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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 03/17/2009

The Iditarod: The Last Great Race on Earth

By Steve Tracton

* Warm-up Underway: Full Forecast *

Image courtesy

Several years ago I was lucky enough to see the beginning of the annual Iditarod sled dog race in Anchorage. I say lucky because I just happened to be staying in Anchorage (during a visit to the National Weather Service Alaska Region Headquarters) when unbeknown to me it was race week. Unbeknown, that is, until waking up one morning and looking out my hotel window to see race preparations taking place on Anchorage's main street.

What took me most by surprise was that the street was snow covered, when it had been totally bare the previous evening and there was no snow in the overnight forecast. Only later did I learn the snow had been trucked in to provide a wintry scene for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod. (The actual official start of the race occurred the next day, several miles outside Anchorage.)

Keep reading to learn more about this amazing race...

Preparations for a past Iditarod race in Anchorage, Ak. By Steve Tracton.

The Iditarod is often called the "The Last Great Race on Earth." The Iditarod was first held in 1973 and has been run annually ever since. This year's race began March 7 with mushers and their teams -- typically 12-16 dogs -- attempting to complete the 1,131 miles of trail from near Anchorage to Nome in 10 to 17 days.

Aside from various and sometimes treacherous terrain, the weather often plays a critical role in the race and its outcome. Temperatures can range from 50 above zero to 60 below zero, and blizzard conditions and piercing winds with wind chills reaching -100 degrees are not uncommon.

A photo of the Iditarod Trail. By Steve Tracton.

Needless to say, the physical demands of mushers and their dog teams are extremely harsh. I managed to get a very slight taste of this by hiking several miles of the Iditarod trail on a sunny day where the terrain was relatively flat but the wind chill was about -20. That was enough for me. Nevertheless, I felt I was in heaven with such beautiful surroundings and the ground covered with a foot or more of freshly fallen powdery snow.

You can learn more about the Iditarod and keep track of this year's race at the Iditarod official Web site.

By Steve Tracton  | March 17, 2009; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Tracton, U.S. Weather  
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For the dogs, the Iditarod is a bottomless pit of suffering. What happens to the dogs during the Iditarod includes death, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons and sprains. At least 139 dogs have died in the race. No one knows how many dogs die after this tortuous ordeal or during training. For more
facts about the Iditarod, visit the Sled Dog Action Coalition website, .

Posted by: Plugged-in | March 17, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse


I initially shared your concerns but was convinced by talking with mushers and official observers after the race that the sled dogs by-in-large do not suffer the dire consequences you indicate. Indeed, in most cases the dogs are considered as family by their owners

According to the Iditarod web site, Iditarod dogs have some of the most intensive health checkups in the animal athletic world - before and after the race. I have no idea how reliable or representative the web site you link to is, but its claims are contrary to everything I have learned about the Iditarod, for example from Discovery Channel documentaries on the race.

So there is no misunderstanding, if what you claim about mistreatment of the sled dogs were true, I'd be one of the loudest voices in protest!

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | March 17, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Steve, check out the quotes on the Sled Dog Action Coalition website. Here's one page: There are others. All the quotes are correct and verifiable.

Dogs aren't machines. They can't run over 1,000 miles without suffering terribly. Three dogs have died thus far in the 2009 Iditarod. Many more were made sick and got injured.

The dogs get no benefit from racing in the Iditarod. But mushers profit from the race. They get prize money, advertising contracts, book deals, paid visitors at their kennels, etc. Mushers have every incentive to claim that the dogs are treated well.

Posted by: Plugged-in | March 17, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Steve, how do mushers prepare for the crazy weather (i.e., what gear they use, how they keep food, water, themselves and their dogs from freezing) They must have to be prepared for any weather...I don't suppose they can check their blackberry or iPhone for the latest forecast.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | March 17, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

According to Russia Today, there are also a number of sled dog races in eastern Siberia. There's also one in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and there may be a few in Canada. I wonder if the Sled Dog Action Coalition aims to ban ALL sled dog racing, just as other animal rights groups have banned cockfighting and are targeting bullfighting.

It's true these activities represent cruelty to animals, but they also represent historically sanctioned practices of long standing. Some animal rights activists go so far as to attempt a ban on the [historically prominent] fur trade. Perhaps these activities ought to be strictly regulated but not completely banned. Please remember that in 'Roots' Alex Haley's ancestor "Chicken George" was involved in cockfighting, while one of Joseph Conrad's books is titled "The [racially-offensive term not included] of the Narcissus". Sorry, I can't include that word in this blog, but sometimes political correctness DOES go a bit too far!

Posted by: Bombo47jea | March 17, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Ann, the mushers are experienced and have the most modern outdoor gear, as well as train for the psychological travail they'll experience. They do not - I don't think - have blackberries but all have a GPS location devices. And, there are many many checkpoints during the race when and where they can communicate with the outside world, as well as be reequipped as necessary

As far as the well being of the dogs is concerned, I'm only speaking of the Iditarod - I have nothing to offer on dog sled races elsewhere. I recall reading - but I can't place the source right now - that the death rate of dogs in the Iditarod is less than one would expect in the number of human deaths during a comparable race of cross country skiers.

Naturally any deaths are sad and unfortunate. It's true that the mushers have a choice about participating in the race. They can weigh the dangers versus the honor and $$ in winning. The dogs do not. But, one has to wonder how well off the dogs would be if it were not for the care and attention they receive the rest of the year from owners.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | March 17, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

The Iditarod? That's old news...everybody goes to the Idiotarod now.

Posted by: stuckman | March 17, 2009 9:41 PM | Report abuse

Most Iditarod dogs are forced to live at the end of a chain when they aren't
hauling people around. It has been reported that dogs who don't make the main team are never taken off-chain. Chained dogs have been attacked by wolves, bears and other animals. Old and arthritic dogs suffer terrible pain in the blistering cold. For more facts about how the dogs live, go to: . To learn about the cruel training they receive, go to:

Posted by: Plugged-in | March 17, 2009 9:50 PM | Report abuse

The dogs best suited to running the Iditarod, enjoy doing it. They get excited at the prospect of doing what they've been trained to do. I agree that death and injury is a sad thing, but I really believe most of the mushers involved do care about their dogs. It's not like mushers are typically stars after they win a race like the Iditarod...most of them remain obscure names to the general public, so I doubt they're egos are so large they would go the route of abusing the animals for personal gain...there's just not that much gain.

Posted by: akchild | March 18, 2009 7:49 AM | Report abuse

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