The biggest question about the 49th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race: Is it happening?
The answer is yes, but it won’t look much like any of the previous thousand-mile runs to Nome.
For one thing, it’s not going to Nome. For another, it’s not 1,000 miles.
Last year’s Iditarod was the nation’s final major sports event held in its entirety before the COVID-19 pandemic called a monthslong timeout that canceled or postponed everything from March Madness to Major League Baseball to the Summer Olympics.
This year’s Iditarod will be an 852-mile race that won’t go anywhere near the finish line in Nome or the ceremonial start line in Anchorage. Organizers hope that by keeping the race out of populated areas, they will prevent or lessen the spread of COVID-19.
The Iditarod will begin and end at Deshka Landing, a popular boat-launching spot in the Susitna Valley. Although it has started in a handful of locations, including Fairbanks, this will be the first year it doesn’t go to Nome.
On Sunday, March 7, a field of 47 mushers will leave Deshka Landing in two-minute intervals beginning at 2 p.m.
“I think we all need this race,” race marshal Mark Nordman said at a virtual press briefing last week. “Everybody needs to get back to something that happens in March, and this is the big event in the state of Alaska.”
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How can I watch the race?
The official answer: by staying home and following it online, on TV or in the newspaper.
The Iditarod doesn’t want spectators at Deshka Landing for the start or the finish and will limit access there.
None of the usual prerace public events are happening. The banquet where mushers draw bib numbers, thank their sponsors and mingle with fans was replaced with a virtual draw. And with Saturday’s ceremonial start in Anchorage canceled, no dog teams will gather downtown or race through the city.
Organizers can keep people away from the start and finish chute and keep them out of official checkpoints along the trail. But the race is held on public land, and certainly some spectators will drive to Deshka Landing or head out farther on snowmachines to watch teams head north to Skwentna and beyond.
The Iditarod is limiting media on the trail, but a few reporters and photographers will cover the race.
Why can’t the ceremonial start happen in Anchorage?
The Iditarod waited until one month before the race to pull the plug on the ceremonial start, an event that draws tens of thousands of spectators.
According to a written statement from Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach, “we decided to cancel our traditional ceremonial start in Anchorage due to the COVID-19 concerns of a large gathering.” The decision was made “after consulting with our stakeholders and in consultation with the Municipality of Anchorage.”
Veteran musher Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers vehemently opposed the event, which serves as one of the most effective ways for the race to provide exposure to its sponsors.
“I was very against the ceremonial start,” Zirkle said, sounding incredulous the decision required any debate. “We high-five 30,000 people!”
“... I actually even wrote the mayor of Anchorage and was like, Do you want to look at this YouTube video and see what it’s really like? Do you really want to see what I see for 11 miles downtown in your city? ‘Cause these people are enthusiastic fans ... and they want to be out there and I get that, and it’s Iditarod and it’s a celebration and everything, but COVID!
“I don’t want to be the cause of Anchorage having more deaths and all that kind of thing.”
Will mushers be tested for COVID-19?
They will be tested the Thursday before the race at the Lakefront Hotel, Sunday at Deshka Landing before the start and when they reach McGrath, about 300 miles into the race. And they will be monitored daily.
“They’ll be very well tested,” Nordman said. “I’m feeling very comfortable that no one will be going on the trail in a positive COVID condition.”
The race has a 30-page COVID-19 protocol plan that includes moving checkpoints out of populated areas. In places where cabins, community centers, schools or other structures have served as checkpoints and places for mushers to sleep, race organizers will work in wall tents and mushers will largely sleep outside with their dogs.
“I think there will be a lot more camping out,” veteran musher Richie Diehl of Aniak said. “I’m fine with it. The fact that we’re moving forward with it and we’re going to have a race and they’re trying to be as careful as possible about it, I’m excited. This is how we make our living.”
What happens if a musher tests positive for COVID-19?
A second test will be done to verify the results. If it’s positive too, the musher will be withdrawn from the race.
If the race doesn’t go to Nome, where does it go?
From Deshka Landing, the trail follows the familiar path north to the Alaska Range. The first village is Nikolai, where race officials will operate out of a wall tent and avoid interaction with the community, Nordman said.
The big hub is McGrath, where race operations will move out of town and into an airplane hangar. The race will bypass Takotna on its way to Ophir and Iditarod.
Iditarod is a ghost town that serves as the halfway point on the Iditarod’s traditional southern route. This year it’s still a bit of a halfway point — teams will make a loop of about 20 miles between Iditarod and a ghost town called Flat before making the return trip to Deshka Landing.
Flat, or Flat City, was a mining town in the Iditarod Mining District more than 100 years ago. It’s part of the Iditarod National Historic Trail.
Nordman said there will be two-way traffic on the Flat loop but didn’t sound concerned by it. The big question is how teams will handle a second crossing of the Alaska Range — something that’s never been done.
Diehl said he isn’t worried about the climb itself, because in a typical Iditarod, teams do a lot of climbing late in the race on the Norton Sound coast.
“There’s a lot of hills on the coast, and it’s tougher going on the coast because it’s wide-open country and there’s wind and a lot of hills that seem like they never end,” he said. “One thing that may be different is it might be getting pretty warm when we’re coming back. I’ve been wondering what the creeks and stuff are going to be like.”
Diehl said he wonders how rutted the trail will be on the southbound stretch from Rohn to Finger Lake. Steep downhills lead to frequent use of brakes, which can lead to ruts.
“A lot of mushers have been asking the same thing,” Nordman said. “We’re leaving two of our trailbreakers to deal with anything that may develop.”
Who’s going to win?
Picking a winner is seldom a smart bet in the Iditarod, where no lead is safe. But all eyes will be on Dallas Seavey, the four-time champ who is back for his first race since 2017.
Seavey, 34, won four races in six-year span from 2012-17. Several months after finishing second in the 2017 race, the Iditarod announced in a series of statements that four of Seavey’s dogs tested positive for tramadol, a banned substance. Seavey said he didn’t administer the drug to his dogs, mounted a vigorous defense and was never penalized. Nearly two years later, in December 2018, the Iditarod released a statement apologizing to Seavey and saying he did nothing wrong.
Now he’s back, and possibly with a super-team. Mitch Seavey, his dad — the guy who beat him in the 2017 race — isn’t racing this year, and Dallas will race with dogs from both men’s kennels.
Dallas Seavey is one of four former champions racing, along with four-time winner Martin Buser, 2018 winner Joar Leifseth Ulsom and 2019 winner Pete Kaiser.
Defending champion Thomas Waerner of Norway isn’t coming back because of various COVID-19 travel restrictions — after his victory last year, it took him 11 weeks to find a way back to Norway.
Four-time champion Jeff King is skipping the race for a second year and will instead host a 200-mile race on the Denali Highway called the Ididn’trod.
Four-time champion Lance Mackey was disqualified from last year’s race after testing positive for methamphetamine and isn’t racing this winter.
The field of 47 includes 35 veterans, many of them contenders. If this was a business-as-usual year for the Iditarod, the most popular musher at every stop along the trail would no doubt be Zirkle, a fan favorite and three-time runner-up who at age 50 has announced that this will be her final race.