The Iditarod dog sled race is one of the most formidable athletic challenges in the world. The event traverses the rugged wilderness of Alaska in the winter, a course measuring 1,150 mi (1,854 km) from the city of Anchorage in southern Alaska to the town of Nome to the north. The Iditarod is often referred to "The Last Great Race."
The rules of the Iditarod are straightforward. Each team of between 12 and 16 dogs, directed by a sled driver known as a "musher" must travel the course unassisted. It is common for the racers to travel through snow storms and intense cold for days on end. The course typically takes between 10 and 17 days to complete, and each team must bring on its sled sufficient supplies, including dog food and warm clothing to bear the harsh Alaskan environment.
The Iditarod has proven to be an event where female athletes can compete on an equal footing with men. Libby Riddle was the first of a number of successful female Iditarod racers when she won the event in 1985. Given the distance to be traveled by the musher and their dog team, the concept of strength to weight ratio becomes of critical importance; a female driver, who typically will weigh less than a male driver, presents a smaller mass to be transported over the race distance.
Strength to weight ratio is also of importance in the selection and efficiency of the sled dogs used in the Iditarod. Breeds such as the Siberian Husky and the Malamute, dogs that are native to cold weather climates, have proven to be effective Iditarod racers. Most dogs in the Iditarod weigh less than 55 lbs, yet they possess both the strength and the stamina to maintain high speeds in the most challenging of conditions. The dogs are kept fit through an off season training program that involves pulling sleds and carts on wheels and similar exercises.
The psychology of handling the sled dogs during the race is of utmost importance if the team is to complete the Iditarod course. The sled dogs tend to be gregarious animals that are intensely loyal to the musher. The dogs perform best in an environment where they perceive the activity to be fun, as opposed to work. Many of the Iditarod dogs compete in the races for several years, a testament to both the handling and the nature of the these breeds.