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Soldiers marked the way for first full-scale Iditarod race

January 26, 2017 (Photo Credit: Michael Dinneen/AP)
The first Saturday in March marks the beginning of the iconic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an endurance test that will send mushers and their teams of dogs nearly 1,000 miles from downtown Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.

Service members from nearby Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson join locals for the ceremonial start – one that can involve trucking in snow to cover the street, depending on the weather – but most may not know the Army’s role in the race taking its current form.

Short races in 1967 and 1969 covered about 27 miles of the Iditarod Trail, and organizers hoped to take the 1973 race to the abandoned town of Iditarod itself, roughly halfway between Anchorage and Nome. 

But an Army exercise testing the use of snowmachines (also known as snowmobiles, depending on the region) offered a more ambitious alternative, according to a 2011 piece by the JBER public affairs department. Instead of stopping at Iditarod, the exercise would send 13 soldiers from Knik Lake to Nome, remarking the trail – which had fallen into disuse in the decades after Alaska’s gold rush – along the way.

So in 1973, 22 mushers would follow the soldiers’ path to Nome, participating in what organizers have since labeled “The Last Great Race on Earth.” The 45th race departs from Anchorage on March 4 for a ceremonial start, with the timed portion of the race beginning the next day in Willow, about 70 miles north of Anchorage.

The Army also played a role in a different kind of sled-dog race in the winter of 1925 – one that Iditarod organizers point to as a historical forerunner of the modern event. A diphtheria outbreak in Nome required medicine available in Anchorage, and with the dawn of reliable air travel still in the future – both the area’s planes had been stored for the winter, according to the race’s media guide – the governor decided a dogsled relay was the best transportation option.

Army Signal Corps workers at various telegraph transmittal stations sent out the initial warnings announcing the epidemic and helped organize a 20-driver relay team that would meet a train in Nenana and carry the serum 674 miles to Nome in 127 hours.

For more race history or details on this year’s event, visit www.iditarod.com.
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