Even the competitors in the Iditarod, an event intrinsically linked to frigid conditions, will have to overcome unusual weather this winter. With surfaces along the trail much icier than anticipated, mushers young and old, male and female will do their best to navigate their sleds -- and the team of relentless dogs pulling them -- through ever-treacherous conditions.
When the Iditarod Sled Dog Race begins on March 1, it will mark the 42nd consecutive running of the annual competition. Every year, mushers and their team of sled dogs traverse more than 1,000 miles between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. The event began in 1973 and was conceived as a way to honor the sled-dog heritage of the state as well as draw attention to the historic Iditarod Trail, which actually begins southeast of Anchorage at Seward. Every year the race alternates between a northern route and southern route. In even years, such as 2014, riders take the northern route, a 1,112-mile journey that carries them through the Yukon River.
The ceremonial start of the race is held in Anchorage, Alaska, starting at 6 a.m. local time (10 a.m. EST). The race doesn't officially begin until the next day at the "restart" in Willow. This year the restart is set to take place on March 2 at 2 p.m. EST. Race officials briefly considered moving the official start from Willow to Fairbanks because of unusually low snow accumulation on the portion of the trail that runs through the Alaska Range, which left the ground particularly icy and, in some cases, bare. It was determined, however, that conditions permitted the use of heavy equipment to crush the ice into snow, avoiding the necessity for using an alternate starting point for just the second time in the history of the race.
Each sled team comprises a musher, 12-16 dogs, and countless supporters, handlers and sponsors who help make the race possible. Supplies -- food, dog booties, materials to repair sleds and even lighter "sprint" sleds for the final miles -- must be shipped to checkpoints that guide teams from Anchorage to Nome. Though mushers can begin the race with as many as 16 dogs, they must cross the finish line in Nome with no fewer than six. Along the way, dogs that become fatigued, sick or injured are dropped at one of 26 checkpoints that dot the northern trail. Following the first dog death in four years during the 2013 race, organizers developed a 40-page "dropped dog" manual and increased the number of dog houses available at each race hub.
The Iditarod traditionally pays the highest purse in sled dog racing. Over the past 41 years, the Iditarod has paid out a total of $14,384,350. The 2014 purse features $600,000 going to the first 30 finishers and $1,049 for the rest of the field. This year the field features 65 mushers, six of which are returning Iditiarod champions: John Baker, Martin Buser, Jeff King, Robert Sorlie, Mitch Seavey and Dallas Seavey.
Mitch and Dallas Seavey are a father-son tandem who own the records for oldest Iditarod winner and youngest Iditarod, respectively. Dallas Seavey took home the top prize as a 25 year old in 2012. The following year, Mitch became the oldest Iditarod champion at the age of 53.
Musher Aliy Zirkle finished just 13 minutes behind the elder Seavey in the 2013 Iditarod. Zirkle is a two-time Iditarod runner-up and among the favorites to win the The Last Great Race in 2014. Though she happens to be female, Zirkle views herself as a musher, not a female musher. But that doesn't prevent her from understanding the significance that a win in a sport dominated by males would bear and the positive impact that it might have on young mushers that aspire to follow in her footsteps. If Zirkle crosses the finish line first, she would be the first female Iditarod since Susan Butcher won in 1990.
If there's a character whose background bears a resemblance to a calculated, made-for-TV villain, it's the well-monied Robert Sorlie of Norway. Sorlie has won the Iditarod twice in just four attempts and will be competing in Alaska for the first time in seven years. Sorlie has flown his team of dogs from his native Norway after combining them with the team of fellow Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner to create a "super team," as some observers have described it.
If you're looking for a story that will tug at your heartstrings, DeeDee Jonrowe -- a legendary musher and cancer survivor -- is one of the top contenders to win the race just months after losing her father.
Whether you prefer the allure of watching man struggle to conquer nature, the bond between man and animal, or the relentless human struggle to overcome internal adversity in the most inhospitable conditions -- there will be more than enough storylines for even the casual viewer to latch on to during the 2014 Iditarod.