From the thousands of sled dogs that have been bred through the program, all going, “Pick me, pick me,” only the supreme few are selected to run the race. These are the superstars.
I’ve always been a fan of the Iditarod and the magnificent dogs that run in it, but this year I have a personal connection. My veterinarian has been chosen as one of the volunteer veterinarians. [OK, technically he is my dogs’ veterinarian, but only because he won’t treat humans.]
When he was chosen I interviewed him for a story for a local magazine and I’m looking forward to writing about his experiences when he returns.
Volunteer veterinarians examine the dogs prior to the race. After the race begins, the veterinarians are flown to the various checkpoints where they examine the dogs at each phase of the race. At the judgment of the veterinarians some dogs may receive medical treatment while others must drop out.
The Iditarod race was inspired by a life saving event that took place in 1925. In the middle of the frigid Alaskan winter, a deadly strain of diphtheria broke out in Nome. It was learned by telegraph that the nearest serum was in Anchorage, a thousand miles of frozen Alaskan wilderness away.
Twenty volunteer sled dog mushers in relay were able to brave the fifty-degree below zero temperatures to bring the life saving serum to Nome in just over five days. Lead dogs Balto and Togo became legendary.
As modern transportation took over Alaska, the heroism of mushers and sled dogs was passing into oblivion. Then in the early 1970’s the Iditarod Trail Committee was formed. The plan was to stage a race that would commemorate the life saving event which was part of their Alaskan heritage. The race would start on the first Saturday in March in Anchorage and end in Nome to celebrate the traditions and heroism of the Alaskan sled dogs and the mushers.
In 1973, the first race winner completed the course in just over twenty days. Winners today cover the same course in less than ten days.
Although some improvements in racing strategies and equipment have been made, the primary difference has resulted from breeding better sled dogs, superior nutrition, and veterinary care.
Tens of thousands of dollars go into the breeding programs to produce and train the fastest and healthiest dogs. Currently, around eighteen thousand dogs have been bred through the programs, from which the Chosen Ones are finally selected.
The trend in breeding is to produce stable dogs of 40 to 60 pounds instead of the heavier dogs of the past years. Mushers know they can only race as fast as the slowest dog.
By race day teams of sixteen starting dogs are chosen and ready to race. The rules state that five dogs from each team must remain in the race, even if the last dog rides in the sled, or the team is disqualified.
The 1112-mile race starts March 1. You can follow the progress here.
See "Poodles in the Iditarod."