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The Iditarod must change its route due to a pandemic, as well as take other precautions.

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The Iditarod must change its route due to a pandemic, as well as take other precautions.

 

Traveling through Alaska’s rough, unforgiving, and roadless terrain is difficult enough, however due to the pandemic, mushers would have to forego any previous comforts in the world’s most popular sled dog race.

Mushers used to stop in each of the 24 villages that serve as checkpoints for a hot meal, possibly a shower, and sleep — though “cheek to jowl” — in a warm building before returning to the nearly 1,000-mile (1,609-kilometer) Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. When the race begins on Sunday north of Anchorage, the competitors will spend the next week or so mainly camping in tents outside of cities, with their camp cookers being the only source of heat — either for comfort or to thaw frozen food and water.

Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach described it as “a little bit old school.”

Pandemic precautions, a new course, no fans, the smallest field of competitors in decades, the return of one former winner, and the farewell of a fan favorite will all be part of this year’s Iditarod, which will take place against the backdrop of pressure from an animal rights organization on the race and its sponsors.

There will be no fans this year, which will be the most significant improvement. The race’s fan-friendly ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage, which attracts thousands of spectators, has been cancelled, and the race’s actual start in Willow has been relocated to a boat dock 7 miles (11 kilometers) away to reduce the number of fans who would usually attend the race’s start near a major highway. Fans are encouraged to watch the race start and finish live on TV or on the Internet, according to Urbach.

In addition, the road has been shortened to 860 miles (1,384 kilometers). The finish line will not be in Nome for the first time in the race’s 49-year history.

Mushers would instead travel from Willow to the mining ghost towns of Iditarod and Flat, before returning to Willow to complete the race. This was the initial vision of the race’s co-founder, the late Joe Redington, according to Urbach.

Howard Farley, 88, of Nome, recalls it vividly. He was against it when Redington suggested it in the early 1970s, and he is still against it now.

“There is nobody in Iditarod,” he said he told Redington before the first Iditarod in 1973. It’s a deserted place. Nobody is present to clap. “Just bring it to Nome,” I said.

He believes the Iditarod could have easily and securely kept the finish in Nome this year as well.

“It just saddens me that all of our hard work and prayers over the years have led to this,” Farley said.

The mushers will cross the Alaska Range twice because they will have to return to Willow for the end. Mushers will have to negotiate the perilous Dalzell Gorge and the Happy River Steps, a series of steep switchbacks that regularly leave competitors bruised and their sleds broken.

To help prevent the virus from spreading, the Iditarod will bypass most of the villages, leaving mushers to sleep in specially designed tents for Alaska’s harsh weather or under the stars in temperatures that may be far below freezing.

Urbach has faced difficulties at every stage as he attempts to complete the second Iditarod when dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The virus infected the United States during last year’s marathon, one of the few big sporting events that would not be cancelled in March 2020, when officials learned to deal with the pandemic on the fly.

They’ve had more time to plan this year. Mushers will be subjected to extensive monitoring, and anyone who has a reported positive COVID-19 test prior to the start of the race will be disqualified. On the trail, further research and monitoring will take place. During the race, any musher who has a confirmed positive result will be disqualified and isolated.

The race is not for defending champion Thomas Waerner, who told The Associated Press that “it is difficult to prepare ahead” during the pandemic. Following his victory last year, he and his dogs were stuck in Alaska for months due to travel restrictions. They only made it back to Norway after hitching a ride on an airplane flying from Anchorage to its new home at an Oslo museum.

The race will begin with just 47 mushing competitors, the smallest field in decades. Four past champions are in the field this year, including Martin Buser and Dallas Seavey, who are both four-time winners. Buser’s last victory came in 2002, and Seavey’s four championships came over a five-year period, with his most recent victory coming in 2016.

Seavey last competed in the Iditarod in 2017, finishing second after four of his dogs tested positive for a banned opioid painkiller, according to Iditarod officials. He vehemently denied offering the painkillers to his pets. The Iditarod overturned its decision the next year and cleared Seavey, but he instead raced his dogs in Norway.

Many believe Seavey, who is only 34 years old, will one day equal or even exceed the win total of the race’s most decorated musher, Rick Swenson, who won five championships between 1977 and 1991.

“Five will be fantastic,” said Seavey. “I’m going to give it my all to win this.” If I’m defeated, which seems inevitable, whoever defeats me will have to deserve it.”

Though Seavey will be back, one of the sport’s most popular mushers will be retiring after this year’s run. Last month, Aliy Zirkle, 50, declared her retirement on her website. Since 2002, Zirkle has placed in the top ten seven times, including three years in a row beginning in 2012. She has never been victorious.

The prize money for the world’s most prestigious sled dog race has yet to be decided. For winning last year’s race, Waerner received around $50,000 and a new Dodge pickup truck. After that race, however, Chrysler dropped sponsorship of the Iditarod through its Anchorage dealership.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been putting pressure on national sponsors, taking credit for ExxonMobil’s announcement that it will stop sponsoring the race after this year’s race.

PETA believes that the breed is unfair to dogs, claiming that over 150 have died in races since 1973. Despite several inquiries over the years, the Iditarod denies the figure and has refused to give its count to The Associated Press.

“PETA makes it extremely difficult,” Urbach said.

PETA’s strategy, he said, is “negative and grossly inaccurate,” but he acknowledged it provides a challenging dynamic for the race.

Urbach, on the other hand, said they are working to shift the paradigm by promoting dog health, diet, training, and breeding on their website.

This year, the Iditarod has suffered two more financial setbacks. Fundraisers have been cancelled as a result of the pandemic, and they’ve expended thousands of dollars on personal safety devices and COVID-19 tests. The entry fee was also halved, and the overall prize pool was reduced by 20% to $400,000.

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