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Your Guide to the Alaskan Iditarod

Your Guide to the Alaskan Iditarod

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Most people wouldn't call it sport, but it is. Alaska's famous Iditarod is a grueling 1,150-mile race through the wilderness, from Anchorage to Nome, a testing course for the racers - and the dogs that run with them.

The race, which starts March 5, will barrel across the Alaska range, through narrow, iced-up gorges and dense forests; finally, a freezing run across windswept Alpine tundra will end - 9 to 12 days after the start - on the shores of the Bering Sea.

Along the way, teams encounter just about every problem nature can throw at them: Temperatures can fall to far below zero; there are violent storms that leave racers stranded and winds that reduce visibility to just about zero; unexpected thaws can make crossing seemingly frozen rivers a dangerous gamble. There are long hours of darkness, and mushers - the racers who drive the teams - are often bleary-eyed with exhaustion and prime candidates for frostbite. No wonder 15 percent of the 60 to 70 teams that start the race each year never finish, dropping out long before they reach the sea.

Dog Power

What propels the race is dog power - the combined strength, determination and speed of 12 to 16 dogs harnessed to a sled loaded with up to 150 pounds of wilderness-survival gear: axes, snowshoes, sleeping bag, cooker, dog booties (fabric slippers the dogs wear to protect their feet), veterinary notebook and food - for both man and beast. The dogs' endurance, and brute strength is quite remarkable: each team, which stretches longer than an 18-wheeler, is capable of dragging a pickup truck with its brakes set on packed snow.

One musher runs with each team - and, since race rules stipulate that the dogs either have to be on the line or on the sled, most of the dogs will be running at any given time.

The dogs' tasks vary. Lead dogs respond to the mushers' commands, and, since the dogs operate as a pack, the other animals follow along. Just behind the lead dog are the swing dogs, followed by wheel dogs, which run right in front of the sled. These animals are usually a little larger and more muscular than the other dogs on the team, responsible for turning the sled without tipping it and for keeping the sled from hitting trees and other obstacles along the course.

Most sled dogs fall into the generic category of "Alaskan husky," which is a mutt by another name - albeit a mutt with splendid genealogy. They are not an AKC-registered breed because they have no appearance standard. And the dogs certainly aren't cheap. A good sled dog can cost $3,000 or $4,000. A good lead dog can go for up to $10,000.

Roots of the Race

The race traces its roots back to the winter of 1925, and a mission of mercy. That year, Nome was hit by an epidemic of diphtheria, then a deadly disease. Trains carrying medication were sent from Anchorage to the village of Nenana, where the track ended. From there, mushers picked up the serum and raced it almost 700 miles into the city, arriving six days later with the life-saving serum.

Today's race, whose modern form was set in 1973, celebrates the memory of those racers and commemorates the Iditarod National Historic Trail, which was, for decades, the state's main mail route, with packages and letters carried by dogsled.

Most teams train year-round, running several races and gradually building up strength, endurance and speed. During the Iditarod itself, mushers sign in at 20 checkpoints; mandatory rest stops include one 24-hour respite and two eight-hour stops, but most mushers average only about two hours' sleep per day. During the stops, the dogs take priority: they are fed before anyone else and the mushers carefully check them for fatigue and injury. They are trained to rest during the stops. Foot care is also crucial, as the dogs' pads are prone to injury - cuts and bruises from running over snow and ice.

At each checkpoint, the dogs are also monitored by veterinarians: Injured, sick or fatigued animals must be carried on the sled or left behind with the vets at the checkpoint and flown on to Nome after being cared for.

If a musher is found mistreating a dog, he is automatically expelled from the race. In addition to examining the dogs for illness or injury, the vets check the animals for signs of drugs that enhance performance or suppress signs of injury.

Financing the Run

Running the race is no cheap undertaking. Race officials estimate that it costs a musher $25,000 to $30,000 for the race itself (which includes entry fees of $1,750 plus supplies for both dogs and humans). Those costs escalate, though, if you add in the dogs' year-round care. According to officials, it probably costs $50,000 to $60,000 annually to maintain a team of dogs.

And, though much of the work is done by volunteers, the race itself is big business with an annual price tag of nearly $1 million for preparing the trail, shipping supplies to the various checkpoints - as well as prize money.

Support for the race as well as for individual mushers comes largely from local sponsors, all of whom must be prepared for complaints from animal rights groups.

Anti-race activists claim it is inhumane to put dogs in harness and make them run. But race officials and enthusiasts maintain that everyone involved is a dog lover - and that these dogs love to run.