It's a Sunday morning. For months you've doggedly followed a marathon training plan. Last week's long run was 18 miles. Today it's 20. You're at mile 17. You estimate that you have 35 minutes left. You wonder if you can make it. Take heart.
Now imagine that you've just begun a race of 1150 miles which will take you about 2 weeks or more. Mostly the mercury level will stay well below freezing (down to 50 below at times), you'll travel mostly in the dark, and you will have to traverse thick forests, steep mountains and barren tundra with icy winds whipping at your face. You'll also be responsible for the health and well being of a team of 12 to 15 dogs.
This is the Iditarod, Alaska's famous endurance race from Anchorage, located in south central Alaska, to Nome, on the western Bering Sea coast. In a race which began Saturday, March 6th, 71 mushers and their dog teams will attempt to cross tundra and mountains to make it to the coastal town of Nome, imitative of the historic mail and supply route which early inhabitants used to transport goods and mail via dog sled.
According to the official rules, there are items you must have:
- a parka
- a sleeping bag
- an axe
- food for the musher (human directing the dogs)
- food for the dogs
- boots to protect the dogs' paws
If your first reaction is to give all of the credit to the dogs for their physical exertion, consider Dan Dent's case. Dent, a Baltimore native, attempted his first iditarod in 1999. When his dogs began fiercely to fight with each other, Dent's hands were mauled during his efforts to stop the fight and save the dogs' lives. He was forced to withdraw from the race but came back to finish in 2000. Training for the 2000 race had its physical challanges as well. Along with shoulder injuries from being dragged along after letting go of the handlebar, Dent also suffered from carpel-tunnel syndrome, a likely result of gripping the sled's handlebar too tightly: "The stress on your hands, wrists and forearms is like holding a jackhammer," Dent said in a local Alaska newspaper article. His training for the event involved rigorous strength training and frequent trips to Alaska to gain experience mushing a certain team of dogs 18+ hours a day, with spare time reserved for care of the dogs and a little bit of shut-eye. "There are other sports that combine man, beast, and wilderness, but none approach the combination of the three from such a team aspect," Dan was quoted in an online article for his alma mater. "It gave me a totally different perspective and was a remarkable experience."
The record time for the Iditarod was set in 2002 by Martin Buser, who covered the punishing distance in 8 days, 22 hours, and 46 minutes, but I think it could be universally agreed that everyone who finishes this amazing race is a winner.