Iditarod: Why race times improved drastically since its start

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(App users, to view the interactive data visualization, follow this link).

Data is sourced from the Iditarod.

Use this interactive data visualization to compare annual first and last place finishing times – along with purse winnings – since the race began in 1973.

Also provided is total mileage of the races between 1997 through 2017. Mileage information for the races prior to 1997 will be added, once the Iditarod Trail Committee updates its race archives for those years.

To view the performance and purse winnings of a specific champion, use the Highlight tool in red.

When the first Iditarod took place in 1973, the fastest musher completed the course in 20 days. But decades later in 2017, three-time champion Mitch Seavey set a new record at 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds.

In the beginning, it took the last place musher 32 days to finish the Iditarod. Now, last place finishes in approximately 12 days.

It's clear that race times have improved drastically since the Iditarod first began, but why?

Stronger Dogs:
According to Martin Buser, a four-time champion, one reason for a faster race is due to breeding stronger sled dogs.

"The eight and a half day Iditarod is sort of the apex of what is 'caninely possible' – what the dogs can do," said Buser.

Looking at increments of improvement, race records are not being broken every year. And according to Buser, this reflects that dogs are at their "genetic maximum." He added that the dogs' diets have been refined, too.

"It would take a paradigm shift to make a seven day Iditarod, and we’re not there yet," he said. "The dogs have evolved to cover the ground in an eight and a half day stretch, and that’s about where the race is going to be."

Improved Gear:
Another four-time champion, Jeff King, claims that improved gear – especially improved sleds – helped reduce mushers' total time en-route.

"I take total responsibility for designing a sled that would comfortably allow a musher to sit down," said King.

The sit-down sled, which King developed in 2004, was dubbed the Iditarod Barcalounger. His sled initially had a mounted shock-absorber seat, but it was later substituted for an ice cooler.

"We couldn’t keep up with the dogs before that," said King. "There wasn’t a musher alive that could get through an eight day race, without having sat down a good share of the time the dogs were moving."

On average, it took the first place musher approximately nine days to finish the race between 1995 through 2009.

And over the past few years, the Iditarod has seen an evolution of sled designs. Other improvements include seat belts and leashes, heated handle bars and additional storage compartment space.

Up until recently, some mushers used to tow trailers behind the sled to haul dogs. However, by 2017, the Iditarod Trail Committee banned this sled modification as a safety precaution.

Modernizing the Race:
According to Joe May, race champion of 1980, the Iditarod in its first 10 years was an entirely different beast, compared to present day.

Back then, May said the race truly took place on a "broken trail," as mushers would often times clear a trail ahead of the dogs using snowshoes and other tools.

"From Farewell Station, with axes and bow saws, mushers literally sawed and chopped their way through 50 miles of burnt deadfalls to Salmon River – often lost," May wrote in a 2016 Facebook post. "When we slept, we slept on snow. Bedding straw was in a distant future."

In addition, May said that mushers, who ran the race during those first 10 years, mostly did it to test their endurance, rather than for money or acclaim.

"The year I won it, 1980, a third of the teams scratched – many never made it beyond Unalakleet," recalled May. "When I got there, I didn't think of myself as a 'winner,' but rather a 'survivor.' The prize money was little more than enough for a good party and plane fare home – no pickup truck."

While May said some modern day mushers are "certainly capable" of running the old race, he questions if they would ever want to.

"To any who would say today's dogs and mushers are obviously 'better,' because the race is now run in eight or nine days... I would say, the visual of today's mushers – schlepping down the trail, sitting on a padded bucket, [and] listening to iPod music – is both kind of funny and kind of sad," wrote May. "Like the feeling that comes when turning the last page of a good book."

May's sentiments are also shared by others in the novel Iditarod: The First Ten Years, which serves as a compilation of anecdotes from long past races.

Iditarod pioneer Rod Perry, who was appointed to the original Iditarod National Historic Trail Advisory Council, stressed that the race even evolved between its first years in 1973 through May's win in 1980.

"Having run the first and second race, there was a huge learning curve," said Perry.

Not only was the trail different – longer and more difficult – back then, but Perry said you had to be great at survival, because nobody knew what to expect. He said mushers knew what it was like to run dogs for 1,000 miles, but they did not know what it was like to race dogs for that long.

"The greatest change is going from not knowing, to knowing," said Perry. "You don't know anything about something you've never done before – something nobody's ever done before. With no knowledge base, you're the Lewis and Clark of the Iditarod."

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