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On Your Mark, Get Set, Mush!

And they're off! Teams of specially trained dogs are racing to the finish line in one of the toughest races in the world.

The teams battle Alaska's below-zero temperatures along a rugged trail of snow and ice. They are competing in the Iditarod (eye DIHT uh rahd) Trail Sled Dog Race.

Journey to Nome

The Iditarod is the longest sled dog race in the world. Each March, as many as 90 sled dog teams run the roughly 1,110-mile route.

The race, which was first run in Alaska in 1973, starts in the city of Anchorage and ends in the city of Nome. The race is more than 1,000 miles long, which is almost the same as the distance from New York City to Miami.

Getting Mushy

A team of 12 to 16 dogs pulls each sled. People called mushers guide and care for the dogs. Mushers must stop at all 26 checkpoints along the trail. There, veterinarians check the health of each dog. A veterinarian is a doctor whose patients are animals.

During their race, mushers set up camp to make sure the dogs get enough food, water, and rest. The mushers and dogs must stop for at least one 24-hour period and two 8-hour periods.

It can take more than two weeks for teams to complete the race. In 2002, the winner set the record for the fastest time ever. His team completed the race in 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, and 2 seconds. The team that takes the longest also gets an award. The idea behind that award is to recognize the team's efforts.

Making History

Not surprisingly, dog mushing is Alaska's state sport. Mushing has not always been a sport, however. Dog sleds once served as an important form of transportation.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, miners discovered gold in Alaska. Thousands of people traveled to Alaska hoping to find gold and become rich.

During that time, dog sleds helped people get from place to place. They also carried gold, mail, and supplies. “Dog teams were important to settling Alaska during this time,” race director Joanne Potts told Weekly Reader.

In 1925, sled dogs in Anchorage delivered lifesaving medicine to sick children in Nome. The Iditarod teams follow the same route. The race honors that event and the part that dog teams have played in the state's history.

Teacher on the Trail

Experiencing the 2004 race up close was fourth-grade teacher Jeff Peterson from Minnesota. Peterson, who was selected as the 2004 Teacher on the Trail, reported on the race.

Peterson told Weekly Reader that the race is as much about the people, culture, and landscape of Alaska as it is about the dogs. “I've been interested in the Iditarod since I was a kid,” he said. “To experience this race firsthand is like a dream come true.”