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Iditarod

When does the 2019 Iditarod start? (And 10 other questions about Alaska’s most famous sled dog race)

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: February 26
  • Published February 22

Dogs in Mitch Seavey's team howl in anticipation of the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage in 2015. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The ceremonial start for the 47th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is Saturday, March 2. The first team will leave downtown Anchorage at 10 a.m., but the streets will come alive a couple of hours earlier with the sound of barking dogs as mushers prepare for their departure.

The restart is Sunday, March 3, when teams will leave the Willow Community Center beginning at 2 p.m. That’s when the race clock starts ticking.

The ceremonial start takes teams on a festive 11-mile journey through Anchorage. Snow stored over the winter is trucked downtown and spread onto the city streets to give the sleds something to glide on.

Teams leave the start line at Fourth Avenue and D Street in two-minute intervals. They turn onto Cordova Street and drop down the hill to Mulcahy Stadium, where they leave the streets for the trails. The run ends at Campbell Airstrip in Far North Bicentennial Park.

How many teams are in the race, and who are they?

A field of 52 is signed up for the race – the smallest since 1989, when there were 49 teams.

Six mushers are from the Lower 48, four are from Canada, four are from Europe and the rest are from Alaska.

Ten are rookies. Five are past champions -- defending champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, four-time winners Jeff King, Martin Buser and Lance Mackey, and three-time winner Mitch Seavey.

Aliy Zirkle acknowledges cheers as she winds through parties situated along the course at 16th Avenue during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start in 2017. (Erik Hill / ADN)

Women make up nearly a third of the field -- there are 17 of them. And although there have been more women in a handful of other races -- there was a record 26 in 2016 -- there’s never been a higher percentage of women. Women make up 32.7 percent of this year’s field, a slight increase from 2015, when 25 women made up 31.3 percent of the field.

How many dogs are on a team? Are there substitutes?

A new rule this year reduced the maximum number of dogs per team to 14. The previous maximum was 16.

A musher must have at least 12 dogs on the tow line when the race begins and must have at least five in harness at the finish line. In last year’s race, 60 of the 68 teams started with 16 dogs; the others started with 15 or 14.

The only time a musher can add dogs to a team is between the ceremonial start and the restart. A musher can drop a dog at any checkpoint, for any reason -- because they are sick or injured, or as part of a race strategy. Dogs left behind at checkpoints are cared from by Iditarod volunteers until they are flown back to Anchorage.

Any other new rules this year?

Yes, and one of them is a big one.

Mushers who have a dog die during the race will not be allowed to continue racing unless the death "was caused solely by unforeseeable, external forces," according a rule adopted in June by the board of directors.

Stuart Nelson, the Iditarod’s chief veterinarian, said he could think of only two occasions when a dog’s death was “caused solely by unforeseeable, external forces” – in 2016 when a drunk snowmachiner crashed into Jeff King’s team on the frozen Yukon River and killed 3-year-old Nash, and in 1985 when a moose stomped Susan Butcher’s team, killing two dogs and injuring 13.

One dog died during last year’s Iditarod. Blondie, a 5-year-old on Katherine Keith’s team, died of “aspiration pneumonia” after being dropped at a checkpoint. Race officials said Blondie was indoors and under a veterinarian’s care when it died.

When will the race end?

Probably late Tuesday or early Wednesday (March 12-13).

In 2017, when Mitch Seavey set the race record of 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes, 13 seconds, he reached Nome at 3:40 p.m. Tuesday. That year, the race started in Fairbanks on a Monday, a day later than usual, because of open water and too little snow on the route out of Willow.

In 2018, when deep snow slowed dogs a bit, Joar Leifseth Ulsom reached Nome at 3 a.m. Wednesday.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom drives his dogteam down Front Street in Nome for the 2018 Iditarod win. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Only seven races have ended in less than nine days. Martin Buser was the first to break the nine-day barrier in 2002, but there wasn’t another eight-day winner until 2010 when Lance Mackey did it with 51 seconds to spare.

Six of the last nine champions, dating back to Mackey’s 2010 run, have finished in less than nine days. The record has been broken four times during that stretch (John Baker in 2011, Dallas Seavey in 2014 and 2016, Mitch Seavey in 2017).

The winners of the first two Iditarods, in 1973 and 1974, needed 20 days to finish. Last year’s Red Lantern winner, Magnus Kaltenborn, finished in 12 days, 20 hours.

What’s the Red Lantern?

It’s the award given to the last musher to finish the race. The slowest Red Lantern time came in 1973, when John Schultz finished in 32 days.

Many mushers enter the Iditarod with the sole desire to get their dogs safely to Nome, so there is no dishonor in winning the Red Lantern.

Iditarod musher Christine Roalofs with her 2013 Iditarod red lantern on Friday, February 27, 2015. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Don’t confuse the Red Lantern with the Widow’s Lamp. The Widow’s Lamp is a small lantern lit on the day of the restart. It hangs on the burled arch that marks the Nome finish line, where it burns until the last musher finishes. The Red Lantern winner is given the honor of extinguishing it.

The Widow’s Lamp pays homage to the days when sled dogs carried freight and mail through Alaska, according to Iditarod.com. A musher would travel from roadhouse to roadhouse, where a kerosene lamp burned outside to guide him to his destination through the darkness.

What’s the age limit for the Iditarod?

You must be 18 or older the day the race begins. There is no age cutoff. As long as you run the necessary mid-distance races to qualify, you can enter.

The Seavey family owns the Iditarod’s two age-related records.

Dallas Seavey holds his leaders, Diesel, left, and Guiness after he arrived at the finish line to claim victory in the Iditarod in 2012. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Dallas Seavey became the youngest Iditarod champ in 2012, when he turned 25 during the race. Until then, the record belonged to Rick Swenson, who was 26 when he won the 1977 race.

Mitch Seavey, Dallas’ dad, became the oldest Iditarod champ in 2017, when he won at age 57. He broke his own record, set when he won the 2013 race at age 53.

The oldest finisher in Iditarod history is Norman Vaughan, who was 84 when he drove a team of 11 dogs under the burled arch in 60th place -- one spot ahead of last place. Vaughan, who lived till he was 100, finished four Iditarods, the first in 1978.

Has there ever been a tie in the Iditarod?

Almost.

In 1978, Dick Mackey edged Rick Swenson by one second to win the 1,000-mile race. Their teams were side-by-side as they raced down Nome’s Front Street.

Dick Mackey runs in front of Rick Swenson in a sprint to the Iditarod finish in Nome in 1978. (Rob Stapleton / ADN archive 1978)

Mackey won by a nose -- the nose of a lead dog. Though Swenson was the first human across the finish line, Mackey’s lead dog crossed the finish line a heartbeat ahead Swenson’s lead dog to claim the victory.

Years later, the two mushers told the story of their photo finish.

“For years,” Swenson told the Daily News, “the only trophy that we had in the house any place where you could see was my second-place trophy from 1978, to remember that a second counts.”

Who are those people in the sleds during the ceremonial start in Anchorage?

They’re called Idita-Riders, and they are the winners of the race’s annual online auction, which raises money for the race.

Bids open at $850. An instant purchase costs $7,500, and this year eight mushers were claimed with instant purchases -- Martin Buser, Jeff King, Lance Mackey, Nic Petit, Aliy Zirkle, Matthew Failor, Blair Braverman and Shaynee Traska.

The auction for this year’s race ended last month.

Who has won the most Iditarods?

Rick Swenson is the race’s only five-time champion. He won in 1977, 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1991 -- the only musher to win in three separate decades.

Six mushers have won four races apiece, and three of them are signed up for this year’s race -- Martin Buser (1992, 1994, 1997, 2002), Jeff King (1993, 1996, 1998, 2006) and Lance Mackey (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010).

Four-time winner Dallas Seavey (2012, 2014, 2015, 2016) is skipping the Iditarod for the second straight year in favor of running the 744-mile Finnmarkslopet in Norway. He finished third in that race last year.

Susan Butcher and one of her lead dogs at the finish line after winning the 1990 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Doug Swingley (1995, 1999, 2000, 2001) is retired from sled dog racing, and Susan Butcher (1986, 1987, 1988, 1990) died of leukemia in 2006 at age 51.

Those seven mushers have won all but 17 of the 46 Iditarods. Add three-time champion Mitch Seavey (2004, 2013, 2017), and you have eight mushers who have won 70 percent of the races.

What does the top musher win?

For his victory last year, Joar Leifseth Ulsom won a new truck and a check for $50,612.

The size of the purse varies from year to year, depending on sponsorships, entry fees and fundraising. This year’s purse is $500,000, about the same as last year. The bulk of it will be paid to the top 20 finishers, but every finisher from 21st place to last place will collect $1,049.

While $50,000 buys a lot of dog food, the new Dodge truck awarded to winners can be every bit as precious. A new truck couldn’t have come at a better time for Ulsom last year -- he said his 1999 pickup broke down right before the race.

ADN reporter Tegan Hanlon contributed.

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