackay won in 1978, his son Rick won in 1983, and his other son Lance won four consecutive races from 2007 to 2010. 

Dick’s 1978 victory was the closest in history. He won the race in 14 days, 18 hours 52 minutes, and 24 seconds… second faster than the runner-up. In fact, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the finish because while his lead dog crossed the finish line a second ahead, he had 8 dogs. Runner-up Rick Swenson only had 6 dogs, and his person crossed the finish line just before Mackay. 

Speaking of Lance Mackay, the Iditarod is one of two major dog sledding competitions each year. The other is the Yukon Quest which goes between Whitehorse, Yukon, and Fairbanks, Alaska. It is actually considered a much more difficult race and very few mushers ever compete in both events due to the grueling and difficult nature of the races. 

However, in 2007, Lance Mackay became the first person ever to win both races in a single year, and in fact, the second person to have won both races period after this father. It was something most people thought was impossible. He then repeated the feat in 2008, completing his fourth consecutive Yukon Quest victory. 

All three members of the Mackay family won the race on their 6th attempt, and they all wore number 13. Brenda Mackey is competing this year, and she is the third generation of Mackey’s to compete in the race.

The route of the race has changed in the past. In years with insufficient snow, the race has started in Fairbanks. In 2021, due to COVID-19, the route will be avoiding many of the small towns, and mushers and support staff will have to camp outside. 

In a normal race, there are 26 checkpoints where the mushers check-in and get supplies, which are delivered by their team before the start of the race. There is one mandatory 24 hours stop that has to be made to rest the dogs, and there are vets at every stop to check on the health and condition of the dogs. 

2021 will also be the first year that the race isn’t ending in Nome. 

The 2020 winner, Thomas Waerner of Norway, was stuck in Alaska for several months after the race due to flight restrictions 

The Iditarod isn’t really what you would call a spectator sport. Other than the ceremonial start, and maybe the finish, there is almost no one along the route watching the teams compete. The only way to follow is online and that involves just getting updates from the various checkpoints. 

As of the time I am recording this the 2021 race has just begun and they should be on the trail for at least the next week. If you want to follow the race, just visit the Iditarod website where you can get not quite up to the minute results on what is considered the world’s last great race.