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ANCHORAGE.   I am in Anchorage advising a client in connection with a senior executive placement.  It was my good luck to arrive in time to witness the ceremonial start of the 39th Iditarod – the last great race on earth — in downtown Anchorage.

Saturday's festivities, attended by thousands in one big tailgate party and winter carnival, was an exciting, and very colIMG00115-20110305-1015d build up, to the real race which began Sunday in Willow, AK.

"Today is a winter festival," an announcer boomed over the public address system. "Tomorrow begins a big old sweaty dog race." 

Sixty-three contestants — Mushers and their dog teams — will endure grueling conditions for the next 10 to 17 days over a more than 1,000 mile course to Nome through regions of this vast state that only dog sled teams go.  Even with GPS technology on each sled, Mushers face daunting challenges, including getting lost in nasty snow storms. This sport is not for the faint of heart or  weak of body and spirit.  Racers will experience bitter cold, brutal headwinds, and hallucinations resulting from loss of sleep. Truth is that the Mushers will take better care of their dogs than themselves during this 10+ days of the race. Before the race the dogs, which are bred to run and get stronger as the race progresses, are thoroughly evaluated by veterinarians.  That does not stop critics from labeling this event as animal cruelty.  

At race time on a cloudless Saturday morning, the temperature was about 2 degrees in downtown. I won't kid you, I was cold. Really cold. But judging by the elbow-to-elbow crowds in the bars, coffee houses and restaurants, I wasn't the only one who needed a break to warm up.

For me, this was a fascinating experience and an opportunity to learn more about this unique state.  Here are some race facts about this race and dog sledding that I found interesting:

  • Iditarod is a ghost town that is located on the southern course. Each year the race alternates between the longer northern course and the southern route which is known for its bitter headwinds. This year the race is using the southern course.
  • This year's entrants include Mushers from Stonehaven, Scotland; Aukland, New Zealand; St. Anne, Jamaica; a funeral director known as the "Mushing Mortician" from Anchorage; and a 62-year-old physician from Chattanooga, TN.
  • There are 11 women in this year's field of entrants.  The first woman to win was Libby Riddles in 1985.  Susan Butcher, perhaps the best known woman to win the race, won her first time in 1986 and was the first racer to win four out of five sequential years. She is the second four-time winner. Ms. Butcher died of a virulent form of Leukemia in 2003. 
  • DeeDee Jonrow, a fan favorite and breast cancer survivor, entered the 2003 Iditarod, three weeks after completing chemotherapy. A 27-race veteran, this native of Frankfurt, Germany has not been out of the top 25 since 1984.  In her 27 races, she has won more than $472,128.
  • The ceremonial route is 11-miles long.  Because there has been no recent snow, and given the city's excellent snow removal program, snow that was stockpiled for weeks, is brought in to create a manicured course. Mushers invite friends to ride with them in the sled for the Saturday run, or they tow another sled, to add weight to keep the dogs for going too fast.
  • Each Musher is required to carry the following equipment in the actual race: An ax with a handle at least 22 inches long, snowshoes, promotional materials provided by the race committee (yeah, believe it or not), eight booties for each dog on the team, cooker and pot capable of boiling at least three gallons of water at one time, veterinarian notebooks that are reviewed by a veterinarian at each checkpoint, fuel and a cable gang line capable of securing a dog team.
  • A 1925 Diphtheria epidemic in Nome was ravaging children.  A train delivered the needed serum to the town of Neema, the end of the rail line.  Dog sledding teams carried the drug the last 674 miles in 24-hour shifts. Thousands of lives were saved, and dog sledding earned an important part of this state's extraordinary history.

I have uploaded additional photographs on my Facebook page.

 © 2011 John Gregory Self

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