March 6 marks the start of the 45th Iditarod race since the very beginning of the tradition in 1973. Although the race has taken place for less than 50 years, the trail has been used for over 100 years as a popular mail and supply route, as well as a common “highway” for Alaskans to travel throughout the state. It wasn’t until 1908 that they trail was first surveyed by the Alaska Road Commission and is now classified as a National Historical Trail by Congress.
The trail spans nearly a thousand miles that racers travel on for generally nine to 15 days. The race itself is the ultimate test for the racers and their teams of 21 dogs; with Alaska’s unpredictable terrain and conditions, the racers need to expect the unexpected. Whether it be blizzards and white-out storms or temperatures with a wind chill reaching nearly -100 degrees Fahrenheit, the racers cover all possible aspects that are expected to occur in remote areas of the state.
The race consists of checkpoints: Locations the mushers can stop throughout the race to rest, eat and gather supplies. The 2017 course consists of 19 different checkpoints spanning from the ceremonial start in Anchorage, re-starting in Fairbanks and then going all the way to Nome.
The ceremonial start runs 11 miles through Anchorage, on March 4, but then the teams will relocate to Fairbanks for the actual start on March 6. Traditionally, the race starts in Willow, but for the second time in three years, the start will be held in Fairbanks.
The Alaska Range, the mountain range just north of Anchorage, was monitored for weeks prior to the start by Iditarod Race Marshals. The marshals, including marshal Mark Norman, described the conditions as getting significantly worse, so the start had to be moved for the safety of the teams.
Regardless of the start, it will still be a fair race between the teams; the winning spot is in competition between 72 mushers and their teams, with the assumption that none drop out before the commencement of the race. With various reasons, 11 of the mushers who were already accepted and expected to race have withdrawn from the competition.
Included in the 2017 race, is the record holder and youngest four-time winner (2012, 2014, 2015, 2016) Dallas Seavey. A Willow local, Seavey joins again the 2017 Iditarod in hopes to break his own record and expand his win streak.
If Seavey wins this, he will be tied with Rick Swenson for the most wins in the Iditarod.
Joining Seavey in the race is four-time Iditarod racer Nicolas Petit, who got into the sport only due to one of his dogs with a paradoxical name.
“I got into [mushing] because of my dog, Ugly. Super cute husky mutt I adopted in Girdwood when I moved to Alaska. He pulled me very slowly around town… [until we got a team and then began training],” Petit said.
Petit realized that everyone is going to be in their best conditions this year for the race, due to the unexpected snowfall during the winter.
“This has been a great training season. Lots of snow makes for more trail access and soft cushion for the dogs to run on,” Petit said.
Racers like Petit look forward to the race now only for the exhilaration of the competition and Alaskan outdoors, but also because they get treated partly like a local celebrity. He explained that, with all preparations done ahead of time, the race can be a real vacation to a musher like himself with limited kennel help.
In addition to Petit, seven-time Iditarod runner Kristy Berington shared her experience and insight on the race.
Berington recalled that she has very memorable parts of the race, but they aren’t always they best.
“You can see all the hard work you’ve put in for years trotting in front of you…all that matters is you, your dogs, the trail and the race. [But the worst part], in a way, is getting to the finish line, the adventure is over. Back to reality. Also, [the possibility of] finishing the race with a feeling of disappointment,” Berington said.
Along with Petit, Berington agreed that training and race conditions are a lot better than in the years past. Smaller, middle distance races haven’t been canceled at all this year which served as excellent practice for the teams.
To catch the ceremonial start, the racers will be taking off in the morning of Saturday, March 4 in Anchorage. For more information or live tracking, visit www.iditarod.com or visit their Facebook page, The Iditarod Trail Committee.