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3/6/11 5:12 P

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It is the last weekend of Fur Rondy, a festival established in 1935 in Anchorage for three days of winter sports during a time when miners and trappers brought in their winter yield. In 1946, the World Champion Sled Dog Race was established as part of Fur Rondy, becoming the iconic race of mushers throughout Alaska and the World. In 1973, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was added as a seperate race, designed to commemorate the Iditarod Trail used for decades as the sole means of connectivity between Alaskan villages. Saturday marks the Ceremonial Start of the "Last Great Race on Earth."

Racing the Iditarod requires diligence, perseverence and a strong will for both mushers and their dogs. Travelling the distance between Willow and Nome is harrowing in many parts ranging from silent to exhilerating in the frigid arctic air. Temperatures drop to at least -40F, testing the toughest of dogs and men. Tales of trail ghosts, blizzards, rescues and trusted dogs fill legends only decades in the making. Made most famous by the serum run to Nome in 1925, the Iditarod Trail has been used by gold miners, missionaries, mail carriers and villagers for nearly a century. Still the only land path between remote areas of the state, this trail has its own stories to tell in the quiet mists of winter.

A few Iditarod facts...

- In 1967 and 1969, two shorter races were held on the Iditarod Trail. In 1973, these races combined to form today's Iditarod.

- The trail is 1,150 miles from Willow to Nome. There are northern and southern routes that alternate by year.

- In 1973, 22 mushers finished the race. The most mushers to complete the race was 77 in 2004. In 2011, 63 teams are registered to compete.

- Mushers range in age from 19 - 65 this year (must be 18 to enter). One of the few sports in which men and women compete equally, 24% of those registered in 2011 are women (15 of 63).

- Many families have multi-generational competetors this year, father/daughter and father/son.

- Mushers must qualify by completing the Yukon Quest (a 1000 mile race between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, AK) or two approved qualifying races for a cummulative total of 500 miles amongst other Iditarod requirements.

- Each team averages 16 dogs. Over 1,000 dogs are registered this year.

- While most people associate Siberian Huskies with racing, varieties of dogs are represented. The dogs are usually well-bred mutts of Alaskan Husky, Siberian Husky, coastal and racing breeds to blend endurance, environmental tolerance, obedience, strength and speed.

- Dogs must pass health standards w/ veterinarians located at checkpoints throughout the race.

- Aside from winning, the Alaska Airlines Leonhard Seppela Humanitarian award is the most covetted award of the race, given for the most humane treatment of dogs.

- The 2011 winner's purse is $50,400 and a new truck. The top 30 winners will share $528,000.

- The fastest Iditarod completion time was in 2002 at 8 days, 22 hours, 46 mins and 2 secs. The 1973 and 1974 winning times were the slowest at over 20 days each. The slowest finish recorded was over 32 days in 1973.

- Technology in gear, trail conditions, training and route knowledge are just a few contributing factors in safety and completion times.

- The old Iditarod Trail start point can be hiked or skied in Eagle River, AK at the Eagle River Nature Center.

- The Widow's Lamp is lit at the opening cememonies each Iditarod and will be extinguished then the last musher arrives in Nome. Historically, upon word of a musher on the trail, the WIdow's Lamp was lit and hung outside each roadhouse. This signified that a musher was still travelling and to help guide their team to the roadhouse. The lamp was extinguished upon arrival.

- The Red Lantern is awarded to the last team to complete the race. Though originally meant as a joke, it is now a sign of perseverence to the end.

Follow the Iditarod on the official race website at:

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