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Iditarod 2014: Mushiest Race of the Year


Since 1973, the world’s top mushers have gathered in Alaska to tackle the Iditarod’s 1,150-mile trail, which stretches from Anchorage to Nome, across mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and windswept coastline.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, known as the “Last Great Race”, is an annual dog sled race where mushers and teams of dogs cover the more than 1,000 miles in less than two weeks, frequently through blizzards causing whiteout conditions, and sub-zero weather and gale-force winds which can cause the wind chill to reach minus 100 F.

This year, sixty-two mushers have signed up to run the race including 15 women. Keep an eye on some of the veteran female competitiors including DeeDee Jonrowe who has been mushing for over 20 years and  Aliy Zirkle winner of the Yukon Quest in 2000.  Jonrowe, a fan favorite, is a breast cancer survivor whose signature piece of apparel is a hot pink parka.
Rookies include Abby West who moved to Alaska almost 20 years ago chasing a childhood dream of being a musher and and Karin Hendrickson  who started out as an Iditarod volunteer.

The youngest woman to compete in the Iditarod was 19 year old Melissa Owens and the oldest was 58 year old Nancy Yoshida. A Junior Iditarod was run last week for mushers 14 -17 years of age and once again, the field boasted more girls than boys.

A lack of snow and warm temperatures have been a headache for Iditarod officials this winter. In fact, temperatures in Anchorage were in the mid- to upper 40s in the days preceding the start.

On the trail, every musher has a different tactic. Each one has a special menu for feeding and snacking the dogs. Each one has a different strategy — some run in the daylight, some run at night. Each one has a different training schedule and his own ideas on dog care, dog stamina and his own personal ability.

Some mushers spend an entire year getting ready and raising the money needed to get to Nome. Some prepare around a full-time job. In addition to planning the equipment and feeding needs for up to three weeks on the trail, hundreds of hours and hundreds of miles of training have to be put on each team.

The adventure began March 1st. Follow along at the official site of the Iditarod.

Fast Facts

  • Teams average 16 dogs, which means over 1,000 dogs leave Anchorage for Nome.
  • There are 26 checkpoints on the northern route, the first in Anchorage and the last in Nome. On the southern route, there are 27 checkpoints.
  • The largest number of mushers to finish a single race was 77 in 2004.
  • The first woman to finish the Iditarod was Mary Shields in 1974.
  • The first woman to win the Iditarod was Libby Riddles in 1985.
  • Four time winner, Susan Butcher, claimed Iditarod victories in 1986, 1987, 1988 and again in 1990. Susan retired from long distance racing after the 1993 race in order to start a family. She passed away from Leukemia in 2006.

Mush Talk

A type of sock that is made to protect the dog’s feet from small cuts and sores made of various materials, i.e., denim, polar fleece, trigger cloth, etc.
Come Gee! Come Haw!
Commands for 180 degree turns in either direction.
Dog in Basket
Tired or injured dog carried in the sled
Double Lead
Two dogs who lead the team side by side.
Dropped Dog
A dog that the musher has dropped from his team at a checkpoint.
Command for right turn
Command for left turn
Lead Dog or Leader
Dog who runs in front of others. Generally must be both intelligent and fast.
Line Out!
Command to lead dog to pull the team out straight from the sled. Used mostly while hooking dogs into team or unhooking them.
Mush! Hike! All Right! Let’s Go!
Commands to start the team
Pushing the sled with one foot while the other remains on the runner
Collection of lines to which dogs are attached. Includes tow line, tug lines and neck lines
The two bottom pieces of the sled which come in contact with the snow.
Swing Dog or Dogs
Dog that runs directly behind the leader. Further identified as right or left swing depending on which side of the tow line he is positioned on.
Tether Line
A long chain with shorter pieces of chain extending from it. Used to stake out a team when stakes aren’t available.
Small pieces of ivory or wood used by Eskimos to fasten tug lines to harnesses.
Request for right-of-way on the trail.
Tug Line
Line that connects dog’s harness to the tow line.
Wheel Dogs or Wheelers
Dogs placed directly in front of the sled. Their job is to pull the sled out and around corners or trees.
Command used to halt the team, accompanied by heavy pressure on the brake.

Did You Know?
Iditarod dogs are not driven with reins, but by spoken commands. The leader of the team must understand all that is said to him and guide the others accordingly. An intelligent leader is an absolute necessity. At times it appears that there is ESP between musher and lead dog. Don’t be surprised if you hear a musher have an in-depth conversation with her lead dog.

PT NOTE: Iditarod’s long-distance husky race is one of the longest-standing traditional sports in Alaska. At first glance, the race may seem cruel to these animals, but it’s not — they were bred to do this and they love it! Unfortunately, real cruelty happens all too often, and when it does, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is ready to step in.

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