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The Last Great Race on Earth is about to start
Lesley Francis - SBF
Lesley Francis

Several years ago, my husband and I vacationed in Alaska. We were sensible enough to travel in June, although it was still freezing, in my opinion.

One of the highlights was meeting some of the mushers and dogs participating in the great trans-Alaska dog-sled race, the Iditarod. While I am dog-crazy and loved meeting some of the cute husky puppies being bred for this competition, the race itself is fascinating.

Commonly called “the Last Great Race on Earth,” each team comprises one musher and 16 dogs. The course runs over a thousand miles of mountains, forests, tundra and frozen rivers and lakes, usually in temperatures well below zero. Think about Arctic blizzards and storms, limited visibility and treacherous terrain in long hours of winter darkness, and you start to get the idea that this is no ordinary competition.

This grueling challenge was established to save Alaska’s dog-sled culture and the Alaskan-husky breed, as well as to preserve the historic Iditarod Trail. The race has taken place in Alaska every March for more than 40 years, and this year’s Iditarod starts Saturday. Beginning in Anchorage in south-central Alaska and finishing in Nome on the western coast, the race is officially 1,049 miles, commemorating Alaska as the 49th state admitted to the USA.

I always have to admire the American can-do approach to challenges such as this. Here are a few facts about this tradition (for more, see

• The name Iditarod derives from the Ingalik Indian word “halditarod,” which means distant place.
• In 2002, Martin Buser
finished in just eight days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and two seconds, breaking all previous records.
• The last musher to complete the race is awarded a red lantern — a tradition that began as a joke and now stands for determination in the mushing world.

I cannot resist telling you a little more about the huskies. Each Iditarod team averages around 16 dogs, which means more than 1,000 dogs leave Anchorage for Nome. Traditionally, Siberian huskies were used in this famous race, and some mushers still rely on this pedigree dog that has perky ears, a curly tail, big paws and a heavy fur coat. However, today most racers use Alaskan huskies (the puppies I met while in Alaska). There is no official breed standard for Alaskan huskies, which are not recognized by the American Kennel Club. It is more of a mix of several types of husky and other wolflike breeds that have been bred for speed and endurance.

Joe Redington, who organized the first race and is known as the Father of the Iditarod, once said, “Dogs will always keep you warm and they’ll always get you there.” Great advice for either an Alaskan musher or just a dog lover like me.

Good luck to all in this year’s Iditarod, and God bless America!

Francis grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009. Contact her at or

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