Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Last Great Race

First a little history of the race and some background.  The Last Great Race, the Iditarod sled dog race.  Over 1000 miles through the Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter, just you and 16 dogs.  The race itself commemorates the 1925 serum run where 150 dogs mushed 674 mile in 5-1/2 days to bring Diphtheria antitoxin to the city of Nome stricken by an outbreak of the disease.

Today, March 3rd, 2012, 65 teams mushed down 4th Avenue in Anchorage in the ceremonial start; tomorrow they will begin their journey to Nome.  The race, begun in 1973, is considered by many one of the last great endurance races on earth.  This 1000 plus mile race covers some of the most beautiful, rugged and unforgiving country in all of north America; temperatures of 50 degrees below zero and blizzard force winds and not unusual.  Mushers cross the highest mountain range in north America, the Alaska Range, mush down the mighty Yukon River and across the frozen Bering Sea before reaching the finish line on Front Street in Nome.  The fastest teams will make the trip in just over 9 days while teams will continue to cross the finish line for weeks after.  But, as is customary, every team no matter what time or day, is met by a cheering crowd as they cross under the famed burled arch. 

The symbolic 1049 miles associated with the race is an indication of the 1000 mile race and Alaska as the 49th state not the actual distance covered.  While this years race is slightly under 1000 miles at 975 miles, the distance traveled varies on whether the northern or southern route is being run and the trail conditions.

For years while living in Alaska I was fortunate to photograph the race, first and a spectator and later as a race photographer.   Over the years I began to appreciate it was not just about the mushers but about the dogs and mushers running as a well oiled team, neither could run this marathon race without the cooperation of each other.  Often running for days without sleep, at each check point dogs must be feed and checked by vets and gear must be checked, the mushers depend on the dogs to follow the trail while they cat nap while mushing in the dark.  I was once told by one musher that he would climb into the sled and sleep while the dogs crossed large lakes, he would be awakened by the bump of the dogs going over the bank at the far side of the lake.  Mandatory breaks are factored into the race with a 4, 8 and 24 hour rest stop required.

While many associate sled dogs with the Alaskan Husky or the Malamute in fact the dogs of the Iditarod are a heinz 57 of many breeds bred for both speed and endurance.  However, that doesn't mean husky's and other breeds don't run the Iditarod, over the years a pure bred husky team and even a team of pure bred standard poodles have run in the race.  Born to run, the enthusiasm of the dogs and their eagerness to be on the trail was always exciting to watch and it was no surprise that many a musher was heavy on the break to slow the teams down at the race start. 

While the seemingly misfit dogs were off winning the race, I would often get as many shots as I could of the huskies as they fit the perception of many as what a sled dog team looked like and, in the marketing world, were easier to sell.  The dogs looked great but just like myself, ran slow. 

As you can see by the image to the left, they do make for great pictures; what beautiful dogs. When photographing the dogs I always tried to us as large a lens as possible in a effort not to interfere with the teams; the mushers will be running into enough hazards along the trail without you becoming one of them. Shots like the one on the left were usually taken from a bend in the trail which allowed me to shoot straight down the trail. 

The other half of this dynamic duo, the mushers, are dedicated to their sport and committed to the team.  They are just as much an athlete as any sports athlete.  Each musher has completely devoted themselves to the training and care of the dogs as a full time job.  All mushers must qualify in a series of long distance races before being allowed to run the Iditarod with at least one of the races being over 300 miles. 

Want to try your hand at photographing a sled dog race?  Hitting the trail for a sled dog race, whether the world famous Iditarod or a lesser know race, can be both a challenge and highly rewarding. While you can stay at the start near your warm car to really become a part of the race you've got to get out onto the trail.  Away from the crowds the race takes on a life of it's own and the strategies of the mushers start to become clear.   I like to get low, even laying in the snow if needed to see the world from the dogs eyes, the athletes perspective if you would.   Like in this shot taken with a Canon 20mm f2.8;
For equipment I normally carry 2 bodies and a variety of lenses from a wide angle zoom to mid size zooms in the 100-400mm range.  This allows me to capture many different aspects of the race from different angles and perspectives.  I always carry a tripod, remember, it's all about stability when it comes to sharp images.  During the race I don't use a flash as I don't want to frighten the dogs.  And don't forget you, if you're not warm and dry, you're not staying out long.   So dress in lose layers to stay warm.  A hat, gloves that you can work the camera with are important; especially on very cold days and warm shoes that you can stand in for long periods without getting cold.

 Sled dog races are a great way to get out and enjoy winter, especially if you live somewhere where winters are long and dark as is the case in Alaska.   So, as  the mushers head out across the Alaskan frontier on their way to Nome, wish them luck and a safe journey and check out your local area for a race near you.  Whether a sprint race or a distance race you're going to enjoy the experience and come away with images that will leave you wanting more!  And don't forget to follow the 2012 Iditarod at


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