Alaska's Iditarod sled dog race is on, with COVID-19-altered course

Due to precautions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts on Sunday, will be an especially distanced event.

Only 47 mushers and their dogs entered, a much smaller field than usual

In this March 18, 2020, file photo, Thomas Waerner, of Norway, arrives in Nome, Alaska, to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The 2021 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will be about 220 kilometres shorter than normal as a result of complications stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, race officials announced Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via The Canadian Press)

The word "Iditarod" derives from an indigenous Alaskan name for a "far distant place."

Due to precautions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts on Sunday, will be an especially distanced event.

The trail for the world's most famous sled dog race has been drastically rerouted to avoid almost all the communities that normally serve as checkpoints, and the traditional ceremonial start in Anchorage has been eliminated.

Only 47 mushers and their dogs have entered, a much smaller field than usual, as many mushers were unable to clear coronavirus-related travel obstacles. There will be almost no spectators cheering teams on in person because trail access will be strictly limited.

Once mushers and their dogs take off, a lot will be back to normal for them, said 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, a Norwegian who lives full-time in Alaska.

"It's not like we are very social people. We spend most of our time out with the dogs," Leifseth Ulsom told Reuters.

COVID-19 planning for this year's race started at the end of last year's contest, when participants came home "to a different world," said Rod Urbach, the Iditarod's chief executive.

Canceling was not an option, Urbach said. Instead, the Iditarod created a "robust" COVID-19 plan that had been updated 21 times as of this week, he said.

Thomas Waerner, of Norway, arrives in Nome, Alaska, in March 2020 to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (The Associated Press)

Change to course

The biggest change for this year's 49th edition of the race is the course.

Instead of running to Nome, the Bering Sea town that is normally the finish line, the 2021 route will be an out-and-back loop taking teams to an uninhabited checkpoint called Iditarod and the abandoned mining settlement of Flat, then back to the starting point in Willow, about 121 kilometres north of Anchorage.

The total distance is about 1384 kilometres, roughly 220 kilometres shorter than the traditional course.

All participants must test for COVID-19 repeatedly and remain in an Iditarod "bubble," said Urbach. That's especially important for race officials, veterinarians and volunteers, who far outnumber the competitors, he said.

"The mushers are fairly easy to socially distance," he said.

Coronavirus aside, this year's field is highly competitive, Leifseth Ulsom said. He is one of four returning champions, a group that includes four-time winners Dallas Seavey and Martin Buser, and 2019 champion Pete Kaiser.

Also expected to compete are the Iditarod's top women — Aliy Zirkle, planning to retire after this year's race, and Jessie Royer, who finished third the past two years.

Julia Cross and her team of ten dogs from Redington Mushing came 2nd out of 9 mushers at the 2020 Jr. Iditarod sled race, in Alaska. (photo: Julia Redington )

Plentiful snow this season allowed for ample advance training, Leifseth Ulsom said. "We've had a really good winter, the best we've had in a long time," he said.

The Iditarod, as it has every year, faces criticism from animal-rights activists condemning the event as cruel to dogs, putting pressure on race sponsors. In January, ExxonMobil announced it was ending its longtime sponsorship after this year's race.

Urbach said the Iditarod has gained some new sponsors and is drawing revenue from a subscription service that sends video directly to fans.

Plans are already underway for next year's 50th anniversary Iditarod, which is expected to be conducted in a post-COVID-19 world, Urbach said.

"Next year, we're going to have the biggest bash in Anchorage imaginable," he said.


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