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ISSUE 119 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/24/2006

Inside the Lines: Mythos of the Iditarod

By Matt and Mark Everhart
Staff Writer


Friday, March 24, 2006

There are some sporting events that indeed capture and symbolize some truth about humanity. The Olympic Games, the 20th winter iteration of which recently ended, represent this by bringing together every nation in the world to compete in sporting events that test the desire and skill of every participating athlete. Some win. Some lose. But all of these athletes succeed in some form by being representatives of something bigger, some idea grander than the sport itself.

While the Olympics may be most readily-identifiable example of this phenomenon, there is at least one annual event that we feel is also symbolic of something greater – something that, as native Alaskans, is near and dear to our hearts. That event is the Iditarod.

For those who don’t know, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is a mushing competition held every year in Alaska, starting with the a ceremony in our home town of Anchorage (the state’s largest city with a population of about 275,000) and ending in the tiny village of Nome on the western shore, where the land meets the frozen Bering Straight. It is a race steeped in history and tradition, and one that captures the human spirit of enterprise and the soul of every Alaskan. The race was first inspired by the daring true story of a diphtheria epidemic in the frontier town of Nome in 1925. The serum needed to save the hundreds of sick people in Nome was in Anchorage; however, it couldn’t be delivered via train or plane farther than the central town of Nenana, near Fairbanks. The final 700 miles were mushed to Nome, with a total of 20 different mushers and their teams shuttling the precious serum to Nome. Through temperatures that rarely rose above -40ºF and winds powerful enough to knock over the dogs and their sleds, the serum was delivered to Nome in time after a journey of six days. The final leg of the expidition was led by the now-legendary lead dog Balto, who now has a statue in Central Park in New York. The race from Anchorage to Nome began in 1973, using the old Iditarod Trail that had hardly been used since the introduction of the railroads and airplanes to Alaska in the early 20th century. Racers go from checkpoint to checkpoint, stopping at villages with names like Rainy Pass, Shagtoolik, Unalakleet, Cripple and the final, aptly-named checkpoint Safety. The final stretch to Nome is raced partially over the frozen ocean.

Mushers don’t receive much in the way of prize money for finishing; the purse is less than a million dollars for the dozens of mushers who challenge the frozen peaks and plains of Alaska each year. This year there were 83 mushers who entered, with 71 of them finishing.

Clearly, the mushers don’t do this for money or to make a living – every racer after the 31st place received just over $1,000.

Then why race? For the challenge. The route of the Iditarod, which switches between the “Northern” and “Southern” routes every other year, is a perilous journey of bitterly cold plains, dangerous mountain passes, frozen river crossings and wildlife encounters. Teams must race on as little sleep as possible to achieve the best time. Frostbite occurs, and dogs suffer from injuries and occasionally death, though the veterinary standards are high and every precaution is made to prevent injury to the dogs, the true competitors in the event.

Each year’s race provides a unique story, a tactical battle among the leaders and a journey of perseverance and endurance for many of the other racers whose primary goal is simply to finish the grueling trek. In 2003, Martin Buser set the record for fastest completion time in an amazing eight days 22 hours and 46 minutes, an amazing feat considering the first Iditarod winner took over 20 days to finish.

This year’s biggest story was racer Rachael Scdoris, who is legally blind. She finished in 57th place along with her visual guide, Tim Osmar.

This 2006 version also featured renowned author Gary Paulsen, writer of famous young adult coming-of-age novels like “Hatchet” and “Dogsong” and native of Minneapolis. He raced this year for the first time since the late 1980’s. Though he was the first to scratch from the race, his attempt represents what the Iditarod is all about: the intrepid spirit of humanity striving to test the limits.

The mythos of the Iditarod, the stories of the mushers who strive for victory, completion, or merely to experience one of the last great traditions in sports and exploration, and the desolate beauty of the Alaskan winter combine to create on of the most extraordinary sporting events in the world. This mythos is compounded by the fact that the Iditarod is one of the only sporting events we know that cannot be broadcast on TV: There is a certain mystery and private mystique that only the mushers and their dogs can experience.

Indeed, there is no other race on Earth like the “Last Great Race.”





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