Speed of the Race

Loren Holmes Photo

Well, there I am going down the Iditarod’s Happy River Steps! (Glad they reinserted the Steps back into this year’s race—see my piece, Wave the Steps Goodbye in my blog archives.) Get out your magnifying glass and you’ll see me careening down as “The Musher on the Patch.” (See my blog post of that title featured a few days ago.) Hey, my famous old leader Fat Albert, is screaming down that hill again as well. He was my model for the lead dog on the emblem.

The speed of today’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a marvel to me. In our 40 races since I pioneered, we’ve gone from a three-week, to a two-week, and now to an almost one-week race. Incredible!

Where these racers are now, hitting McGrath on their third day, on the trailblazing run in 1973 took me twelve hard-fought days of battling overflow, wading deep snow, trying to keep to the unmarked trail, staving off starvation, rebuilding part of a traveling companion’s sled, saving the man from potential freezing or drowning, and camping on the trail in temperatures far below zero. Like I’ve often said, today’s race is hardly an adventure after the dictionary definition (risk, hazard, dangerous undertaking, bold plunge, unknown outcome) and hardly requires any of the old trail/survival skills that were absolutely essential/life-saving to us pioneers. Now they are free to just race. And race they do. They amaze me.

In three successive posts of a few days back I spent a lot of space explaining the vast gulf between the survival and trail skills level of we ancients compared to the average Iditarod Racer of today, many of whom would have probably had their bones picked by the ravens trying to cope during the first race.

As well, though, I stated that while we Iditarod pioneers would have considered today’s races a stroll in the park as far as what it takes nowadays to whip through on relative beds of ease in the mere covering of the distance, we would be left utterly perplexed and far, far outgunned in any try at comparing with the rawest red-lantern finisher when it comes to everything that goes into running one of these lightning-fast races. The dogs, the dog fuel, the training, the knowledge of how to pace the run-rest schedules, all of it would leave us old ones shaking our heads, baffled and crushed by our relative ineptitude.

It’s just a far different game today. Sometime it would be wonderful to see our five-time winner Rick Swenson write a book about the evolutions. No one could do it better, as he was a prime—arguably the prime innovator as well as having run the most races. DeeDee, who’s run 30 times herself, could—and, I’m sure, enthusiastically would—write the introduction.

Now Rick can’t tell about the greatest evolution of all, because he didn’t experience it, only heard about it substantially later. That would be, hands down, the vast difference maker of going from “not knowing” to “knowing.” In pre 1973 race times we could only argue our opinions against those of the naysayers that stood against the Iditarod. And they seemed to have the stronger arguments. No one really knew for a fact whether the six major pre-race assertions by those naysayers (detailed in my TRAILBREAKERS Vol. II) regarding why the Iditarod would be impossible to bring off or sustain were true or not. This posed, for the future of the race, an absolute life-and-death situation. If we could not prove them wrong, you readers nor the rest of the world would have ever heard the word, “Iditarod.” So that’s why, as a pioneer, I can state unequivocally that he biggest, most important change in the history of our race was the settling of those questions in our favor!  By successfully battling through to the Yukon, we disproved by performance the naysayers points, settled the controversy, gave the race a future, and provided Rick a rich platform for his wonderful, legend-building, evolution-creating livelihood.

Rick joined our ranks by the fourth year, has run since and has seen all but the great 1973 evolutions. Being such a superb analyst and worth-listening-to philosopher, Rick would be able to tell and teach us a lot.


Learn about Rod’s two-volume work,
TRAILBREAKERS, Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod at


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