Iditarod 2016: The Last Great Race Begins!

Mar 5, 2016 By Anita R
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On the morning of March 5, 2016, Anchorage, Alaska was abuzz with onlookers cheering sled dogs and mushers as they lined up to run the "last great race on earth".

The Iditarod is a dog sled race that is run over 1000 miles of snow and ice, and this year 79 teams are competing. They will endure severe weather and inhospitable terrain to trace a path from Willow in the East to Nome in the West, traversing the breadth of Alaska.

But even as the teams lined up at the start line, there was an important ingredient missing this year - snow. A warm winter in Alaska has meant less snow on the ground this year. The white powder is very essential to the race as snow packed trails and frozen lakes are necessary for sleds and dogs to move easily.

The situation forced organizers of the event to take the extreme step of shipping 350 cubic yards of snow from Fairbanks to Anchorage. The backup snow could not cover the 11-miles of the ceremonial track and they were forced to make it 8 miles shorter this year! 

'Great Race Of Mercy'

The Iditarod trail had its beginnings as a mail and supply route that connected major cities in Alaska during the Alaskan Gold Rush. In January of 1925, several children in the city of Nome (on Alaska's western side) had fallen ill and were dying from diphtheria. The only batch of anti-toxic serum to fight the disease had to be shipped from Anchorage. However, due to poor transportation and bad weather, that was not possible.

In those days, dog sleds were used to deliver mail, food supplies and people. On Jan 27, 1925, musher Shannon embarked on a treacherous journey along Alaska's inhospitable terrain. Braving bitterly cold temperatures, he raced to get the medicines in time to save the children. Like a relay race, the medicines were handed off and carried further by five men and their team of dogs, until they reached Nome.

The annual Iditarod race pays tribute to the endurance, commitment and heartwarming story of this "Great Race of Mercy".  

The Race Is Revived

When planes and snowmobiles replaced dog sleds, the trail pretty much faded into history. To celebrate Alaska's Centennial (100th anniversary) in 1967, Dorothy Page, an Alaskan historian suggested reviving the glory days by organizing a race along the Iditarod trail. Though the first race only covered a part of the trail in the initial years, it paved the way for the first complete Iditarod which was held in 1973. It has been held annually ever since.

The sled-race is a test of determination and endurance of the dogs and their mushers as they traverse 10-17 days through mountainous terrain, frozen rivers, desolate tundra, ghost towns and bone-chilling sub-zero temperatures into Alaska’s final frontier.

Courtesy: Smithsonian