The Iditarod Dog Sled Race, the most famous annual dog sledding race held anywhere in the world has a very legendary past, most of which is not historically accurate but rather more creative interpretations of historical truths. In reality the Iditarod Trail, also known as the Seward to Nome main trail travels over 1000 miles in the state of Alaska through some of the most challenging an inhospitable terrain imaginable.
The original Seward to Nome main trail was used as a freight trail moving materials from the major railway terminal and seaport in Seward up along the coast, through the mountains and across rivers into the town of Iditarod and then on to the smaller yet still significant coastal city of Nome. In reality the Iditarod trail actually bisected the state and it was used by dog teams to transport freight that couldn't otherwise be reliably transported through the winter weather.
Along the trail various mushers and early explorers had set up a system of what were known as dog barns, about every 20-30 miles along the trail. These were actually relatively crude stopping points where dogs and humans could rest, stay warm indoors for a night and be prepared to move on again in the morning. The teams were hauling over a thousand pounds of freight per team, so speed wasn't the same as with the modern types of racing teams. Twenty miles in sub zero weather was challenging even for the most seasoned dog team and musher.
It wasn't until the year of 1925 that an actual race occurred along this trail, and it was a race for the life of the people of Nome. That year an outbreak of diphtheria, a very contagious and life threatening bacteria, occurred in Nome in the middle of winter. Since the waterway transportation was not possible, the only way to get the vaccine into the city was to use an overland route.
By this time the railway went much further north in Alaska and was actually to a smaller town outside of Anchorage known as Nenana. The train carried the serum to Nenana and teams of mushers and their fastest dogs set up a relay like the old time pony express to get the serum as fast as possible to Nome.
The original serum run used 20 mushers and their teams, but really only two of the dogs became famous. The last leg of the trail was run by a Norwegian and his team, with the lead dog the now famous Balto. The mushers name was Gunnar Kaasen, and he credited his ability to be able to stay on the trail to the lead dog of the team, Balto. Balto surprisingly enough was not his first choice of lead dogs, but he really saved the day. This was even more incredible as a huge snowstorm and minus twenty three degrees Fahrenheit weather actually caused Kaasen to miss the final relay stop, meaning that his team ran the final two lengths of the trek. The total distance of this amazing feat of human and animal endurance and effort over the entire route was just slightly over 675 miles, all which was completed in just 5 1/2 days.
Another musher, Leonhard Seppala and his dog Togo also became well known after the serum run and were awarded recognition by explorer Roald Amundsen. They didn't reach the level of fame of Balto, which caused a rift between the two mushers that was never mended.
The modern Iditarod Dog Sled Race is a combination of a tribute to this historic race against a disease in a remote Alaskan city as well as a tribute to the mushers that provided the supplies that made Alaska a place for people to settle in and live. It was first run in 1973 and has since become a huge tourist and media draw for the state of Alaska. The new race follows a slightly different course than the original, starting in Anchorage and then racing almost 1150 miles to the city of Nome. Alternate years the race takes a more southern or northern route to provide more variation on the ground that the teams will cover. Each team of dogs, which number from 12 to 16, is literally out on the course on their own, racing against the weather, each other and the times that have been set throughout the history of the race.
The race course is much different than in the earliest days of the event with first aid services more readily available, although the mushers and their teams are largely on their own and often rely on each other if emergencies occur. The race does have a set course that is now marked with specific check points that mushers must stop at to ensure they are safely through the specific leg of the race. There are also veterinarians that check the dogs when they arrive at the checkpoints and remove any teams where the dogs are injured or reaching the point of exhaustion. Vets also health check each dog before the race and remove any dogs that are unfit to race for any reason. Dogs are also blood tested for any signs of steroids or pain killing medications that may be used to increase the dog's performance but risk the dog's health and well being.
Each team must carry specific supplies and the mushers cannot start the race without these. They all must have a winter parka, sleeping bag, food for the dogs as well as themselves, an axe, snowshoes as well as protective footwear for each of the dogs. Mushers can choose how and when they race, some race at night while others may choose to race by day. Since the race takes most teams between 10 and 17 days to complete, it truly is a marathon in every sense of the word.
There are many different types of dog teams and mushers from around the world that now come to Alaska each and every year to compete. There have been mushers as old as 88 that have competed and won the race as well as the first woman to win the event in 1985. There have been teams from as far away as Japan, Switzerland and France as well as Canada and the United States. In addition there have been some very unusual teams of dogs, a musher with a team of Standard Poodles actually competed in the Iditarod races from 1988 to 1991.