Five things to know about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 | 5:34 p.m. CST
Rick Casillo comes over the last drop as he comes down the steps onto Happy River between the Finger Lake and Rainy Pass checkpoints heading to Puntilla Lake, Alaska, during the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — One human wins the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race each year, but it's the smaller, furry athletes that do the heroes' share of the work crossing nearly 1,000 miles of merciless terrain to reach the finish line on Alaska's wind-battered coast.

The 2014 race, which began Sunday, is still in the early stages, with jockeying for the lead remaining fluid until all the mushers begin taking a mandatory, 24-hour layover and two eight-hour rests. Sixty-nine mushers began the race, though several already have dropped out.

On Tuesday, Iditarod veteran Sonny Lindner was the first to leave the Nikolai checkpoint, more than 700 miles from the finish line in the old gold rush town of Nome. Participants say this year's trail conditions are grueling, including stretches of bare ground. Throughout the race, mushers will keep a close eye on their dogs.

Here are some other key things to know about the four-legged competitors:


Mushers must have 12 to 16 dogs at the starting line. They must have at least six of those dogs to finish the race. If they don't have enough dogs at the end, too bad. Race rules say no new dogs can be added on the trail.


Most Iditarod dogs range in age from 2 to 7, but some dogs as young as 1 ½ and older than 9 have participated. With a good mix of ages, mushers get frisky youngsters and seasoned veterans. It's the older dogs that have come to memorize the trail. "Like, once a guy's been in the NBA finals, he knows it," race marshal Mark Nordman said.


Oh, to have the metabolism of an Iditarod dog. These are not huge animals, generally ranging from 35 to 55 pounds. Yet each sled dog burns through at least 10,000 calories on the trail, continually snacking besides the three squares a day.


The Iditarod diet used to be heavy on meat and fish, with some kibble thrown in. But the past decade has seen a reversal. Where it was once a combination of about 30 percent commercial dog food and 70 percent meat and fish, it's now the opposite for many teams, thanks to the development of increasingly high-quality commercial dog food. "It's why the pet industry has enjoyed the race so much, because they learn so much from the dogs that they can pass it on to the general community of pets," Nordman said.


Some dogs still die during the race, including a dropped dog that died of asphyxiation at a checkpoint last year after it was covered by snow from a severe storm. But dog deaths — slammed by animal rights activists over the years — have dramatically declined. Last year's death was the first since 2009. Dog care is a huge focus, with an average of six veterinarians assigned to each checkpoint to assess the animals' health through such indicators as heart rate, hydration and appetite. Warning signs vets look for include off-kilter gaits and attitudes.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.