I’m preparing to head out of town for the rest of the week starting tomorrow, but I didn’t want to miss the chance to remind readers that one of my favorite annual events starts on Saturday. That’s when the 2020 Iditarod Sled Dog Race begins in Alaska, sending some of the top mushers in the world off on a thousand-mile odyssey through the some of the most remote and wild backcountry that North America has to offer. As usual, the race will have its ceremonial start in Anchorage, before restarting at the Campbell Airstrip in Willow on Sunday.
Unlike the past few years, there doesn’t seem to be worry about the amount of snow on the trail for this year’s race. Warm winters have made the Iditarod challenging at times over the past decade, but this season there has been plenty of snowfall to help keep the dogs and mushers moving along at a brisk pace. For 2020, the race will take its Northern Route, passing through Cripple, Ruby, and Galena, on its way to the coast, and eventually on to Nome. Used on even-numbered years, this path is slightly shorter than the Southern Route that racers travel in odd-numbered outings.
This year’s field is filled with some talented mushers, including five previous champions. They are defending champion Pete Kaiser, 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, four-time champions Martin Buser and Lance Mackey, as well as three-time champion Mitch Seavey. Four-time champ Jeff King was forced to pull out after undergoing emergency surgery a few days back. His team is still deciding whether or not his dogs will race with another musher on the sled instead.
Another four-time winner — Dallas Seavey— isn’t racing either, but will instead be on the commentating team for a major sled dog race taking place in Norway instead. Seavey hasn’t run the Iditarod in three years after having a dispute with organizers over allegations the was using performance enhancing drugs to dope his dogs. He was later cleared of those charges, but he hasn’t returned to the event since. As the youngest four-time winner ever, fans of the sport have been left wondering if he could become the first five-time winner, but for now we’ll have to keep wondering.
There was bad news for race organizers yesterday when Alaska Airlines announced that it would end its sponsorship of the race after this year. The airlines says that it is taking its charitable giving efforts in a new direction starting in 2021 and that the change wasn’t a reflection of the race. Still, the Iditarod has seen some challenges in recent years in terms of maintaining sponsorships and avoiding controversies. What the future holds for this venerable event remains to be seen.
Despite those challenge however, the 2020 race promises to be an exciting one. By the time I return next week, we should be well into the event and start to see who the emerging leaders will be. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that Kaiser, Ulsom, and Mitch Seavey would be the men to beat, but we’ll just have to see how things play out on the trail over the course of the first nine or ten days.
Good luck to all the mushers.
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