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The 2003 Iditarod: The Last Great Race

By: Alex Lieber and Dawn Ruben

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Battling through high winds and poor trails, Norwegian Robert Sorlie won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The 45-year-old firefighter completed the 1,100-mile course in 9 days, 15 hours, 47 minutes.

Sorlie didn't break any records, but this year is notable for several reasons. First, he is the second non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod (and this is the second time he has completed the entire Iditarod). Second, poor trail conditions forced race officials to change the route twice - the most drastic changes in the history of the race. The new route was unfamiliar even to veteran mushers.

Called the "last great race on earth," the Iditarod is an annual race of mushers (the term for the human contestants) from the ceremonial starting place of Anchorage to the finish line. The route varies from year to year, so the actual distance can swing from 1,000 to more than 1,150 miles.

The race, which in its current form began in 1973, traces its roots back to the winter of 1925, when Nome was threatened with a diphtheria epidemic. A train rushed medication from Anchorage to the village of Nenana, but there the track ended. Bad weather grounded the few airplanes in Alaska at the time. The only reliable way to get the medication to Nome in time was by dog power.

Using a Pony Express-style of relay, dog teams along the route carried the serum 700 miles through temperatures hovering in the minus 40 degree range. The trip took six days, and the serum arrived in time to avert a health crisis.

Mushing has a long history in Alaska. In a place with few roads, mushing was the only way to move mail, goods and people over long distances. The native Inuit tribes have bred some of the sturdiest dogs in the world for the task. The dogs were adapted to the weather and able to maintain speeds of 8 to 12 miles an hour over the long haul. A musher usually hauled half a ton of goods, pulled by 20 or more dogs.

Today, the race doesn't really begin in Anchorage because the city is too crowded to begin a race with more than 60 sled teams. After the ceremonial start from Anchorage, the sled teams are taken about 40 miles from the city, where the real race begins and can last between nine and 17 days.

This year, warm weather and a lack of snow forced a change in the route. Mushers began in Fairbanks, which would have made the route 70 miles longer. But the trail was changed again when the last leg was dropped, cutting about 50 miles off the route.

"Iditarod," by the way, is an Inuit word that means "a distant place." It's the name for a ghost town halfway between Anchorage and Nome.

Teams begin with 16 dogs, which pull sleds weighing between 30 and 40 pounds, plus the musher, running at an average of 10 miles an hour. A lot of weight is taken up by food for the dogs – during the race, a sled dog will burn through 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day. (By comparison, a person competing in the Tour de France burns about 7,000 calories a day.)

Besides food for the dogs and the musher, the sleds carry a stove, arctic parkas, sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, food (for both the dogs and the musher), and a supply of booties to protect the dogs' feet against the hard ice and packed snow.

Typically, a third to half of the dogs that begin the race have to drop out. The dogs rest every 50 miles or so at 20 checkpoints scattered throughout the race. At each checkpoint, dogs sleep on straw and fed a hot meal. Ill or injured dogs are dropped off at checkpoints, where they are taken care of and flown home.

Preparing for the Ordeal

Before entering the race, each dog undergoes about 1,500 to 4,000 miles of training throughout the year. Because these dogs are bred for bitterly cold weather, they are not trained in summer weather. Cold weather, by the way, means just that – temperatures above 10 degrees Fahrenheit is considered too warm. These dogs perform best in subzero weather.

Training usually begins in August or September, when dogs run short distances of 3 to 5 miles. Gradually, the runs are increased to 10 to 15 miles. Meanwhile, the musher works on correcting behavior and controlling the team. They make sure the dogs understand commands such as "gee" (turn right); "haw" (turn left); "on by" (go straight). In fact, the one command you won't hear is "Mush," which has its origins in the French word "marchon."

Training intensifies as the dogs build endurance, alternating between longer and shorter runs. A dog may run 10 miles both days, then have one day off, then increase to 12 miles a day. By October, the dogs are running between 200 and 250 miles for the month. By the end of November, the total distance usually doubles: 400 to 500 miles that month.

By the time the dogs are ready, a team of 16 dogs can pull a pickup truck with the brakes on through packed snow. First-time contestants must complete two Iditarod-approved races that total 500 miles within the previous two years. Returning teams are automatically eligible.

The Pros and Cons of the Last Great Race

When the last musher crosses the finish line in Nome, the Widow's Lamp, lit to mark the beginning of the race, is extinguished. The last musher is then awarded the Red Lantern to commemorate his or her perseverance. What won't be extinguished is the controversy that surrounds dog sled races.

In the last 11 years, 52 dogs have died in the race. Animal rights' activists believe that the race subjects dogs to cruel conditions in the name of entertainment. They say dogs are forced to run too fast and too far in terrible weather, causing injuries such as pulled muscles or tendons, heat stress and other ailments, which sometimes results in death.

In between races, animal rights groups say the dogs are subject to cruel treatment. Animals unfit for the race are "culled," a term that by itself has caused controversy. Animal rights groups say it often means a death sentence for the dog, and cite examples in which puppies have been killed.

However, supporters of the Iditarod counter that these groups cite statistics and examples from a time when the race was not as monitored as it is today. They point out that the number of deaths has dropped as regulations were tightened.

Proponents also say the dogs are bred for the race and love running it. They argue that regulations require a 24-hour stop, which can take place anywhere on the trail, and two 8-hour stops, once in the Yukon and once at White Mountain.

Veterinarians are required to check the dogs at each of the 20 checkpoints to make sure the animals are able to continue the race safely. If a dog appears at risk, the veterinarians pull the dogs from the team. A team must have at least five dogs pulling a sled to continue the race.

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