The start of the 46th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is fast approaching.
As mushers and their sled dogs prepare for the dash to Nome, we have answers to 16 questions about how the race works and what to expect. Mush on!
1. When does the 2018 Iditarod start?
The race begins with an 11-mile ceremonial start on Saturday, March 3, at 10 a.m. in Anchorage.
Mushers will arrive downtown early Saturday to get their sled dogs ready for the parade-like event. Starting at 10 a.m., the teams will take off one-by-one at two-minute intervals from Fourth Avenue, near the D Street intersection. They'll turn onto Cordova Street and drop down the hill to Mulcahy Stadium before snaking their way along city trails and ending their run at the Campbell Airstrip in Far North Bicentennial Park.
The race restart happens the next day, Sunday, March 4, about 70 miles away in Willow.
Teams will leave the starting chute on Willow Lake one-by-one, at two-minute intervals beginning at 2 p.m. Public parking is available at the Willow Airport. It costs $10 per vehicle, according to the Iditarod Trail Committee, the nonprofit that stages the race.
2. How many teams will race this year and who are they?
There are 67 mushers signed up to run the 2018 Iditarod, five fewer than last year.
This year's race field includes three previous Iditarod champions: defending champion and three-time winner Mitch Seavey, as well as four-time champions Martin Buser and Jeff King.
(John Baker, the 2011 Iditarod champion, recently withdrew from the race. He said he wanted to focus on his growing business. Four-time champion Dallas Seavey dropped out in October in protest of how Iditarod officials handled his dogs' failed drug tests.)
There are 16 women and 51 men competing in the 2018 Iditarod; 16 are rookies and the rest have run the race before.
Three mushers list their hometown as somewhere outside of North America and 48 mushers list their hometown as a community in Alaska, including iconic musher DeeDee Jonrowe, who announced that the 2018 Iditarod will be her last.
3. Who's sitting in mushers' sleds during the Anchorage ceremonial start?
Those are the "Iditariders" — the race fans who bid on (and won) seats in the sleds of their favorite mushers during the Iditarod's online auction this winter. The opening bid for a sled spot starts at $750 and to buy the spot outright costs $7,500. The money earned goes toward race costs.
4. What's the trail like this year?
The Iditarod teams will travel the race's southern route this year for the first time since 2013.
Typically, Iditarod teams travel the southern route in odd-numbered years and the northern one in even-numbered years, but low snow and poor trail conditions pushed the official race start north to Fairbanks in 2015 and 2017. To make up for the two years of southern-route skips, the Iditarod trail will follow the southern route this year and next year, if conditions allow, race officials said.
Much of the northern and southern Iditarod routes align, except for about a 300-mile stretch between Ophir and Kaltag.
Here's a very basic breakdown of the 2018 route:
Mushers and their teams will travel from Willow on a winding trail through birch and spruce woods to Yentna Station, along river trails to Skwentna and then uphill to Finger Lake. From there, teams travel to the Puntilla Lake checkpoint of Rainy Pass, over the Alaska Range, through the notorious Dalzell Gorge, down to the Kuskokwim River, and along about 160 miles of trail from Rohn to Ophir.
The trail then snakes southwest for a 300-mile half-loop to Iditarod and Shageluk before reaching the Yukon River communities of Anvik (about halfway), Grayling and Eagle Island. Mushers will continue to Kaltag, Unalakleet and up the Norton Sound coast in the long push along the Seward Peninsula to Nome.
5. How long is the trail?
It's generally accepted that the Iditarod is a 1,000-mile race; however, the actual GPS measurements of the route show it's slightly shorter.
The southern route measures about 998 miles. The northern route measures about 975 miles. The Fairbanks route measures about 979 miles, according to the Iditarod website.
The website notes that the distances are estimates and the actual trail changes year to year based on conditions.
(Just how far is 1,000 miles? If you drive from Philadelphia to Orlando or Portland to Los Angeles you'd be in the neighborhood. In Alaska, it's like driving from Seward to the small city of North Pole and back).
6. How many sled dogs are on a team?
Mushers must start the Iditarod with at least 12 sled dogs, but no more than 16. At the finish, mushers must have at least five dogs pulling their sled.
They can't add sled dogs along the trail, but they can leave them behind at checkpoints with veterinarians and volunteers (the race calls these dogs "dropped dogs").
Mushers choose to drop dogs from their teams for a variety of reasons, including injuries and poor performance.
At their own expense, mushers can designate where they would like the dogs flown, according to race rules.
But many dogs wind up in Anchorage where friends, family or dog handlers pick them up and take them home.
7. How do mushers tell their dogs where to go?
Generally, when mushers want their teams to turn right, they say, "Gee," and when they want them to go left they say, "Haw." When they want their lead dogs to pull the team straight out from the sled, you might hear them say, "Line out."
When mushers want their teams to start racing, sometimes they say, "Mush!" or "Let's Go!" or "Alright!" When they want them to stop, they say "Whoa!"
8. How much does it cost to race the 2017 Iditarod?
The entry fee alone was $4,000 this year, and that doesn't include the thousands of dollars in other costs, including transporting the sled dog team to the ceremonial start and race restart, purchasing gear, supplies and food for the race and shipping some of those items, packed in "drop bags," to checkpoints along the trail.
In an interview last year, musher Paul Gebhardt, of Kasilof, estimated it cost him about $30,000 to race the Iditarod.
9. What's a drop bag?
It's a sack that mushers fill with dog food, people food and supplies. About two weeks before the start, mushers haul dozens of these bags to designated spots to get them postmarked, weighed and sent off to the far-flung checkpoints.
This year, it cost them 72 cents a pound.
Once the teams get to the checkpoints, they'll likely find the bags, labeled with their names, lined up outside for retrieval. For the dogs, the bags often include frozen beef, frozen fish and kibble. For the mushers, they often include vacuum-sealed bags of food, like pasta.
10. How often do mushers stop along the trail?
The Iditarod requires teams to make three mandatory stops.
They must take one 24-hour layover at a checkpoint of their choice. (The starting time differential is also made up here.) They also have to make an eight-hour stop at a checkpoint on the Yukon River, including Shageluk. The third mandatory rest is an eight-hour stop in White Mountain, 77 miles from the Nome finish line.
Mushers rest their teams many more times at checkpoints and along the trail during the race. The top mushers attempt to create a run-rest cycle to maximize their teams' speed.
11. What do mushers have to carry in their sled?
The Iditarod requires each musher carry the following items: a cold-weather sleeping bag that weighs at least five pounds, an ax, a pair of snowshoes, dog booties, a veterinarian notebook, a cooker and pot that can boil at least three gallons of water at a time, enough fuel to boil three gallons of water, one cable drop line for each dog, non-chafing harnesses for each dog and a neckline, plus any promotional material provided by the Iditarod Trail Committee.
They also must carry an "adequate" amount of emergency dog food.
Race officials check for the mandatory gear at the official race start in Willow and during each musher's 24-hour break. The race marshal and race judges can also decide to check gear at any other point at the race "at their discretion," except at the final checkpoint of Safety, race rules say.
12. Did Balto run the Iditarod?
Nope, the fabled Balto was one of the sled dogs in the 1925 serum run to Nome. A relay of 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs transported antitoxin from Nenana to Nome, where a deadly diphtheria epidemic threatened to decimate the gold-mining town. Balto was the lead dog on the final portion of the relay.
Decades later, Joe Redington Sr. and Dorothy Page decided to start a sled dog race over the historic Iditarod Trail, which once served as Alaska's primary artery for ferrying supplies and mail. They ran two shorter races between Knik and Big Lake in 1967 and 1969 before holding the first race from Anchorage to Nome in 1973.
While there are parallels between the serum run and the Iditarod, Redington, known as the "Father of the Iditarod," started the long-distance race to promote sled dog culture during a time when snowmachines started to phase out sled dogs and to preserve the historic Iditarod Trail, according to the Iditarod's race history.
13. Do dogs ever die during the Iditarod?
Yes, dogs have died during the Iditarod.
In 2017, three dogs collapsed and died on the Iditarod Trail. A dropped dog also died after overheating on a cargo flight from Galena to Anchorage, prompting race officials to change rules for transporting dogs. Another dropped dog was hit by a car and killed in Anchorage after it was released from Iditarod care.
The death toll was the highest since 2009, when six dogs died during the Iditarod.
14. Any other rules changes this year?
The Iditarod Board of Directors changed its rules in October after sled dogs on four-time champion Dallas Seavey's team tested positive for tramadol, a painkiller prescribed to both humans and dogs that the race prohibits.
The board said it could not penalize Seavey because it couldn't prove the musher gave the drug to the dogs. The board changed its rules so mushers are now held strictly liable for all failed drug tests, instead of race officials shouldering the burden of proof.
The board also toughened restrictions on mushers carrying resting sled dogs, which has has been a key race strategy for a few mushers, including defending champion Mitch Seavey. Seavey has used a trailer to rest multiple dogs during stretches of the race like a coach resting players on a bench during a basketball game.
The board voted to keep a rule that allows mushers to carry two-way communication devices, including cellphones and satellite phones.
15. When can we expect a 2018 Iditarod champ?
Well, if this year's race is anything like the last one that followed the southern route, the first musher would likely cross under the burled arch in Nome sometime late Tuesday, March 13.
But the race has gotten a lot faster since 2013.
It took Mitch Seavey 9 days, 7 hours, 39 minute and 56 seconds to win the 2013 Iditarod.
Last year, he shaved about a day and four hours off that time to place first.
If that speed is kept up, we could see a race champion as early as Monday evening, March 12.
16. What does the top musher win?
The Iditarod Trail Committee has not yet released the prize breakdown, but the race champion is expected to have a smaller prize this year.
The Iditarod Trail Committee will distribute $500,000 among race finishers in 2018, about $250,000 less than last year. Just how much the race champion leaves Nome with will depend on how many teams finish the race, the committee said.
Last year, Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey won $71,250 and his pick of a new Dodge vehicle. His son Dallas, who placed second, earned $59,637. The totals decreased gradually from there. Every finisher receives at least $1,049.