The Iditarod Dog Sled Race was first run in its current form in 1973. The 2018 running of the race occurred earlier this month. It is about a 1,000 mile race from Anchorage (ceremonial start) to Nome through the Alaskan wilderness. The exact mileage varies depending on snow, ice, and other terrain conditions. Also, the race alternates between a northern course and a southern course every year. The race generally takes 9 – 17 days. The fastest time ever was set in 2017 – 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes, 13 seconds. Race times have dropped about in half since the 1970s.
More than 50 crazy people enter the Iditarod each year. They are called “mushers.” In order to enter the Iditarod, mushers must qualify at other shorter dog sled races.
Each dog sled team consists of 12 – 16 dogs and no dogs can be added during the race and to officially finish there still must be five dogs still pulling. The dogs that run the race are amazing, well-trained athletes and consist of all sorts of breeds (Alaskian huskies, Alaskian Malamutes, Siberian huskies, and also husky cross-breeds that are bred with German Shepards, wolves or other breeds). The dogs average running about 100 miles a day and typically average 8-10 miles per hour (a 6:00 – 7:30 min/mile pace)!!! This is while pulling a 150 – 200 pound musher, plus a sled packed with a hundred pounds of gear.
Training the dog team typically occurs year-round. In the summer and spring some mushers train their teams by having them pull a car without the engine in it. These dogs are strong and fast. Some animal rights groups are critical of the Iditarod and say that it is abusive to the dogs. Supporters of the sport and race point out that with rare exception mushers are huge dog lovers and that there are strict rules pertaining to treatment of the dogs including vet checkups at checkpoints along the race. Many claim that the dogs love the race and love to pull sleds.
The mushers and their teams often brave blizzards and 100 degree below zero wind chills during the race.
More on the Dogs: The average adult human male burns between 1,800 – 2,500 calories per day. Shockingly, the average 50 – 100 pound Iditarod sled dog burns about 12,000 calories each day during the race. These dogs are incredible. Research in 2005 discovered that sled dogs while racing are able to directly metabolize fat into energy. Humans have to first convert it into glycogen via the liver. The point is that directly converting fat is a hugely more efficient process than what we and other mammals must go through to burn fat. It is still somewhat of a mystery how these dogs can directly use fat as a source of energy. Researchers are studying whether there is something special about dogs that allow them to do this or whether this direct fat conversion is an adaptation to their intense training regimen. Figuring this out could have implications for humans and our obesity epidemic. Here’s an article on this sled dog fat conversion mystery: Sled Dog Fat Burning
Iditarod dogs consume over 10,000 calories a day over 2 meals. According to iditarod.edu, the typical diet for these dogs is:
Kibble (Commercial Dog Food) – 50% of Kcals
Raw Beef (ground regular) – 25% of Kcals
Raw Lamb – 12.5% of Kcals
Chicken Fat – 12.5% of Kcals
Each team of 12-16 dogs require about 2,000 pounds of food over the course of the race to provide all these calories.
A great book about running the iditarod: Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod