Alaskan Ironmen, Ironwomen and Dogs

March 10, 2014

 Alaska hosted its two marquee events of the year and both of them were dog sled races. The first one being known as the “Toughest” race on earth, the Yukon Quest. It’s a 1000 trek along the Klondike Gold Rush mail and transportation trail established in the 1800’s. It takes place in harshest of winter conditions along a difficult trial. The other showcase is the Iditarod, billed as “The Last Great Race on Earth”, the most popular sporting event in Alaska which starts in Anchorage and ends in Nome, also a 1000 miler.

Who are the real ironmen and women who do this?

The majority of the competitors are Alaskans, but these events do attract an international field. A lot of the competitors belong to families who have competed throughout the generations. Both men and women have competed in these events. The Iditarod received a lot attention outside of Alaska when a woman won the event. In 1985 Libby Riddles, a long shot won and since Susan Butcher won it three times.

Of course, let’s not forget the super dogs who can handle the endeavor. Your pooch at home is not ready for anything like this. Can you even imagine driving a sled of dogs in the dead of winter for a thousand miles? Last time I checked the Iron Man Competition was a Triathlon that ends in one day. These races go on for over a week. This sport also has no real down time; if you are not training, you are tending and developing a team of dogs. This sport is evolving so much time just to get to the starting line.

Most people would think that the sled dogs would be big furry Husky type dogs. Through the years of cross breeding, the modern racing dogs are mixed and bred for speed, tough feet, endurance, good attitude and most importantly, the desire to run. Each team is composed of twelve to sixteen dogs and no more can be added during the race. There is a minimum of six dogs that must cross the finish line. The dogs are well looked over and are examined at every checkpoint.

Both races do have checkpoints about every two hundred miles where some provisions are supplied and the dogs get checked by veterinarians. The musher and his team are sledding on the routes along frozen rives, mountain ranges, through isolated villages. Temperatures commonly drop as -60 F and winds can reach 50 miles an hour or more at higher elevations.   Aside from the weather conditions and wellbeing of the dogs, the mushers have to break through mental and body fatigue. I have heard from mushers about the mental aspect of the race. Maintaining focus and without drifting off into a sleep deprivation state can be dangerous to say the least.

This year, the Yukon Quest was won by Allen Moore who crossed the finish line at Takhina Hot Springs in the early morning hours. His time was 8 days, 14 hours and 21 minutes which made it a consecutive victory for him. When you talk to Moore, he gives a lot of credit to his lead dog Quito. She was the recipient of the Golden Harness Award along with a custom-made golden harness and some fresh steaks. Moore was quoted as saying, “But mainly we have good dogs right now, and they’re hard to come by, just like any basketball or football team. Once you get that, they have a pretty good team for a few years and it’s really hard to bring in more that is that caliber after that.”

This year’s Iditarod champ is Dallas Seavy with his time of 8 days, 13 hours and 6 minutes. It was a tough year for the Iditarod because dangerous conditions and the resulting injuries to mushers and dogs. The lack of snowfall and icy conditions made it for difficult maneuvering.

The race began on March 2nd with 69 teams and 53 finished. As the finishers were crossing the line in Nome, temperatures were below zero degrees. The Iditarod winner received $50,000 and a new truck. After that, the 29 finishers receive prizes decreasing in size.

The history of these events is storied and interesting to read about as well. Most people have only heard slight references to these races and culture that surrounds them. Take time to read up and you will find yourself intrigued and curious to see the events every winter in Alaska.