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Covering the 'last great race on earth'

Alaska's Iditarod race, one of the most grueling sporting events in the world, is not just for the dogs.
Last modified: 8 Mar 2013 13:32

"Hey, Cath. Do you want to go to Alaska to cover the Iditarod dog sledding race?"

And so began the phone call from my editor which put me and my crew on a plane to one of the most remote places on the planet.

Alaska isn't connected to the United States, and not just in a geographical sense. People here call themselves Alaskans - not Americans - and refer to the rest of the United States as "the lower 48".

It is breathtakingly beautiful.

In Pictures: Iditarod race

The air in Anchorage is clean and crisp; so is the snow. The white-capped mountains make for a majestic backdrop. And the people are incredibly open and friendly.

Of course, there are instantly recognisable brands scattered across the city: Starbucks, KFC, Barnes and Noble, even a Nordstrom store.

But there's definitely a small-town feel here and when you combine that with being surrounded by mountains and the ocean, it gives the place a certain charm and intimacy that I haven't felt in any other American city.

They call the Iditarod "The Last Great Race on Earth", and for good reason. It is one of the toughest, most gruelling sporting events in the world, in a harsh and relentless environment. Man versus man. Man versus dog. Man and dog versus nature.

Musher and friends

The race began 41 years ago, inspired by a historic 1925 expedition to bring an emergency supply of diphtheria serum to the people of Nome, a tiny town on the Bering Sea.

The humans in this competition are called mushers, from the French word "marcher", which means "to go".

Their faithful friends are Alaskan huskies, Siberian huskies and hounds or a variation of all three.

The race is about 1,000 miles long (1,609km) and the trail runs north - way north - with the finishing line in Nome.

The challenges are endless.

Feeding and caring for your pet dog at home can be stressful and demanding.

Imagine looking after 16 dogs in blizzards with gale force winds, in temperatures as cold as minus 73 degrees Celsius (windshield) for days on end, all the while watching the clock, looking over your shoulder and pushing ahead. Doggy day care, it ain't.

Moose crossing

And just for fun, add in some Alaskan quirk. For example: an encounter with a moose. These huge animals are sometimes found on the Iditarod trail and they don't like to back down.

In periods of heavy snow, Moose prefer to stay on the tracks because their hooves sink so quickly in the snow and they become stranded.

Under Alaskan law, if you kill a moose, the dead animal must be carried out of the forest. For a musher, that means carrying about 300kg of extra weight on the sled, and losing the race.

Oh, and in case you're wondering ... Iditarod is a word which is believed to have derived from Athabascan, a group of Native Americans in Alaska. In English, it means "a far away place."

In the coming days, we will be looking at how the race has evolved and has been affected by warmer temperatures, increased competition and a growing international following.

We will be leaving the nice suburbs of Anchorage on Friday, in search of the mushers and their trusty companions. This is where the real fun begins. At least, that's what they're telling me.

If you want to know more about the history of the race, check out the official Iditarod website here.