After Sports Were Canceled, Only the Iditarod Remained

The grueling month-long dog race was more than half complete when the coronavirus began to spread

Dogs from Aliy Zirkle’s team run during the 2020 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Photo: Lance King/Getty Images

AsAs Aaron Peck’s dogsled cut a path across the icy Alaskan wilderness, an unshakeable melancholy crept into his normally steely focus on the task at hand. The veteran musher was trying to get to Nome. Preferably before the other mushers on the trail. He was engaged in a test of his limits, racing the Iditarod, his sport’s most prominent event. Yet what was normally a thrilling adventure for Peck, who fell in love with sled dog racing as a 13-year-old, was this year beginning to feel, in his own words, downtrodden.

The Iditarod takes complete mental and physical devotion as mushers navigate nearly 1,000 miles of remote terrain from Anchorage to Nome. It is normally an annual highlight for both the communities it intercepts and the athletes themselves.

Each checkpoint brought news of new school closures, quarantines, and overflowing hospitals.

Yet, this year’s Iditarod was much different than its previous installments. That’s because this year the Iditarod began when the world was on the brink of an unprecedented pandemic. As mushers traversed the icy expanse news started to trickle down the trail: Coronavirus was killing thousands with every new territory it dominated; global panic had set in.

“I was concerned they were going to cancel the race,” Peck said. It was an anxiety that flowed through the event as each checkpoint brought news of new school closures, quarantines, and overflowing hospitals.

While nearly every major sporting event and professional sports league worldwide did postpone or cancel their events, the Iditarod organizers decided to persist, launching a herculean, constantly changing strategy to keep the race operative.

“Everything moves hour by hour, if not minute by minute,” said Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach. “We were in a constant dialogue with the authorities, village leaders, and rescue teams.”

Toward the final third of the race, an official pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization. That’s when local communities began to fear the Iditarod mushers, who could unknowingly be transporting the virus. As social distancing became a more common concern, organizers adjusted their plans. “Each village community asked us not to use their communities,” said Urbach. “We largely stayed away in the last few checkpoints and routed around villages.”

As of March 20, with millions of people around the world ordered to shelter in place at home, 14 mushers are still on the trail, rounding the final two checkpoints. [Update: On Saturday, March 21, three more racers were rescued from the trail due to hazardous conditions.]

As village bypass routes were engineered, in some cases overnight, race organizers scrambled to relocate veterinarians and necessities such as straw and medical supplies to the new locations, often working with limited cellphone coverage and connectivity.

“There are so many challenges that were never contemplated,” said Urbach. “This race is extraordinarily hard without a pandemic-level virus.”

While canceling the race completely was never out of the question, Urbach felt encouraging mushers to finish was ultimately the safest course of action. “The orderly way to get them off the trail is to get everyone to Nome. We can fly mushers and dogs back in an orderly, safe manner to maintain social distances.”

Local communities began to fear the Iditarod mushers, who could unknowingly be transporting the virus.

Urgency and health emergencies are nothing new to the historic endeavor of sled dog racing.

It has been nearly 100 years now since the famed “Great Race of Mercy” occurred, a feat so epic it has since been canonized in history books and feature films.

You probably know the story but in case you need a refresher, here it goes: Faced with a diphtheria outbreak that threatened to wipe Nome off the map, a sled dog relay that included 20 mushers and 150 dogs transported a lifesaving antitoxin across the Alaskan wilderness to save the town’s inhabitants.

Early Iditarod organizers spent much time during the race’s formative years honoring these original Serum Run mushers. The solidarity they represent permeates the Iditarod’s culture even now.

“We are almost full circle,” Urbach said. “It’s interesting where we are almost 100 years later.”

Persistence is in the Iditarod’s DNA, and organizers were able to coordinate a 2020 event that allowed athletes the opportunity to compete for its entirety. While Peck ultimately scratched, a decision he made after his dogs developed kennel cough, most of the Iditarod contestants did make it to Nome. Norway’s Thomas Waerner was crowned champion, a feat which took him 9 days, 10 hours, 37 minutes, and 47 seconds to achieve. It was his second Iditarod attempt, his first being in 2015 when he was named Rookie of the Year.

His prize for such mastery is $50,000 and a new pickup truck. Sled dog racing, as you might have guessed, is not necessarily known for its massive purses.

That might pose a greater threat to the Iditarod in the coming years. While they successfully navigated a deadly virus, the question of the financial stability of the Iditarod remains. Two major, longtime sponsors pulled their support from this year’s Iditarod. Alaska Airlines, after intense lobbying from animal rights groups, backed out just weeks before the race, while Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram Center announced they had dropped their support while the race was already in progress.

“We’re clearly in a race for relevance,” Urbach said.

Still, he sees a place for sled dog racing in the world and believes the 2020 Iditarod has proven his point.

“If you think about the world, we’re disconnected from nature, from our heritage, from each other,” he said. “The Iditarod provides the antidote. It’s not tech, analytics, or big data that gets one to the finish line, it’s grit and dogged determination.”

That sense of determination is something the world might have to lean into in the coming months as the coronavirus spreads, leaving destruction in its wake. With its connection to human survival instincts, Urbach believes the Iditarod has a message for people now. “We can all channel our inner musher,” he said.

With most of the world locked inside, hoping to “flatten the curve” and prevent the virus’s spread, the Iditarod does something else — it’s a reminder of the great world full of excitement, daring, and beauty that awaits on the other side of the pandemic.

“It’s such a special and unique event,” Peck said. “It’s set apart from all other sports. Where else can you find such an adventure?”

I cover sports, entertainment and personal finance. Words in Washington Post, USA Today, the Associated Press, CBC, Refinery 29… and all over.

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