1. The word Iditarod is thought to come from the Ingalik and Holikachuk word hidedhod, which means “distant place.”
2. The Iditarod is the longest dog sled race in the world. It starts on the first Saturday in March every year in Anchorage, Alaska and ends about 1,200 miles away in Nome.
3. Teams are required to make three rest stops during the race: first, a 24-hour stop at any checkpoint; then, an eight-hour stop at any checkpoint on the Yukon River; last, an eight-hour stop at White Mountain, the last stop before the finish line in Nome. For the rest of the race, mushers and their dogs get little—if any—sleep, though they do stop at checkpoints for meals. In this respect, older mushers are at an advantage, as they usually are able to function better without sleep.
4. Sled dogs are exceptional draft animals for several reasons: They are faster than horses, able to run at up to 12 mph for hundreds of miles and at over 20 mph for shorter periods; they can pull about twice as much weight as horses, pound for pound; they can eat the meat of dead animals easily found in the winter, while horses require grains and hay.
5. The Iditarod Trail was used for hundreds of years by the Inupiaq and Athabascans as a link among native villages. The trail got a lot of traffic when miners used the trail during a gold strike in the early 1920s, and it served as the main thoroughfare across Alaska for decades afterward, used for mail delivery, transport of goods, and travel for people who moved from village to village—mainly judges and clergymen.
6. After the rise of the airplane in the late 1920s and the snowmobile in the 1960s, the use of dog teams became less common in Alaska, though many native villages continue to rely on them for short-distance transportation.
7. Congress designated the Iditarod a National Historic Trail in 1978.
8. One of the most colorful Iditarod mushers in recent history was Col. Norman Vaughan, who competed in 13 races, his last when he was in his 80s. In 1977 he brought sled dogs to the Presidential Inauguration to represent Alaska.
9. Vaughan died in 2005, four days after turning 100, but first he had a large birthday celebration, during which he took his first sips of alcohol because he had promised his mother he wouldn’t drink until he was 100.
10. Dog teams helped the Alaska Territorial Guard patrol western Alaska and run search-and-rescue missions during World War II.
11. In 1964, Dorothy Page, chairwoman of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial, conceived of the race as a way to celebrate Alaska’s centennial year, 1967, by observing the central role of dog teams and the then-abandoned Iditarod Trail in Alaskan history. Her greatest supporter was Joe Redington Sr., a musher from the Knik area who helped her promote the idea of the race and raise funds for a $25,000 prize. Redington and his wife, Vi, even donated an acre of their land. With the money raised and with brush from the trail cleared by volunteers, the first race on the trail—then much shorter, at about 27 miles—was held in 1967 on the Susitna Valley portion of the trail.
12. The first full-length race took place in 1973. Despite naysayers afraid of sending mushers into such wild territory, the race was successful, with 22 finishers from across the world.
13. Nikolai, an Athabascan village, is the first native village that serves as an Iditarod checkpoint. For the villagers, who numbered 100 in the 2000 census, the passing of dog teams is a huge event.
14. Mushers have hailed from 21 U.S. states and 14 foreign countries.
15. Volunteerism is key to the Iditarod, and indigenous people play a central role. The Athabascan in Nikolai are hunters who place great importance on sharing all resources. The children in Nikolai run a restaurant solely for the Iditarod mushers, and adults are chosen to volunteer by drawing names from a hat. There is one large building in the village that serves as a place to sleep for those mushers who decide to take their 24-hour break here. Other Athabascan villages on the trail include Galena, Nulato and Kaltag.
16. That first full-length Iditarod in 1973 took much longer to complete than the races since, largely because mushers had to break through uncleared brush on much of the trail. The winner, Dick Wilmarth, reached Nome in about three weeks.
17. The Iditarod is now the largest, best-known sporting event in Alaska, with corporate sponsors and a first-place prize of about $50,000 and smaller cash prizes to the top 30 mushers, changing every year depending on funding. It also has promoted the sled dog as an honored tradition, keeping sled dogs a viable alternative to snowmobiles (especially in rural villages) and leading to a resurgence in recreational dog sledding.
18. Dorothy Page told The Iditarod Runner in 1979, “I don’t ever want to see high-pressure people getting in and changing the spirit of the race. We brought the sled dog back and increased the number of mushers. It is really an Alaskan event. I think the fact that it starts in Anchorage and then ends in Nome has opened up a whole new area for people in Alaska. I think they appreciate that.”
19. In 1925, sled dog teams played a crucial role in averting a diphtheria outbreak on the verge of becoming an epidemic. The disease was spreading quickly across Nome, but the nearest serum was in Anchorage, nearly 1,200 miles away. With no pilots available to fly in the treacherous weather—the only one thought fit for the task was out of state at the moment—and seaports iced over, organizers set up a relay system of dog teams, wherein each village along the route offered its strongest dog team. The 20 volunteer mushers and their dogs transported the serum to Nome in less than six days—enough time to prevent the epidemic, saving hundreds of lives. A statue of Balto, the dog that carried the serum at the end of the chain, stands in Central Park in New York City.
20. In 1933, an Alaskan musher promoting the region’s push for statehood, drove a team of wolves from Alaska to the Chicago World’s Fair.
21. Every winter, race organizers host an auction where the top bidder wins the opportunity to ride on one of the dog sleds for the first 11 miles.
22. The start in Anchorage actually is a ceremonial start, and the leg of the trail before the first checkpoint does not count toward one’s race time in the true wilderness. Sometimes, organizers have to bring in trucks full of snow to cover the avenues of Anchorage. Some mushers dislike this portion of the race because the crowds make their dogs overly excited. After several hours of warming up, the teams check in at Eagle River and drive with their dogs to an isolated restart point.
23. To compete in the Iditarod, a musher must complete three qualifying races. As of 2006, the estimated cost of the entry fee, supplies, dog care and transportation was from $20,000 to $30,000.
24. The dog sleds used today are modeled on those designed by the Inupiaq and Yup’ik tribes of the Bering Strait long before Russians reached Alaska. These tribes made their sleds of latticed wood atop ski-like gliders. Usually, about three dogs pulled the sled together, with no leader, while their master ran ahead to guide them.
25. To incorporate towns and villages not on the original Iditarod Trail, the race now has checkpoints in even years that are north of the original checkpoints. In total, there are 26 checkpoints on the northern route and 27 on the southern one.
26. The end of the race sees each team that reaches the finish line running down Nome’s Front Street and through the city’s “burled arch,” with crowds and fire sirens congratulating them even if they finish in the middle of the night.
27. In 1995, Doug Swingley of Montana became the first musher from outside of Alaska to win the Iditarod.
28. Most Iditarods have about 65 teams of about 16 dogs each—that’s more than 1,000 dogs total. Each dog is implanted with a track-able microchip in addition to its collar tag. Veterinarians are available to treat the dogs at each checkpoint, where mushers also stock up on dog food, and dogs wear booties to protect their feet.
29. Yentna Station, one of the first checkpoints, has a population of eight, seven of whom are members of the Gabryszak family, which serves spaghetti dinners to the mushers in exchange for autographed posters that are then given to the race’s many volunteers.
30. If a dog gets injured during the race, volunteers fly it from the nearest checkpoint to Eagle River, where inmates at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center care for it until its musher finishes the race
31. Rick Swenson holds two noteworthy records: He is the only five-time winner of the Iditarod, and he is the only person to win the race in three different decades.
32. Dr. Michael Davis, a veterinarian who has researched sled dogs, told National Geographic in 2010, “If I were to list 10 characteristics of mushers, the first six would be ‘tough,’ because more than anything, the race is incredibly grueling on the mushers. It’s not feats of strength or power lifting or anything like that. It’s just the ability to keep going.”
33. The closest finish: 1978, when the nose of Dick Mackey’s lead dog crossed one second before Rick Swenson’s
34. The youngest musher to run the Iditarod was Dallas Seavey, who participated in 2005 just after turning 18.
35. The first musher to win four consecutive Iditarods was Lance Mackey, whose most recent win was in 2010.
36. After Anchorage and Nome, the largest town on the trail is Unalakleet, with its estimated population of 752. It is an Inupiat town with two stores and two restaurants. To celebrate the Iditarod and provide a festive reception to mushers and their visitors, the local children are given school holidays.
37. The fastest finishing time belongs to Martin Buser, who completed the race in 2002 in eight days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and two seconds.
38. The last musher to finish gets a prize called the Red Lantern Award to honor his or her perseverance.
39. DeeDee Jonrowe, a longtime Iditarod musher, competed in 2003 just three weeks after completing chemotherapy for breast cancer. She told Coping With Cancer, “Any day when the team is really clicking and the trails are fast and the weather is about 10 to 20 degrees, that’s one of the best days of my life. It’s just wonderful. There’s such a feeling of being one, just an extension of [the dogs]. You feel alive and that was one of the reasons why I so badly wanted to be back on the trail…. I didn’t want to feel sick anymore; I wanted to feel alive.”