Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Greatest Iditarod Finish

Today is the official start of the 39th Iditarod sled dog race in Willow, Alaska.  All eyes will be on Lance Mackey, who is going for an unheard of 5th straight victory.  The grueling race goes 1,100 miles across the Alaska Range, through the Kuskokwim and Yukon River valleys, along Norton Sound to Front Street in Nome.  The winning musher can make the trip in around 10 days with even far back finishers can make it in under two weeks, which was usually the winning time when the race started in the 1970s.  It can be expected that the winner of the race will likely have Front Street to themselves next week when they finish.  A race of this length is rarely close at the end, but there was one exception in 1978.

Official Trail map from, showing the two routes.  This year the race follows the southern route.

In 1978, Dick Mackey, father of Lance, and Rick Swenson, winner of the 1977 Iditarod, raced into Nome neck and neck.  It had been a close race all the way through.  Through the Alaskan interior and along the sea, they had traded leads.  On the approach to Nome, Swenson had led by the length of a sled.  At 100 yards from the finish, the two were neck and neck.  Approaching the finish line, both had got off the sled runners and were running alongside holding on the their sleds.  Mackey's lead dog crossed the finish line first, but then he fell, and Swenson and his sled crossed the line before Mackey.

Dick Mackey sprints with his dog team to the finish line (Anchorage Daily News)

So with this finish, the race official had to decide who was the winner.  No one had ever thought a race of this length would come down to such a tight finish.  Finally, the head official determined Mackey to be the winner due to his dog crossing the line first.  His official winning time was 14 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes and 24 seconds.  Swenson clocked in officially 1 second behind!  Swenson would go on to win four more Iditarods, bringing his total to five.  Mackey would not race again in the Iditarod, but has had two sons win the race, Rick in 1983 and Lance the last four years. 

Mackey (Right) and his sled builder Vern Hill celebrate the victory (Anchorage Daily News)

So we shall see who wins and by how much this year.  Since 1978, the training has gotten better, the technology has improved, and more racers from all over the world now compete.  Still, it will be hard for there to be more excitement than 1978.  Best of luck to all the racers.

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