The ceremonial start for the 48th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is Saturday, March 7. A team will leave the downtown start line every two minutes, with the first team leaving at 10 a.m. The streets of downtown Anchorage come alive a couple of hours earlier with the sound of barking dogs as mushers prepare for their departures.
The restart is Sunday, March 8, 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.
When will the race end?
Probably late Tuesday or early Wednesday (March 17-18).
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.
How many mushers are in the race, and who are they?
There are 57 teams signed up, a slight increase of last year’s field of 52, which was the smallest since 1989, when there were 49.
There are six past champions, who together they own 17 championships – defending champion Pete Kaiser, 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, four-time champions Jeff King, Martin Buser and Lance Mackey and three-time champion Mitch Seavey.
There are 11 rookies, 15 women and 44 who list Alaska as their residency.
What’s new this year?
The Iditarod Trifecta debuts this year, a contest that asks participants to make three guesses:
• The winning musher;
• The winning time;
• Number of dogs in harness for the winning team.
Entries cost $10 apiece and will be sold until 1 p.m. on March 8, the day of the restart. You must be 18 to enter.
The prize will depend on the number of entries. The pot will divided like this:
• 40% for the winning entry;
• 40% for the winning musher;
• 20% for the top 20 finishers;
For details on how to enter, go to Iditarod.com/trifecta-2020/.
Any new rules?
No big ones this year, although there’s a new item on the list of mandatory gear mushers must carry with them: insulated dog coats for each dog in the team, for use when needed while running or resting.
The rest of the mandatory gear includes:
• Proper cold weather sleeping bag weighing a minimum of 5 pounds;
• Ax, head to weigh a minimum of 1 3/4 pounds, handle at least 22 inches long;
• One operational pair of snowshoes with bindings, each snowshoe to be at least 252 square inches in size;
• Any promotional material provided by the ITC;
• Eight booties for each dog in the sled or in use;
• One operational cooker and pot capable of boiling at least three gallons of water at one time;
• Veterinarian notebook, to be presented to the veterinarian at each checkpoint;
• An adequate amount of fuel to bring three gallons of water to a boil;
• Functional non-chafing harness for each dog in team and a functional neckline.
In addition, mushers are required to carry an adequate amount of emergency dog food in addition to what they carry for routine feeding and snacking.
How many dogs are on a team? Are there substitutes?
The most dogs a musher can run is 14. A musher must have at least 12 dogs on the gang line when the race begins and must have at least five in harness at the finish line.
Last year, 23 of the 40 finishers had fewer than 10 dogs in harness at the finish line. Pete Kaiser and Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who finished first and second, respectively, each had eight.
Four-time champion Jeff King, who placed 13th, finished with 13 dogs, more than anyone else.
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 for by Iditarod volunteers until they are flown back to Anchorage.
What does the top musher win?
For his victory last year, Pete Kaiser won a new truck and a check for $51,299.
The top 20 finishers get a share of the purse, which varies from year to year depending on sponsorships, entry fees and fundraising. The 20th-place finisher last year earned $10,343.
Every finisher from 21st place down gets $1,049, a symbolic amount representing the symbolic distance of the Iditarod – a thousand miles plus 49, a nod to Alaska’s status as the 49th state to join the union.
How long is the race?
Excellent question, and one without a precise answer.
The Iditarod says the northern route – the one being followed this year – is 975 miles. The southern route is listed as 998 miles. Both of those distances include the 11-mile ceremonial start in Anchorage, which happens before the clock is turned on.
In years when poor trail conditions have forced the restart north to Fairbanks, the list distance is 979 miles, which again includes the 11-mile ceremonial start in Anchorage.
The northern route, typically used in even-numbered years, takes mushers to checkpoints at Cripple, Ruby, Galena and Nulato. The southern route, typically used in odd-numbered years, replaces those checkpoints with stops in Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling and Eagle Island.
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 and pay the $4,000 entry fee, you can enter.
The oldest musher in this year’s race is 79-year-old Jim Lanier of Chugiak.
This year marks his 21st appearance in the race. He has finished it 16 times, but has scratched in each of his last four attempts to drive a team to Nome.
In his last race, in 2018, Lanier’s team stalled between White Mountain and Safety some 50 miles or so from the finish line. A musher who stopped to help him requested emergency assistance, and a snowmachine retrieved both men.
Lanier skipped the 2019 race and when he attempted to sign up for the 2020 race, officials denied his entry based on recent performances. If he wanted to enter, officials told Lanier, he would have to qualify as if he was a rookie.
And so Lanier entered and completed two 300-mile races earlier this winter and was subsequently admitted to the race.
The oldest Iditarod finisher was Norman Vaughan, who was 84 when he finished the 1990 Iditarod in 60th place. Vaughan was a great Arctic explorer who handled sled dogs for Admiral Byrd’s 1928 Antarctica expedition.
What does “Iditarod” mean?
About the only gold there now is the prize that awaits the first musher to reach the halfway point on the race’s southern route -- $3,000 in gold nuggets. On the northern route, that prize goes to the first musher to reach the Cripple checkpoint.
According to the Iditarod website, which quotes a 1979 statement from an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Native Language Center, “The name Iditarod came from an Ingalik and Holikachuk word hidedhod for the Iditarod River. This name means distant or distant place. This word is still known by elders in the villages of Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling and Holy Cross."