Iditarod – “The Last Great Race on Earth”
1,000 mile Iditarod dog race from Anchorage to Nome. Photo: US Bureau of Land Management
Besides running tourist mushing programs, Sven has participated four times in the famous Iditarod dog sled race. Run yearly, simulating the initial mail and supply route which became famous in 1925 for bringing life saving medicine from Anchorage to the diphtheria-ravaged peoples of Nome 1,000 miles distant, the race pits mushers and animals against some of nature’s roughest terrain. Held in March with temperatures far below zero, wind that can cause complete loss of visibility, treacherous climbs, frozen rivers, dense forests and desolate tundra it is an extreme race that attracts people from all walks of life.
Sven spends a year in daily training, preparation and fund raising. Each race requires an investment of $50,000 in food and equipment. The winner takes away the grand prize of $70,000; – clearly, it’s a labour of love! During the race, he prefers to run his dogs at night as they run more efficiently. Up to 11 hours continuous running, the record winning time sits at just over eight days, but each musher is required to carry equipment and feed for up to three weeks on the trail, just in case. The 20 to 30 international race teams (including one or two from Switzerland every year) are looked over at various check points and mandatory layovers, and the dogs are thoroughly inspected for injury. Mushers and dogs also get tested for drug use.
On average, Sven gets about two hours of sleep every night as he massages his dogs, feeds them, puts hand warmers into their booties and heat pads on their bodies to heat up their muscles when they rest, and then checks for damage and mends the sleds on this up-and-down-hill Alaskan race.
A particularly desolate stretch called northern sound is totally flat and open 360 degrees. “You do not know where the ocean is when you turn around, and dogs and mushers are lost. It is a very boring, but dangerous place, so when I get tired I tie a rope around my waste.” To combat tiredness and hallucination, Sven runs comedy and rock-n-roll tapes with an occasional “Hudigäggeler” in his headphones while he blasts through the Alaskan wilderness, at night, with his dog team.
This year, Sven was training to enter the gruelling 1,000 mile international Yukon Quest sled dog race from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, Alaska, in February 2017. Because of the harsh winter conditions, difficult trail and limited support that competitors are permitted, it’s considered the “most difficult sled dog race in the world”. Because of a technicality, Sven just missed the application deadline for this race. But I think he might already be aiming for the next Iditarod! If you visit Sven Haltmann and his dog team on his Fairbanks mushing property or at his remote Bettles Lodge, you can get a miniature taste of it!