While some of us are curled up by a warm fire this winter, others of us are frost-bitten hand clamped to a team of dogs rushing through the Arctic wilderness in temperatures that can reach 40 or 50 below zero! It is Day 7 of the 9 – 12 day race, and champion Lance Mackey is in in first place out of Shageluk, a remote and icy place you’ve never heard of. He is the Lance Armstrong of dog racing, a charismatic cancer survivor reaching heights in his sport never thought possible.
The Iditarod may sound like a manly adventure — a 1049 mile lonely stretch of dog mushing trail from Anchorage to the burled arch in Nome — but rest assured, Divas dear, that there are plenty of mighty women in the field of dog runners this year. Fan favorite DeeDee Jonrowe, in her signature Taco Bell-sponsored pink coat with matching pink dog harnesses, is also a fierce competitor and cancer survivor. Currently in 14th place, she is the fastest woman on the trail today, trailed by Aliy Zirkle in 21st place, to name a few fab femmes.
Hearkening back to that historic moment in 1925 when the only way to save Nome from a wicked diphtheria outbreak was to send the life-saving vaccine via a relay of dog teams through the ice and snow, today’s Iditarod has not really come a long way, baby. Many mushers I interviewed still live a Spartan life in running water-less cabins tending to their pedigreed kennels in remote corners of Alaska, places where they can easily get a 100-mile run in without running into a human soul.
PETA and others may argue against this old sport/ native way of life, but from what I witnessed, it was clear that these dogs, or “athletes” as they are called, are treated better than most people I know. Because in the end, the mushers are more like coaches — it is these Alaskan huskies (the finest breed unrecognized by Westminster) that do all the work, that expend up to 10,000 or more calories in a run, who are bred for racing excellence and who perform best at sub-zero temperatures. They are loved, trained, and monitored like crazy by volunteer veterinary teams at every checkpoint. If a dog ain’t doing fine, they will wrap it up and ship it out of the field immediately.
Besides extreme cold, sharp ice folding across tundras, and moose blocking the narrow trail, what Iditarod champions need to overcome is the psychological challenge of hundreds of miles of empty snow and silence. Sometimes the Northern Lights will keep them company, but most of the time, it is just man and woman encountering nature as is, in all its inhospitable glory, making Iditarod truly the last, great race.
*Are you a teacher? Teachers rule at the Iditarod. Each year, the race crowns a Target Teacher on the Trail, and there are tons of teaching materials as well as an internal teachers’ conference in Anchorage before the race. Get involved and bring great life lessons to the classroom! Visit www.iditarodblogs.com/teachers.