The Iditarod for Newbies: 5 Things You Should Know

The Iditarod will test every ounce of strength you have. Photo: Courtesy .anderson/Flickr
The Iditarod will test every ounce of strength you have. Photo: Courtesy .anderson/Flickr

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is one of the most grueling, challenging, physical feats on planet Earth. It not only tests a musher’s fortitude in the tundra, but it also tests their ability to work together with some of the fiercest dogs known to man.

Early versions of the race date back to the early 1900s, with the first official version of the Iditarod running in 1973. Since then it’s been a controversial race that has had issues with dog cruelty.

Another problem that has reared its head in recent years (though a much less grave concern for animal life) is the lack of snow. This year specifically, they had to ship seven freight cars of snow for the opening ceremony in Anchorage, whose average snowfall is down by almost 40 inches this year.

Clearly, global warming is an issue.

But the race shall go on (for now). And to prep you for the ceremonial start on March 5 in Anchorage and the official start on March 6 in Willow, here are five things newcomers to the race might not know.

1. There are actually two different routes

This map shows the two routes that are part of the Iditarod Trail. Image: Courtesy Wikipedia
This map shows the two routes that are part of the Iditarod Trail. Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia

The race starts in Anchorage and finishes in Nome. On even-numbered years, the race takes the northern route. On odd-numbered years, it takes the southern route.

The northern route totals an official distance of 1,112 miles, while the southern route totals an official distance of 1,131 miles.

2. 16 dogs make up one team

Every team starts with 16 dogs. Photo: Courtesy of David Weekly/Flickr
Every team starts with 16 dogs. Photo: Courtesy of David Weekly/Flickr

Teams are made up of one musher and anywhere between 12 to 16 dogs. When crossing the finish line, a team must have a minimum of six dogs harnessed.

The dogs are well-trained athletes, and veterinarians must check each team’s dogs at every checkpoint and sign off for the dogs’ health in the veterinarian diary.

3. There are 26 checkpoints on the northern route and 27 on the southern

Before a race happens, the mushers prepare drop bags of supplies for each checkpoint, which the Iditarod Air Force flies ahead for them. There are also three mandatory rests that each team must take during the race: one 24-hour layover, taken at any checkpoint; one eight-hour layover, taken at any checkpoint on the Yukon River; and an eight-hour stop at White Mountain.

4. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win, in 1985

1985 was a extremely treacherous race that Libby Riddles willed herself to win. Being the only musher to brave a devastating blizzard, Riddles became the first woman ever to win the race and was also named Professional Sportswoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

She also set the stage for Susan Butcher, who won four of the following five races.

5. The fastest finish was 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes and 19 seconds

Dallas Seavey is a legacy musher within the Iditarod world. His grandfather Dan Seavey competed in the first two Iditarods, and his dad, Mitch Seavey, has won the race twice himself. So when Dallas became the youngest ever to win the Iditarod, in 2012 at age 25, it was no surprise.

He’s since won it two more times and is going for the three-peat this year. His finish in 2014 stands as the fastest-ever finish at 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes and 19 seconds.

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