Mushers and race organizers look ahead to Iditarod 49
Mushers are scheduled to hit the trail for the 49th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, March 7. For the first time ever, the 2021 Iditarod will not end in Nome, but instead will be an out and back route from Deshka Landing to Flat (just past Iditarod) and return. This change, which allows mushers and trail support to avoid most villages, was made as a COVID-19 precaution. For the same reason, the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage was cancelled.
In a press conference on February 26, Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach and Race Marshal Mark Nordman gave an overview of COVID-19 protocol and trail conditions for this year’s race. According to Urbach, Iditarod formed its COVID-19 mitigation plan by examining successes and failures of other sporting events. The goal, he said, is to create a bubble of Iditarod mushers and race personnel and to keep contact with community members to an absolute minimum. The plan includes a limited number of volunteers, mandatory masking and testing protocols. There will be a combination of tent camping and using checkpoints, Nordman explained.
The Iditarod has over 5,000 COVID tests, which will be administered both before and during the race. Mushers need to have a negative test 10 to 14 days before arrival in Willow, another 72 hours before the start, another on Sunday for the start and a final test in McGrath. Some of the tests—such as those participants will take in McGrath—are rapid tests, so mushers will not need to wait for their results. If a musher tests positive, she or he will be withdrawn from the race.
In terms of the race itself, the 2021 Iditarod will follow the traditional southern route taken in odd years, but instead of continuing past Iditarod to Shageluk, mushers will turn around and retrace their steps. Mushers will turn around in the abandoned mining community of Flat, a few miles outside of Iditarod. As an aside, Nordman said that Joe Redington, Sr., the central founder of the Iditarod, originally wanted the race to go to Iditarod and back.
The trail is calculated to be 998 miles in total, which is shorter than the route to Nome. Mushers are required to take three mandatory layovers; one that is 24 hours and two that are 8-hours. The 24-hour layover must be taken between Skwentna and Iditarod on the way out. Mushers need to take one 8-hour layover between (or during) stops in Rohn, and another in Skwentna on the return trip.
The trail crew has begun working on the trail, Nordman said, and are focusing in particular on the Dalzell Gorge. To accommodate the additional sled traffic from mushers going back to Willow, there will be trail workers on standby nearby to repair any damage in the area that occurs during the race.
Although preparing for a much different race required a lot of additional work, Urbach and Nordman are optimistic that the 49th Iditarod will be successful. “We need this race,” Nordman said, explaining that during these unprecedented and uncertain times, it is important to have a source of stability. Holding the Iditarod provides a sense of normality for Alaskans.
There are currently 47 mushers registered for the 2021 Iditarod. The field includes several former champions, but defending champion Thomas Waerner of Norway is not in the mix this year. Notably, four-time champion Dallas Seavey is racing his first Iditarod since 2017, when he was involved in dog-doping allegations of which he was later cleared. More recent winners include Bethel’s Pete Kaiser, who won in 2019, and Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who won the 2018 race and placed second in 2019. Four-time champion Martin Buser, who last won the race in 2002, is signed up for his 35th consecutive Iditarod. Buser, who currently holds the record for the most consecutive Iditarod finishes, has completed the race a total of 36 times.
The sole participant from the region is Aaron Burmeister, who grew up in Nome and divides his time between Nome and Nenana. Burmeister, 45, has been a top Iditarod musher for years and consistently finishes in the top 10. His highest finish was third place in 2015 and he placed fifth in 2020. Despite the fact that route changes mean the race will not finish in his hometown, Burmeister is optimistic and looking forward to the 2021 Iditarod.
“I’m just ecstatic and excited about having the race with everything the world is going through,” he said. Burmeister said that training went very well, and he believes his team is prepared for the race.
He is looking forward to the different route, and believes the altered trail has its unique advantages. The out and back will not be as “exciting,” but Burmeister is happy that teams will go through Flat. He explained that this is a historic mining community and that dog teams were a big part of that history.
It may not be as interesting, but Burmeister said he does not think the out and back trail will pose a mental challenge to either himself or his team. “I never look at the whole race,” he said. Instead, throughout his training he prepares his dogs to only focus on getting to the next mile. “The goal is always to manage my team to the best of my ability,” he said.
Since the race is roughly 150 miles shorter and does not travel along the Yukon River or the Bering Sea Coast, Burmeister anticipates that mushers will utilize much different strategies. For him, it is unfortunate that the trail will not go along the coast, because he always views this section of trail as an advantage. He explained that he and his team are familiar with the windy and sometimes treacherous weather conditions. “I’m comfortable on the coast, where a lot of mushers have fear,” he said. Although this is disappointing, Burmeister is optimistic that he and his team have the tools to do well.
Burmeister believes that this race will play into the hands of experienced mushers who know how to best manage their teams. Since racers will have less support, this also means mushers who have experience camping with their dogs. “Skilled racers at the top of the field” will do well, he said, adding that with nearly 20 Iditarods under his belt, “I count myself in that group.” If everything goes to plan and Burmeister manages his dogs successfully, he hopes to be running with the top teams.
Despite the different trail and weather conditions, much of the preparation is the same. Burmeister said he did not train differently for this Iditarod than for any of his previous races. “It’s still preparing for a long event, so the training doesn’t change a whole lot,” he said. What is important is consistency and following a training plan. Burmeister, who trains in Nenana, said that conditions this year were incredible. They have had good snow since October and he was able to put a lot of miles on the dogs. The only disadvantage he predicts for his team is the warmer weather. “In the Mat-Su, temperatures can be in the 40s,” he said, whereas his team is used to much cooler interior temperatures.
While the changed route presents new opportunities, Burmeister is “bummed” that the race will not end in Nome. “My favorite part of the race is the people, seeing friends all along the coast and finishing in my hometown,” Burmeister said. He explained that this will be his 20th Iditarod, and because his team of four and five-year-olds is in their prime, he planned for 2021 to be his last race. Yet because he wants his final Iditarod to conclude in his hometown, Burmeister is going to push retirement back another year. It won’t be the race ending he had planned, but Burmeister is still committed to representing the region. “I still hope to go out and do my best and make Nome proud,” he said.