I remember as a child in school learning about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the longest annual trail sled dog race in the world. It is considered to be one of the toughest endurance competitions. I never imagined that as an adult I’d have the opportunity to witness the start of this nearly 1,000-mile race done in sub-zero temperatures! But guess what, that’s exactly what happened!
Every year the race starts the first Saturday of March with the ceremonial start in Anchorage, Alaska and ends in Nome, Alaska. This year, the official start – which typically takes place in Willow the following day, was moved to Fairbanks on Monday, march 6 to ensure god trail conditions for the team on their trek to Nome. I knew this is something I wanted to experience and convinced my husband to bundle up and head out with me to the trail and see what it was all about.
My original plan was to watch from the official starting point but after warnings of huge crowds, no parking and closed off streets we decided to catch the action a few miles down the road along the actual trail, which is on the frozen Chena River that runs through Fairbanks.
We passed a few viewing spots that were already overflowing with race watchers until we found our intended viewing spot, a frozen over boat launch. After parking we headed towards the middle of the frozen river. There were hundreds of people scattered along the river. Some race watchers had small fires and chairs set up along the edge. Others, small sleds full of snacks, blankets, and had dragged them to the edge of the trail. At this point along the trail, there is nothing other than well wishers waiting for each team of musher and dogs to pass.
Seventy-one teams began this year’s race on March 6. Each team draws to determine when their start time is with all the times being staggered. After the initial start, each team leaves roughly every two minutes thereafter. Not long after we arrived along the trail, the first sled team passed us. A musher bundled from head to toe standing on the back of a sled being pulled by 16 huskies with booties and a coat on was a sight to see in person. I marveled at how they had only been on the trail for less than 20 minutes and were already covered in frost. It’s hard to fathom being on the back of a sled over the course of nearly 1,000 miles in these temperatures! It was -27 without a cloud in the sky. It was so cold that when I tried to take pictures, my phone died as it couldn’t handle the frigid temperatures. Thank goodness I had my husband there who stepped in to be my photographer.
At this point, more and more people started to arrive trail side. A makeshift path had been made through the snow from the hundreds of people making there way from the edge of the river to the frozen river’s center. Kids stumbled through the deep snow, passing time until the crowd started to mumble that next team was fast approaching. The crowd shouted “good luck” as the mushers passed by and stuck out a hand to give high fives.
The couple next to me had a printout of all the mushers that’s been posted in the local newspaper. They asked if I noticed what musher had just passed, as they were there to give the hometown guy some support. After he finally passed, they left and offered me their makeshift program. I looked it over as we were waiting for the next team to make their appearance. I decided to root for Laura Neese, a rookie musher from McMillan, Michigan. At only age 20, I can’t imagine tackling this race! As she makes her way down the trail, I shouted a “good luck” and extended my hand to her as she sled by. Go get ‘em girl!! I was already worried about her as her cheeks were the color of ripe tomatoes! I wanted scream after her, “cover those cheeks woman!”
We cheer on a handful of teams as they passed by. We got a quick photo in front of a team but had to jump out of the way as they approached since the dogs were hugging our side of the trail. After about 40 minutes, despite our many layers of clothing, we were quickly becoming human Popsicles and decided it was time to leave. I can’t help but think how mentally tough these mushers have to be to endure this cold.
The threat of frostbite is high during this race. The fastest time the Iditarod has been completed in is 8 days with 9-17 days being the average over the course of the race’s history. There are designated check points along the trail and a required 24 hour and 8 hour rest. Aside from these required rests, the mushers sometimes only stop for 2 hours to take a quick nap and feed the dogs. Sleep deprivation is basically a requirement if the mushers want a shot at winning. No tents, no heat, usually just a mat and the warmth of the dogs huddled around is all they have. The dogs require a diet of at least 10,000 calories a day during the race to keep up with the demands. During the race itself, six mushers had to scratch out and four dogs associated with the race passed away for various reasons. It truly is brutal.
As we are leaving, a school bus arrives. School kids pour out dressed in matching neon shirts. It’s a field trip! How cool is that? They get out of school to come cheer on the dog-sled teams. Since there are 71 teams competing, the crowds could see teams sledding along the Chena River Trail for most of the morning and into the early afternoon.
As the race went on over the course of the trail, Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, Alaska, was the first musher into Tanana on March 7, claiming The Lakefront Anchorage First Musher to the Yukon Award. Wade Marrs of Willow, Alaska, was the first musher into Ruby on March 8, claiming the PenAir Spirit of Alaska Award. Mitch Seavey of Seward, Alaska, was the first musher into Huslia on March 9, claiming the GCI Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award. Wade Marrs was once again the first musher into Unalakleet on March 12, winning the Wells Fargo Gold Coast Award.
On the afternoon of March 14, Mitch Seavey was the first to cross the finish line in Nome, Alaska and won the Iditarod! This was Mitch’s third Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race championship and he also set a race record for fastest winning race time as well as for being the oldest Iditarod champion. Congratulations Mitch!
I’m so glad that I had a chance to experience the start of this event. Next year I would like to brave the crowds, see all the commotion at the official start line and hopefully be able to give Laura Neese a good luck cheer and high five as she makes her second attempt at the toughest endurance competition in the world!