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Sports may be cancelled, but the Iditarod is still going

The storied sled dog race might represent the epitome of social distancing.

2020 Iditarod Sled Dog Race Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

The Iditarod probably didn’t intend for its slogan to sound ominous. But “The Last Great Race,” as it turns out, hits a little different when almost every other sport that requires leaving one’s home has been cancelled. Fifty-seven mushers and their teams began the 975-mile trek from Anchorage to Nome on March 7, inadvertently practicing the kind of social distancing that has already transformed most of the world as its citizens attempt to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Racing sled dogs (which authorities don’t believe can spread the virus) across remote towns in Alaska for days on end is inherently isolating. But that doesn’t mean the race hasn’t also adjusted in the face of the pandemic. Race organizers have moved some checkpoints to just outside of towns where residents are newly reluctant to greet outsiders (the state has three confirmed cases of the virus so far), kept volunteers from staying in rural enclaves where advanced healthcare is already difficult to access, and shipped extra sanitation supplies to the race’s checkpoints. End of race festivities in Nome have been cancelled.

Residents of the remote villages through which the Iditarod runs have good reason to be concerned about the outbreak. Just over 100 years ago, the Spanish flu decimated the local population. More people died from that epidemic per capita in Alaska than anywhere else in the world besides Samoa, and the impact was particularly grave for the Native population. Prior to that epidemic, which killed an estimated eight percent of the state’s Native citizens, “There were more Native people than neo-Americans,” according to University of Alaska historian Katie Ringsmuth. “This was a demographic game-changer,” she concluded.

The mushers themselves are somewhat blissfully out of the loop, and — for the duration of the race, whose first finishers should arrive in Nome early Wednesday — comparatively insulated from danger. “Glad I’m out here in the middle of nowhere,” as musher Brent Sass put it in an interview with Alaska Public Media.

“It’s nice not to have your little phone and say, ‘Oh, let’s check Facebook. What’s new with Instagram?’” Italian first-time musher Fabio Berlusconi told the Anchorage Daily News, though once he finishes the race he may have no way to return to his home country due to travel restrictions in his home country.

Nine mushers have scratched since the start of the race, but only one has left explicitly because of the virus. Jeremy Keller elected to turn around in the middle of the race and mush back to his home in Knik, Alaska, a 263-mile journey, specifically to avoid having to take any return flights, a decision that came with its own dangers. “It was just a roller coaster,” he told Anchorage’s KTUU. “I can tell you this: The trail is not designed to go in reverse. It’s designed to go forward. The obstacles can be many.”

His journey, in some ways, mirrors the race’s origin story. A different epidemic — diphtheria, which took hold of the state in 1925 — but one that forced the same conclusion: transport via sled dog was the safest remaining option. They were out of medicine in Nome, and the only way to get it to the remote town from Anchorage was by mushing. Enter Balto, along with his under-sung colleague Togo. The dogs save the humans in a tale that was, admittedly, much more uplifting in the years before a pandemic once again became reality. That the competition meant to pay tribute to the bravery and endurance required to survive seemingly bygone days is suddenly among the last sports standing is haunting, because its story seems more relevant than ever.