Iditarod – Last Great Race on Earth

I took these photos on 6 March 2010 at the cer...

Image via Wikipedia



Known as The Iditarod, only a mad man (or woman) would want to take part in this race which is run across the Alaskan wilderness in the depths of winter.

The temperature can go as low as minus 40 to- 60 degrees -You have 16 dogs to look after (rules say they get fed before you)  – Race for up to 24 hours at a stretch –  Sleep in snatches and no time for a shower –  Risking frostbite or worse in the process.

All to take part in what’s called The Last Great Race on Earth.

Cancer Survivors do it best!

And if that isn’t enough – imagine running the 1000+ miles when you have had mouth cancer, need to keep your throat moist (but water freezes at minus temperatures) and you still win the race for a record 4 times in a row!  As last year’s winner, Lance Mackey, proved.

Or, if you are a woman, you survive breast cancer – go on to run the Iditarod for the 30th time – and still finish in front of many of the competitors (men included).  That’s  DeeDee Jonrowe for you.

It’s not the dogs – although they take centre stage – nor the mushers – although they are something else – but the whole Iditarod experience that captures the world’s imagination for two weeks every March.

And to keep cancer survivors up-to-speed with what’s happening, every day from March 5th onwards this website will have  daily reports of what’s happening.

If you enjoy reading the reports, please give a small donation to Breakthrough Breast Cancer.  I am doing these reports to help them get donations for research.

What is The Iditarod?

First Saturday in March every year, around 70 Mushers and their dog teams  set off from Willow (near Anchorage, Alaska) and race to Nome.  They are taking part in a race that loosely commemorates a life-saving effort by sled dogs in 1925, to deliver diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska.

The race is run across icy, snowy mountains, forest trails, across rivers  and up rocky passes.  The mushers and dogs can race for up to 24 hours non-stop, and camp out on the trail.  Rules just say dogs must be warm and comfortable when bedded down to rest.   Often mushers race at night;  the lower the temperature the more the dogs like it and faster they run.

The race takes upwards of 8 days, but doesn’t finish until the last competitor still in the competition is home and dry – which can take 20 days or more.  Incidentally whoever comes last is always awarded the traditional Red Lantern.

And what do they race for?

  • First prize is upwards of $50,000 – plus percentage of entrance money
  • Top finishers get prize money in a diminishing table – last year Lance Mackey won $69,000 – down to No. 30 who picked up $1,800.  After that, anyone who finishes picks up $1,049.  Why the $49?  Because Alaska was the 49th State to join the U.S.A.
  • But THE prize the Mushers covet is a Dodge Truck, awarded to the first past the post.
  • Along the way mushers can win everything from a bag of gold nuggets to a seven-course meal cooked where they rest.
  • Every finisher gets a coveted belt with its iconic Iditarod belt buckle

Picture shows commemorative Buckle from 1999.

They are all similar, showing Alaskan sled scenes,

and if you see someone wearing one of these – they

are one tough person!

Men and Women are equal on the Trail

This is the only major international sporting event where men and women compete on equal terms, and the race has been won several times by women.

The first female winner was Libby Riddles, who won in 1985.  Whilst rival Mushers were holed up waiting for blizzards to blow over, Libby crept back onto the track and literally felt her way from trail marker to trail marker. She eventually won the event in a time of 18 days.

The photo shows her racing in the European classic, the Alpirod.

Two years later the legendary Susan Butcher won, and triumphed again in 1988 and 89, came second in 1990 and won for the fourth time in 91.  Sadly, she died of cancer in 2006, but the State of Alaska honours this incredible woman every March with a Susan Butcher day.

The youngest ever runner to compete was 18 year old Dallas Seavey, who comes from a famous Mushing family. He and other family members are competing again this year.  Many of the racers come from families long associated with the Iditarod  – you will often find father and son competing in same race, and it gets confusing when you look up winners, as so many carry same surname.


For many years the main dogs used were Siberian Huskies (the Ferraris of the dog racing world).  Others of the same husky family such as Greenlands and Malamutes (which are larger and heavier – Range Rovers), gave weight to a team, and were used as ‘wheelers’ (dogs nearest the sled that provide the ‘engine’).

But now, money rules.  Mushers want the fastest dogs, so the handsome hairy husky breeds are mixed with racy dogs such as pointers, and a not very attractive dog has come out of this.  These dogs don’t have the thick hair that protects a husky, so often have to wear coats.

In the past animal rights activists have tried to say the dogs are exploited.  Well, having gone out with many teams, the unhappiest sled dog is the one left behind whilst team mates are harnessed up to a sled; these dogs live to run – and run – and run.s ar

Dogs, like humans can have an off day.  But during the Iditarod, to ensure that no dog is running whilst injured or off-colour, dogs are inspected frequently on the trail by a team of vets.  Usually mushers themselves will bring a dog into the vet’s post because it has hurt itself, but sometimes the inspection will show there is an injury – either way, the dog is taken out, looked after, spoilt, and flown to the end of the trail where it rests up in an animal hospital until the musher finishes and comes to collect it.

If a dog leaves a team, the team will run with an empty space where this dog was harnessed.   Mushers won’t move dogs ‘up the line’ so they run side by side, as they are very particular animals.  Anyone who owns a team of sled dogs knows their favourite activity is running.  Second to this comes fighting each other, as the dogs love a good punch up.  So when choosing a team, a musher spends a long time selecting which dogs are most likely to get on with each other, before hitching them up to run alongside.  And if one falls out, its mate runs on its own to avoid accidents.

Last year it was extra cold, and Veterinarian Phil Meyer said “As cold as it is now, one of the problems is keeping weight on (the dogs), and I foresee that being a problem in this race,” Meyer is a long time Iditarod vet, talking as he handed out frozen fish (husky treat) to a pair of dogs musher Pete Kaiser left in the McGrath check-in.


Usually Iditarod racers run their teams in a tandem hitch (dogs running hitched up side by side, in an elongated ‘H’  shape), because the trail can be narrow at times.

But in their natural habitat when running across wide open snowy iced-over sea, mushers will use a fan hitch, where dogs are attached by their lines individually to the base, making a fan shape as they pull.  Reason – if a dog falls in an ice crevasse the rest of the team can dig in and the musher – hopefully – rescue the dog dangling from the end of  their individual line.

The dogs aren’t immune from fashion either.  They have to wear Teflon or similar bootees to protect their pads from the sharp ice crystals that form on the churned-up trail.  Musher Dee Dee Jonrowe’s team has 2,000 bright pink bootees in their kit.  The colour is to remind fans that Dee Dee raises money for a cancer charity, as she is a double mastectomy survivor.

Dogs’ harness is often in neon-bright colours that show off sponsor’s choice, but in reality this makes it easier to pick this up when excited, wriggling dogs cause handlers to drop harness in the snow.

A husky breed will bed down at night, tail curled over nose, and sleep happily in temperatures well below freezing.   But now, many of the ‘new’ breed of dog crosses  will huddle under thick fleece blankets; they don’t have the thick hair that protects huskies in temperatures -40º below or more on the trail.  If you go on the Iditarod website you will see photos of dogs sleeping under fleeces decorated with cats, as  their owner said this was the cheapest material available.

Photo shows DeeDee Jonrowe selecting harness for her dogs – made in her trademark pink colour which has two purposes:  to make it easy to see in the snow, and – more important – tell the world she survived breast cancer.

But traditionally the race runs when the dogs are happiest, which can be in the middle of the night to take advantage of colder temperatures.  Hence if you go to the race site you will see dogs arriving and departing any time of day or night.

But whatever happens, however much the Mushers love their dogs and cuddle them away from the public – you will never see an Iditarod veteran in a bling collar!

Last year’s winner

On 16th March 2010, Lance Mackey quietly emerged off the sea ice of the Bering Straits and entered Iditarod history, crossing the finish line in Nome to become the only musher in the 38-year history of the Iditarod to win four consecutive races.

For winning, Mackey got a new Dodge truck and $69.000.  And it’s the truck he said he really wanted!  Mackey is a mouth cancer survivor, and a legend on the sled dog trail having won just about every major championship:  some of them several times.

He is back this year, and says he is keen to make it five wins in a row.  He has a habit of letting the opposition make the running at the beginning of the race, but watch his position.  If he runs true to form, you will see him gradually edge up – until he wins by a crushing amount of time.

Breakthrough Breast Cancer

Men and Women can get breast cancer, and the ‘average’ woman is now considered to have a one in eight chance of developing it during their lifetime, wherever they live in the world.

This British based charity quietly gets on with funding research, with results that benefit patients all over the world.  It also lobbies the UK Parliament very effectively, and keeps members of Parliament fully aware of current issues and research.

Dr. Rachel Greig, Senior Policy Officer, says “some risk factors, such as getting older, cannot be changed but the good news is that others can.  By drinking less, maintaining a healthy weight and getting physically active, women can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer.”

So DeeDee, Lance and all the others running in the Iditarod are setting a good example!  You don’t all have to run 1,000 miles, but half an hour of exercise a day can be of enormous benefit, and if you want to help Breakthrough with a donation –  go to

From now on I hope to post an update every 36 hours – next one will have info on more British connections, which go back to 1909.

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