Original Publish Date: 3/9/15 Republished: 2/28/19
I experienced my first Iditarod dog sled race in 2015 and it was the strangest, most awesome thing I had ever seen. I had no experience with dog mushing and knew absolutely nothing about the sport. I wrote this Newbie’s Guide to the Iditarod back then mostly for me as I had a ton of questions! I figured you might have a few of your own as well. Quite a few things have changed in just four years too! Have other questions that I haven’t answer? Leave a comment and I will see if I can get those answered for you.
Disclosure: This post not only answers your questions about the Iditarod, but also has Affiliate Links that I earn commissions from. This is how I make a living and keep this little blog running. Thank you for supporting me! I appreciate it. Much love, Kristi.
How long is the Iditarod?
There are three routes used: The Southern, Northern, and the Fairbanks route when the snow accumulation has been too low to run either of the two main routes. The Southern Route is 998 miles and the Northern Route is 975 miles. The Fairbanks route to Nome, Alaska is 979 miles. The mileage isn’t exact because it can’t account for twists and turns, plus all the elevation changes on the trail. Depending on weather conditions at the time, the trail is marked differently year to year. Because of this, the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) says it is 1,049 miles, which breaks down to 1,000 miles of the race and 49 to pay homage to Alaska as the 49th state.
Usually the Southern Route is followed in odd years and the Northern in even years. Iditarod hasn’t ran the Southern Route since 2013, and will run it in 2019! It is said to be the most challenging of the three routes.
The race crosses two mountain ranges, including North America’s largest mountain range, the Alaska Range, and runs along the Yukon River and over the frozen Norton Sound.
The Southern Route
2019 Iditarod Checkpoints
The Southern Route is used in both 2018 and 2019. It runs from Ophir through Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling, Eagle Island, Kaltag, Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, *Golovin, White Mountian, and Safety before ending in Nome.
*NOTE: Golovin is not a checkpoint, but the race goes through this village. ITC appreciates the village’s support and willingness to help the Iditarod.
There are 19 checkpoints on the Southern Route, including Anchorage and Nome, three of which are uninhabited during the rest of the year.
The Northern Route
The Northern Route runs from Ophir through Cripple, Ruby, Galena, Nulato, Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, *Golovin, White Mountain, and Safety before ending in Nome.
*NOTE: Golovin is not a checkpoint, but the race goes through this village. ITC appreciates the village’s support and willingness to help the Iditarod
There are 24 checkpoints on the Northern Route, including Anchorage and Nome, three of which are uninhabited during the rest of the year.
How much do the sled dogs eat while racing the Iditarod and how do they get the food?
This is different based on the dog and the kennel. Most dogs need a minimum of 10,000 calories per day during the Iditarod! The maximum recorded was 30,000 calories! They eat premium kibble which has higher levels of protein and fat for these endurance athletes. Additional fat supplements are needed to attain the 10,000-calorie level. Snacks typically consist of meat and fish. Of course, the more fat that is in the meat, the less pure fat supplements are needed.
Before the race, the mushers have prepared the dog’s food and there are drops bags at the checkpoints along the Iditarod Trail by the Iditarod Air Force. A drop bag consists of the dog food, the musher’s food, and supplies needed for the race. Two weeks before the start of the race, the bags get weighed and then sent to the designated checkpoints. Once at the checkpoints, the bags are lined up and labeled. It is all very organized and takes dozens of volunteers to make it all come together without a hitch.
Volunteers are an integral part of the Iditarod. Currently there are over 1,000 volunteers registered. This number does not include those who volunteer in communities along the trail or the locals in Nome.
What is the Iditarod Air Force?
The Iditarod Air Force are small privately owned bush planes flown entirely by volunteers during the course of the Iditarod. They fly dog food, musher’s supplies, and just about anything else needed to each checkpoint. They are the primary way that the vets and race officials get moved up and down the trail. If a dog gets dropped out of the race for whatever reason, the Iditarod Air Force and vet team are there to pick up the tired pooch! You can bet puppy kisses and belly rubs are given to the tired athlete.
Speaking of vets, how are the dogs cared for during the race? How many dogs does each team have?
The Iditarod changed the minimum number of dogs starting the race for 2019. Each musher can start with a maximum of 14 canine athletes and must have at least 12 on the lines to start. A team can finish with as few as five sled dogs. Before, it was that each musher could start with a maximum of 16 dogs down to a minimum of 12 dogs, and could finish with as few as 5 dogs.
Mushers usually stop every hour to give the dogs snacks and water. If a water source isn’t readily available, they have equipment to heat up snow and melt it into water.
There are vets located throughout the course and at every checkpoint. There are over 50 veterinarians for the race that came in from all over the US and from other countries to volunteer. They go through a ton of dog care training courses, but also need to learn to take care of themselves out in the freezing cold weather.
Before the Iditarod, each dog must be checked over by a vet. They are all microchipped, receive an ECG, and an overall physical exam 48 hours before the start of the race. Each year 1-3 dogs flunk out of the race because of their ECG results!
Checkpoints in the earlier part of the race are very busy and packed and there are many more vets stationed there.
The ITC provides straw for all the teams while on the course. Mushers will pull into a checkpoint and bed the dogs down to rest. Most mushers have blankets to put over the dogs to give them a timeout from all the eyes of tourists and media. The dogs get a physical exam once they have been bedded down. As mushers are cooking dinner for their dogs, the vets go through and check out the dogs.
The Vets are checking each sled dog for HAWL:
H – Heart and hydration
A – Appetite and attitude
W – Weight
L – Lungs
Sadly there have been dogs who have died during the Iditarod. It isn’t common and is heartbreaking for the musher, the other teams, and those of us cheering from the sidelines.
The 2019 race has more than 50 veterinarians responsible for caring for canines along the race course.
Is there a trail the mushers are following or do they have to figure out how to get to Nome all on their own?
There are trail breakers that ride on snow machines (what most people call snow mobiles) that are running in front of the lead sled dogs. They cut and mark the trail two weeks before the Iditarod, packing it down in windswept areas, which gives the dog teams a safe path to run on. Sometimes though, the wind and snow storms are so bad that the mushers can’t see the trail and end up way off course.
This year, the trail breakers spent 10 days on the Alaska Range. There were lots of open water and bridges had to be built over the water. The trail breakers put down 15,300 sticks to get everyone to Nome safely!
This year there has been good snow in most areas and one spot has 6-7 feet. The sea ice along the coast changes day-by-day and could be running closer to the shore as the mushers get closer to that area.
People have been at each check point for the past two weeks getting things ready.
Is there anything specific each dog sled team must have?
Yes! The ITC has set out certain pieces of equipment that each team must have to stay on the course. This includes an arctic parka, a heavy sleeping bag (has to weigh at least 5 pounds), an ax, snowshoes, musher food, dog food, and dog booties for each pup’s feet to protect them against cutting ice and hard-packed snow injuries. They also must have a veterinarian notebook, non-chafing harnesses and a cable drop line for each dog. To heat up the food they need to have a cooker with fuel and a large camp pot that can boil at least three gallons of water at a time.
2015 Iditarod Ceremonial Start – Iditarod Musher Matt Failor
How many Iditarod teams are there and where do they come from?
As of February 19, 2019, 52 mushers are signed up for the 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, including 43 veterans and 10 rookies. Entrants hail from seven states: Alaska, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, and Wisconsin – and from six countries – United States, Canada, Finland, France, Norway, and Sweden.
The record number of mushers starting the race was 96 in 2008.
Five Iditarod champions will be attempting to regain the title. The Iditarod champions are 4-Time Winner Lance Mackey, 4-Time Winner Martin Buser, 4-Time Winner Jeff King, 3-time Winner Mitch Seavey, and 1-Time Winnter (2018) Joar Leifseth Ulsom.
Sadly, 4-time Champion and Mitch Seavey’s son, Dallas Seavey dropped out in October 2017 in protest of how Iditarod officials handled his dogs’ failed drug tests. I can’t blame him. Personally I think it was handled poorly. For those of you not aware – in a nutshell, Dallas was accused of doping his dogs. He was found to be innocent months later, but has said he will not participate in another Iditarod and is racing in Finland this year.
Dogs come in contact with SO many people on the trail that any number of people could have given those dogs the drugs. This year one of the changes that ITC made was that the sole responsibility rests on the mushers. One thing that has happened is that people may not touch the dogs nor their food without the musher’s permission.
2015 Iditarod Ceremonial Start with Aliy Zurkle
Let’s talk about the Mushers for a moment. Have any cool tidbits about them?
- The youngest musher to ever compete was Dallas Seavey who had just turned 18 days before the 2005 Iditarod. Dallas was also the youngest ever to win the Iditarod in 2012, at 25 years old and has won 4 times!
- The oldest musher to win was Mitch Seavey (Dallas’ father) at 57 in 2017, and he has won 3 times. The oldest musher to ever compete is Col. Norman D. Vaughan who last competed in 1992 at age 86.
- In the 2018 Iditarod, the oldest musher is 77 and the youngest is 18. How many professional sports can say that!
- Rick Swenson is the only five time winner, the only musher to win in three decades, and only musher to complete 35 of 42 Iditarods.
- Susan Butcher, Martin Buser, Doug Swingley, Jeff King and Lance Mackey have each won four Iditarod championships. Mackey is the only musher to have won four consecutive races with Butcher and Swingley both winning three consecutive races.
- Dick Mackey, Rick Mackey, and Lance Mackey (father and two sons) have won the Iditarod. All three won wearing Bib #13 in their sixth race. WOW!
- Lance Mackey is the first 4-time Iditarod Champion to win all four races consecutively in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. He also won the Yukon Quest in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, making him the first musher to win both of Alaska’s premier long distance races back to back in 2007 and 2008 within weeks of each other. He has a movie on Netflix that you should watch – The Great Alone.
- Mary Shields was the first woman to complete the race in 1974, finishing 23rd.
- Libby Riddles was the first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985.
- Four-time winner, Susan Butcher, claimed Iditarod victories in 1986, 1987, 1988, and again in 1990.
- Doug Swingley became the second four-time winner in 2001. His victories were in 1995, 1999, 2000 and 2001. Butcher and Swingley have the distinction of being the only Iditarod champions who have three consecutive victories.
- I have to mention 61-year-old DeeDee Jonrowe, a cancer survivor who is racing in her 34th Iditarod! WOW! She’s finished in the top ten 16 times, most recently in 2013, and has finished second twice. Thanks Ole Eckhorn for that info.
Check out these books and movie about the Iditarod and sled dogs:
One day I hope to be out on the trail covering the Iditarod. For now, I will go to the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage. I will also get to go to the Official Start in Willow on Sunday. Willow is about 70 miles north of Anchorage. I can’t wait!! I’M SO EXCITED!
SXSW vs Iditarod… the pups won my heart this year. Official Press for the Iditarod! I’m so excited to bring you a newbies guide to the Iditarod this year! #lifegoals #iditarod #press #travelblogger #travelwriter #ilovealaska #thealaskalife #alaska #travelalaska #thegreatlastrace #thelastfrontier #winterwonderland #shenanigans #aklife #alaskalove #travel #sxsw
*Information for this post came from attending Iditarod media briefings, talking to fellow fans, and from the official Iditarod website.