Alaska' Iditarod dog sled race forced into changes amid pandemic

Alaska’ annual Iditarod dog sled race is forced to change routes for first time in its 49-year history, slash race by 100 miles, ban crowds and field smallest number of competitors amid pandemic

  • Forty-six mushers a dashed off into the Alaska wilderness yesterday, marking the smallest field in decades since the 39 teams who began the race back in 1978
  • A field of 66 signed up, but 19 dropped out, including defending champion Thomas Waerner of Norway whose return was derailed by travel restrictions
  • This year’s route has been shortened from just under 1000 miles to 860 miles 
  • For the first time in the race’s 49-year history, the finish line won’t be in Nome
  • Instead, mushers will go from Willow to the mining ghost towns of Iditarod and Flat, and then back to Willow for the finish 
  • Mushers will be tested twice on the route and removed and forced to isolate if they test positive
  • Participants are also required to wear masks at all times and maintain social distancing.

The 2021 Iditarod kicked off on Sunday, but like most events amid the pandemic, the multi-day sled dog race across Alaska looks far different than in years gone by, with no spectators, an abbreviated course, and the smallest field of contestants in decades.

Forty-six mushers and their teams of huskies dashed off into the Alaska wilderness yesterday in a socially distanced start to the grueling annual event, known as ‘The Last Great Race’.

The starting gate of the 2021 event, located at the edge of the frozen Deshka River in Willow, was placed off-limits to the usual crowds of cheering spectators, with only competitors, essential race personnel and media permitted entry. 

This year’s route has also been shortened from just under 1000 miles to 860 miles, and, for the first time in the race’s 49-year history, the finish line will not be in Nome.

Instead, mushers will go from Willow to the mining ghost towns of Iditarod and Flat, and then back to Willow for the finish. This, Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach notes, was the original vision of the race co-founder, the late Joe Redington.

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The 2021 Iditarod kicked off on Sunday, but like most events amid the pandemic, the multi-day sled dog race across Alaska looks far different than in years gone by

Forty-six mushers and their teams of huskies dashed off into the Alaska wilderness yesterday in a socially distanced start to the grueling annual event

Fans were prohibited from entering the starting area, and it was limited competitors, essential race personnel and media

Ryan Redington leaves the Iditarod Sled Dog Race start area at Deshka Landing in Willow. Participants of this year’s events are required to wear masks and socially distance

In years past, mushers would stop in any number of 24 villages that serve as checkpoints, where they could get a hot meal, a shower and sleep in a warm building before getting back to the race.

However, in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Iditarod will skip most of the communities to help prevent any transmission, leaving mushers to sleep in tents or under the stars in temperatures that could be well below zero.

‘This is kind of a different year. It’s going to be a little odd going on the trail,’ 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, a native Norwegian who lives full time in Alaska, said on Sunday before the start. He is considered one of this year’s favorites. 

Iditarod race director Mark Nordman told NPR that organizers have constructed a series of tents large enough for multiple mushers to rest in some locations, like in the village of Nikolai, where mushers typically slept inside the village’s school.

Since the mushers will have to double back to Willow for the finish, they will go over the infamously challenging Alaska Range twice. 

Mushers will have to navigate the dangerous Dalzell Gorge and the Happy River Steps, or a series of steep switchbacks that routinely leave competitors bruised and sleds broken. 

Mushers will go from Willow to the mining ghost towns of Iditarod and Flat, and then back to Willow for the finish. This, Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach notes, was the original vision of the race co-founder, the late Joe Redington

A big change to this year’s race is a lack of fanfare. The traditional ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage, which usually draws large crowds, was moved to Willow and fans were restricted from accessing it

In years past, mushers would stop in any number of 24 villages that serve as checkpoints, where they could get a hot meal, maybe a shower and sleep in a warm building before getting back to the race, but not this year

This year’s route has also been shortened from nearly 1000 miles to 860 miles, and for the first time in the race’s 49-year history, the finish line will not be in Nome

Jessie Holmes travels on the Susitna River in front of Cindy Gallea and Rick Casillo during the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Larry Daugherty, a musher from Eagle River, will carry empty packages of COVID-19 vaccine with him on the trail this year

The field of 46 that started the race on Sunday is the smallest since 39 teams began the 1978 race. 

A field of 66 had signed up, but 19 dropped out, including defending champion Thomas Waerner of Norway, who said pandemic-related travel restrictions derailed his plans to return.

According to the race’s COVID-19 prevention plan, all mushers were required to be tested two weeks before the start of the race and one the morning of the race, in addition to being tested twice throughout the journey.  

Participants are also required to wear masks at all times and maintain social distancing.  

Any musher with a confirmed positive test during the race will be withdrawn and isolated. 

The virus took its hold on the U.S. in the middle of last year’s race, and the Iditarod was one of the few major sporting events not to be canceled in March 2020.

This year’s highly competitive field includes 12 rookies, 13 women and four past champions – four-time winners Dallas Seavey and Martin Buser, 2019 champion Pete Kaiser and 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom. 

Mushers range in age from 23 to 69, the Anchorage Daily News reported.  

According to the race’s COVID-19 prevention plan, all mushers were required to be tested two weeks before the start of the race and one the morning of the race, in addition to being tested twice throughout the journey

Any musher with a confirmed positive test during the race will be withdrawn and isolated

This year’s highly competitive field includes 12 rookies,1 3 women and four past champions. the competitors rage in age from 23 to 69

Seavey last raced the Iditarod when he came in second in 2017, when Iditarod officials said four of his dogs tested positive for a banned opioid painkiller. He adamantly denied giving his dogs the painkillers. The next year, the Iditarod reversed its decision and cleared Seavey, but he took his dogs to Norway to race instead. 

At only age 34, Seavey is considered by many to someday match and perhaps surpass the win total of the race’s most decorated musher, Rick Swenson who collected five championships between 1977-1991.

‘Five would be awesome,’ Seavey said. ‘I’m going to do my best to win this. If I get beat, which is a pretty likely outcome … whoever beats me is going to earn it.’

While Seavey returns, one of the sport’s most liked mushers is bowing out after this year’s race. Aliy Zirkle, 50, announced on her website last month that it was time to retire. 

Zirkle has finished in the top 10 seven times since 2002, and finished second three years in a row starting in 2012. She has never won.

The individual prize money for the world’s premiere sled dog race hasn’t been determined. 

Waerner picked up about $50,000 and a new Dodge pickup for winning last year’s race. However, Chrysler through its Anchorage dealership dropped sponsorship of the Iditarod after that race.

Aliy Zirkle (above), 50, announced on her website last month that it was time to retire, making this year’s Iditarod her final one

PETA claims the race is cruel to dogs, and says more than 150 have died during races since the first in 1973

The field of 46 that started the race on Sunday is the smallest since 39 teams began the 1978 race. A field of 66 signed up, but 19 have dropped out

Since the mushers will have to double back to Willow for the finish, they will go over the infamously challenging Alaska Range twice

The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been applying pressure on national sponsors, claiming credit for ExxonMobil announcing it would end its sponsorship after this year’s race.

PETA claims the race is cruel to dogs, and says more than 150 have died during races since the first in 1973. The Iditarod disputes that number but has not provided its count to The Associated Press despite many requests over the years.

‘PETA absolutely makes it challenging,’ Urbach said.

He said PETA is ‘inflammatory and grossly inaccurate’ in their approach, but admitted it creates a difficult dynamic for the race.

However, Urbach said they are trying to change the narrative, continuing to promote dog wellness, nutrition, training and breeding on its website.

The Iditarod has had two other financial hits this year. Because of the pandemic, fundraisers have been canceled, and they have spent thousands of dollars on personal protective equipment and COVID-19 tests. 

They also reduced the entry fee in half and reduced the total prize purse by 20 percent, to $400,000.

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