Although the weather is heating up, my focus now is on an event that requires a very frigid climate. It is one of my favorite in that it involves my love of dogs and appreciation for unique sporting events. It involves dog teams, sub-zero temperatures, frostbite and a 1,000 mile race. In case it’s not clear, I’m talking about the Alaskan Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Snow Dogs, which may be one of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s best roles ever, then you know this is a dog sled race. The Iditarod is a 1,000 mile-long trail covering the frozen and brutal tundra of Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. Contrary to what the movie might lead one to believe, the difficult race requires years of experience with and close trust of one’s dog sled team to compete in this 9-15 day race through the Alaskan wilderness. It is not uncommon for seasoned veterans, even past race winners, to drop out of the race altogether because the conditions are too harsh.
The Iditarod is the most famous sporting event in Alaska, attracting participants from all over the United States and the world, including those from warm climates like Jamaica and Brazil. It might draw interest due to the fascinating landscape and culture of Alaska. Who wouldn’t want to see sled dog teams racing around battling the elements and showing their enduring spirits? The towns which make up the checkpoints along the 1,000 mile trek provide lodgings for competitors and relish in the experience of talking with participants and exchanging stories with one another. So to Alaska it is much more than just a dog sled race.
Alaska is the only state to have such a large dog sled spectacle, and it makes sense that no other state does. Not only is it the coldest state in the country, but much of the land is sparsely populated with humans, while large animals unique to the Alaskan fields and forests are abound. To endure such a climate, the participants of the Iditarod must be hardened individuals. In fact, they are the hardest of the hard, the craziest of the crazy, if they choose to willingly go through with all of this year after year, for sport! No matter how tough you may think you are, if you were to go out there and try to mush a pack of dogs in sub-freezing temperatures, I guarantee you the initial novelty of the whole spectacle would wear off quickly.
The thought of spending copious amounts of time sledding with dogs seems fantastic. Yet taking all this into consideration, when it comes to a 1,000 mile race in barren wilderness, I know I would not be able to handle it. So I salute these participants of such a nerve-rattling and will-bending race. What makes it all better is that age and gender have a less important role in how the results turn out. Last year, the winner of the Iditarod was the youngest to do so at the age of 24, and his father was this year’s winner and the oldest at age 53. The runner up to him was a 27 year-old woman. This appears to distinguish this race from many sports in which can athletes retire in their thirties, and women’s professional sports receive far less attention in the media due to assumptions about the “innate biology” of women. The Iditarod stands as a sheer, brute test of one’s will power and ability to survive, along with a bit of luck.
If you haven’t fully realized how tough these participants are, think about this: they carry axes, and one of its many uses is fending off attacking moose when they are sledding. Sometimes the moose are imaginary from the hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation. To the mushers, it must feel as though even the moose don’t want them to finish the race. Participants have even been known to come back with a frostbitten ear without even realizing it. That they don’t even notice that their ear is frozen is indicative of the highest pain tolerance imaginable. I play rugby and I’m used to taking and delivering some pain, but the thought of all of this being a normal occurrence in this tough-as-nails spectacle of sport makes me grateful that all I have to do is tackle people that have six inches and fifty pounds on me.
I am simply fascinated by this whole idea of yelling mush at a pack of dogs and taking off trying to outrun your limits. Additionally, if you consider dog sledding a sport—which it should be because NASCAR is considered a sport—then it is one of the best. If I had to pick anyone to be on my team during the zombie apocalypse, it would be an Iditarod musher.