Look back at the race results from the early 1970s and you’ll see dog mushers who took a month or more to complete Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. In 1973, the first year of Iditarod, winner Dick Wilmarth raced for 20 days to reach Nome first, while Red Lantern recipient John Schultz took 32 days.
Not so today. With improved trails, high-tech gear and dogs who are trained as thoroughly as Olympic athletes, the race has taken on a frenetic pace that is approaching a weeklong event. Dogs and their mushers are now racing the 1,049-mile Iditarod in less than nine days. In 2011, Kotzebue’s John Baker set the race record, winning the race in eight days,18 hours, 46 minutes, 39 seconds. Last year’s Red Lantern, last-place finisher, by comparison, was Jan Steves, who finished in 14 days, 11 hours, 57 minutes and 3 seconds. That time would have given her a whopping victory and $12,000 prize in the inaugural Iditarod.
“This year we have seven returning champions and numerous runner-ups, so we have a really highly competitive field out there,” said Iditarod spokeswoman Erin McLarnon. “I think there are some anxious mushers out there.”
This year is the 41st running of Iditarod, with 68 mushers still registered to race as of mid-January. They come from all over the world, including New Zealand, Russia, Norway, Brazil and Jamaica. Only 12 are rookies, while the rest are looking to better their previous race placements.
Among the front-runners are Willow’s Dallas Seavey, whose victory last year made him the youngest musher to ever win the race; Two Rivers’ Aliy Zirkle, who placed second last year and is the sport’s top female racer; and Peter Kaiser, a Bethel dog musher who has inched his way up in the standings from 28th in 2010, his rookie year, to fifth-place last year; and Baker, who tasted victory in 2011 and is hoping for a comeback this year.
“With all these returning champions, both Seaveys, the Busers, it’s going to be interesting,” McLarnon said. Not to be overlooked, she added, are Lance Mackey, who won four Iditarods in a row, from 2007 to 2010, and Jake Berkowitz, who recently placed third behind Mackey in the Top of the World 350 Sled Dog Race. He had to be withdrawn from last year’s Iditarod after suffering a deep cut on his hand, but his team is back on track and ready to race.
The race kicks off Saturday, March 2, with the ceremonial start in Anchorage. The re-start will begin the next day in Willow. The race follows the odd-year, southern route, which puts it at just under 1,000 miles. At Ophir, the trail heads south toward Iditarod and Anvik (in even years, it veers north to Ruby and Galena) then reconnects at Kaltag.
For more details on the race, visit www.iditarod.com.