The Iditarod, the world’s most famous sled dog race, is just days away from a historic start. Indeed, the nearly 1,100-mile race, which is held each year in Alaska, is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
The race actually has two starts. First, there’s a ceremonial start on the first Saturday of March. Then, the next day’s restart marks the beginning of the competitive part of the race.
The Iditarod didn’t have a ceremonial start last year due to COVID-19 restrictions. That’s not the case this year, however.
The ceremonial start, which marks the 50th anniversary of what is officially called the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, is Saturday, March 5, at 10:30 a.m. Alaska Standard Time (AST), in downtown Anchorage. Then the restart, marking the competition’s beginning, is Sunday, March 6, at 2 p.m. AST in nearby Willow, Alaska.
Mushers and their teams of sled dogs are expected to cross the race’s finish line in Nome, Alaska, 7 or 8 days later.
Here’s what you need to know about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
“The name Iditarod came from the Ingalik and Holikachuk Indian word ‘Hidehod’ for the Iditarod River,” James Kasri, assistant professor at the University of Alaska Native Language Center, wrote in 1979, according to the Iditarod. “This name means distant or distant place. This word is still known by elders in the villages of Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling, and Holy Cross.”
The old Iditarod Trail sled dog mail route was roughly 1,100 miles long and stretched from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik, Alaska, to the goldfields and mining camps found in northwest Alaska in the early 1900s. The dogs and mushers served two vital purposes. First, they delivered mail and supplies to towns including Nome and Iditarod, and then they carried gold back to the coastal towns.
“It was the only real way to trade and get early healthcare,” Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach explains. “It helped people live a subsistence lifestyle by trapping, hunting, fishing, and trading. This was how people got around and were able not only to survive, but in certain cases, to thrive.”
Using dogs and sleds began to fall out of favor in the 1920’s when it began to be easier and quicker to cover the route by airplane.
Then, in early 1925, Nome experienced a diphtheria epidemic. While there were supplies of diphtheria serum in Anchorage, the challenge was to transport them quickly to Nome, to stop the disease’s spread. The first plan was to fly the serum by plane to Nome, but the only pilot judged capable of flying in the unpredictable winter weather was out of Alaska at the time, the Iditarod explains.
Instead, teams of sled dogs were used to transport the serum in a relay, much like the Pony Express mail delivery. Along the way, the mushers and their dogs endured blizzards, negative 85 degree Farhenheit temperatures, and whiteouts.
No vials of serum were broken along the route, and the heroic effort, now known as the “1925 Serum Run” and the “Great Race of Mercy,” saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in Nome, according to the Alaska State Archives.
A Modern Take
The modern Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race pays tribute to its origins as well as the historic delivery of diphtheria serum in 1925.
Like its historical counterpart, today’s Iditarod begins in Anchorage each year on Fourth Avenue at D Street, where “onlookers get a close-up view of the teams,” Visit Anchorage explains. “Spectators flock to the start line downtown or stake out a spot further down the 11-mile route through Anchorage.”
Like the original trail, the current Iditarod trail crosses both the Alaskan and Kuskokwim Mountain Ranges, runs along the Yukon River for 150 miles, and travels hundreds of miles across frozen land. The exact course varies from year to year depending on course conditions.
It’s nearly impossible to account for all of the twists and turns along the route, which means the exact distance each year is only an estimate. Consequently, the Iditarod Trail Committee, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, explains that it uses the symbolic number “1,049” for the race’s distance: 1,000 miles of trail and “49” to identify Alaska as the 49th state.
After mushers and their teams of sled dogs make their way across frozen Alaska, the race follows the same historic course to the finish line each year.
“From Kaltag, the home stretch is the same every year: Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, Safety Roadhouse, and Nome. True to their predecessors, the mushers still run down Front Street past the still notorious saloons into the heart of the Last Frontier’s last frontier town to the burled arch,” the Iditarod explains. “Every musher’s arrival is heralded by the city’s fire siren and every musher is greeted by a crowd lining the ‘chute,’ no matter the time of day or night, or if he or she is first or last across the line.”
This Year’s Race
Don’t worry if you can’t visit Anchorage, Nome, or somewhere in between to watch the historic race this year. You can still watch parts of the 50th anniversary of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race broadcasted live.
Coverage for the race’s ceremonial start will begin at 9:30 a.m. AST on Saturday, March 5. You can learn how to convert Alaska Standard Time to your local time here and you can watch the race’s start here.
The competitive restart the next day, Sunday, March 6, will also be broadcasted live, beginning at 1:30 p.m. AST. You can watch the race’s restart here.
You can also watch a livestream of the race from the trail and the live broadcast of the leaders arriving at Deshka Landing, however, those broadcasts require a subscription. You can learn more about those subscriptions here.
While you’re thinking about it, be sure to check out the rest of our Alaska coverage, including 6 Charming Small Towns To Visit In Southern Alaska.