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Inside the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Skinny Leg Sled Team in the Last Great Race on Earth

UPDATES: Brett Bruggeman of the Skinny Leg Sled Team unexpectedly withdrew from the Iditarod Tuesday morning just 223 miles from the finish of the 1,000-mile race. According to a Facebook post written by Bruggeman's wife, "Brett has chosen to withdraw from the race. Brett is stunned that the situation turned so fast but feels that his dogs' health and safety are more important than a finish." 

Peter Kaiser of Bethel, Alaska, crossed into Nome today at 3:39 a.m. to claim his first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Championship! His team traveled, per the Nome Nugget, almost 1,000 miles in nine days, 12 hours, 39 minutes, and six seconds. Incredible!

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The original story follows below and was published on March 12, 2019. 

The Iditarod is known as "The Last Great Race on Earth" and covers 1,000 miles of rough terrain. The Iditarod route is named after a ghost town from the gold rush. (How cool is that!) The race begins on the first Saturday in March each year and ends when the last musher reaches Nome. The race runs from Anchorage to Nome and takes about ten days to complete. 

A musher starts with 14 dogs for the Iditarod and must finish with five in harness. It is very rare for a musher to finish the race with all 14 dogs. (Many will drop out due to illness, fatigue, injury or even strategy). 

Each sled is pulled by 16 very hardy dogs. This sled dog race's ceremonial start was in Anchorage, Alaska on March 2. Iditarod.com tells us,

"The Iditarod Trail, now a National Historic Trail, had its beginnings as a mail and supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to the interior mining camps at Flat, Ophir, Ruby and beyond to the west coast communities of Unalakleet, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain and Nome."

How many Iditarod mushers are there? Fifty-two dog mushers are currently participating in the race, and among them are former Iditarod champions Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Mitch Seavey, Martin Buser, Lance Mackey, and Jeff King; other veteran mushers such as Aliy Zirkle and Nicolas Petit; and ten rookies.

Plenty of women are mushers too and are veterans in the race including Jessie Royer, Anna Berington, Anja Radano, and Emily Maxwell. Mushers love their hounds and always put their dogs first. So much so, many mushers like Shaynee Traska will drop out (new term: they scratch out) because they have the best interests of their dogs in mind.

Some checkpoints are more popular than others for people to travel to and follow the Iditarod race. I cannot imagine anything more exciting than watching the teams pass at full speed!

"There are many checkpoints and the Finger Lake Checkpoint is a popular destination people travel to and watch the race. Finger Lake is a tent checkpoint that's located at the eastern edge of the Alaska Range in snow country. It's not unusual to have TEN FEET of snow on the ground! It's important to leave Finger Lake by 15:00 military time to have enough daylight to cover the very difficult parts of the trail to the next checkpoint at Rainy Pass Lodge."

Fun fact and staff note: KTUU.com reported that a dog that lives at the Winter Lake Lodge decided it wanted to take to the Iditarod trail Monday, following two Iditarod race teams between the checkpoint at Finger Lake, 30 miles to Rainy Pass. Musher Ryan Redington says he'd never seen a "town dog" run the trail with a team before.

Even the town dogs want to be part of the race! But some mushers have had issues with their equipment given the terrain.

With that in mind, the race is surrounded by some controversy.

PETA is strongly against this race and explains,

"Musher Linwood Fiedler lost his entire team of 13 dogs when the line connecting the animals to his sled broke. As they ran free of the sled, one is believed to have been dragged through the snow by the others. More alarming still, Fiedler described actually being able to find the lost dogs—who had run away from the trail—as "lucky, lucky, lucky." It's horrible to imagine what would've happened to these dogs if they'd never been found in the frigid Alaskan wilderness."

Companies Jack Daniels and Wells Fargo dropped their sponsorship of the race, possibly due to pressure from animal rights' activists.

So what about the sled dogs?

MentalFloss.com tells us,

  • Sled dogs need 10,000-12,000 calories a day
  • Most of the sled dogs in the Iditarod are Alaskan Huskies
  • All of the dogs wear booties
  • There is a set of vocabulary

Hike! (Let's go! Get moving!)
Haw! (Turn left!)
Gee! (Turn right)
On by! (Pass another team! or Pay that distraction no mind!)
Easy! (Slow down!)
Whoa! (Stop!)

On the trail, highlights with the Skinny Dog Sled Team:  

Meet the Skinny Leg Sled Dog Team and musher Brett Bruggeman,

As reported on their Facebook page, the Skinny Leg Sled Dog team has a unique (grab the Kleenexes!) story. So many of the mushers and their teams have stories steeped in family tradition. There's quite a bit of friendly family rivalry in the Iditarod! 

"Brett's son, Spencer, was born with a vascular condition called telangiectasia congenita in his left leg. Disruption of blood supply has made that leg shorter and skinnier than the other leg. We affectionately call it his "skinny leg." When Spencer was ten he was obsessed with Jack London books. Coincidentally, his dad was reading a nonfiction book about the Yukon gold rush at the same time. It was fate. They both became fascinated with dog sledding and began reading everything they could get their hands on about the sport. We decided as a family this would be the perfect sport for Spencer...and Skinny Leg Sled Dogs was born."

Two of the dogs on their team 

Meet Judy and Carol: "The TWISTED SISTERS" are two of the dogs on their team. They name their litters after a theme and they decided these pups would be named after people. 

"Judy and Carol, aka the Twisted Sisters or Evil Twins look identical but for a pair of white socks on Carol's front feet. Though they are the smallest dogs in our kennel, they are fierce, little meanies. They work as a team to single out a dog, male or female, and bully them—yet they totally love each other, which is rare among females. Separately they are affectionate and delightful, but together, the Twisted Sisters give bitch it's bad name. (cue Bon Jovi)."

Speaking of fierce, watch what it's like to ride a sled with dogs (like the Twisted Sisters) during a race like this one. This first video was shared from the Alaska Dispatch News.

We also thought you'd enjoy learning about why these dogs don't get tired on the trail!

Update: KTUU.com reported that as of March 7,  Nic Petit has passed through the traditional halfway point of the Iditarod race — the checkpoint of Iditarod, and continued on the trail, having already taken his 24-hour layover. His team is currently in the lead.

Do you know anyone that has been to the Iditarod and watched the teams get ready at the start line? Please leave us a comment below!

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