The 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officially begins Sunday, when the 62 teams head out from Willow with sights set on being the first to cross the finish line in Nome, roughly 1,100 miles to the northwest. Sunday's start comes after Saturday's ceremonial, carnival-like beginning on Saturday in downtown Anchorage, which features large crowds lining 4th Avenue downtown to cheer on the mushers and their 16-dogs, including Lance Mackey, who is seeking his record fifth straight Iditarod win.
So What Exactly Is The Iditarod? It's a sled dog race, from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska (roughly 1,100 miles), that starts on the first Saturday in March every year, beginning in 1973. It's nicknamed the "Last Great Race on Earth" and is considered one of sports' more grueling events, as mushers and their dog teams battle the Alaskan wilderness for 8-17 days:
... jagged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast at the mushers and their dog teams. Add to that temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills, and you have the Iditarod. A race extraordinaire, a race only possible in Alaska.
Why Is The Iditarod? The race honors Alaska's pioneering and brave past, much of which centered around dogsledding, particularly the "Great Run of Mercy" in 1925, when sled dog teams brought serum to Nome to prevent a diphtheria epidemic. (See also: "Balto".)
How Long Does It Take? The winners reach Nome in about nine days or so. The record, held by four-time winner Martin Buser, is 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes. Lance Mackey did it last year in 8d 23h 59m 9s -- it was a record fourth-straight win.
How Far Do They Race? It's around 1,100 miles -- the official course map says 1,131 miles this year, but no one knows for sure: "Even global positioning systems on sleds don't count every twist and turn of the route, mushers say, and the exact length of the trail is unknown."
They Cover Over 1000 Miles In Nine Days? When Do They Sleep: The mushers don't sleep, really. That's why there's so many sleep-deprived hallucinations. Really.
Is Lance Mackey The Favorite This Year Again? Sure is. He's the first ever to win four straight Iditarods, and a fifth consecutive victory is possible this year. He didn't run in the Yukon Quest -- another sled dog race run every February between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon, considered even more difficult than the Iditarod -- so his team is rested and ready. And Mackey is already considered one of the sports' greatest mushers ever. After his 2010 win, fellow musher Hugh Neff said it best: "He could take your dogs and beat his team with your dogs. That's how good of a musher he is."
So It's a Definite Win For Mackey? Well, no. Nine of the top-ten mushing teams are entered in this year's race, so Mackey will have his competition. Additionally, Mackey is racing with a young, untested team. But he's still confident:
"If people didn't think I could do four and I did, why shouldn't I do five?" Mackey said. "I have the ability, the confidence and the dog team to do it, and it should be a great race."
Oh Yeah, About The Dogs: Don't They Hate This? Not really. The dogs love to run -- it's literally what they're bred to do. And new studies are showing that dogs, unlike humans, actually get stronger during an endurance event. Of course though, it doesn't mean it's not a grueling event on the dogs -- 2009 was the first Iditarod in which a dog did not die. As such, the race has plenty of opposition, from PETA, the Sled Dog Action Coalition and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, all of which think the Iditarod is animal cruelty.
The Iditarod organizers have responded, with veterinary check-ups for every single dog, both before the race starts and then at every checkpoint along the way. More than the race officials, however, are the mushers themselves, who continually put the dogs before themselves throughout the race. In 2010, Sebastian Schnuelle gave up his chance of winning to better care for his team, and four-time winner Lance Mackey famously stops before crossing the finish line to individually thank each of his dogs individually (Mackey won the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award in 2009, awarded by veterinarians to the musher who provides outstanding dog care while remaining competitive).
Mackey, the 40-year-old champion from Fairbanks, Alaska, says critics have no insight into his sport. "If I had an opportunity to take people who are against what we do, if they came to my yard and hung out for just one day, they'd probably have another opinion," he says.
What Do They Win? The first person to cross the finish line gets $50,400, and the top-30 finishers split the $528,000 purse, down from $875,000 in 2008.
What About The Mushers Who Finishes Last? They get the Red Lantern.