Iditarod finish

Knik musher Kristy Berington leaves the starting chute during the 2020 Iditarod restart in Willow.

By Jacob Mann

Iditarod officials recently confirmed the 49th race trail will look different this year to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Instead of starting from Willow and finishing in Nome, the race will begin and end at Deshka Landing, breaking from the historical tradition.

“We’re completely consumed with making it happen. We have focused completely on COVID mitigation, prevention. We have a pretty robust plan,” Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach said.

The mutual decision to alter the race course came after ongoing discussions between the Iditarod and Willow Area Community Organization, ultimately opting to mitigate the risk of infection with limited spectator capacity.

While the restart location has been changed numerous times in the past, this is the first time the finish line at Nome has been changed.

“I’m highly confident we’ll be able to maintain our bubble, to protect the communities and the villages of Alaska, and yet still preserve the integrity of the race, and sort of the spirit of what it means to complete the Iditarod will feel the same; even though for the first time ever, they are not going to Nome. But, we have a big, challenging course,” Urbach said.

The 2021 race route is referred to as the Gold Trail Loop, following a portion of the traditional southern race route to the Iditarod checkpoint, continuing to the mining ghost town of Flat before making their way back to where they started.

The course is about 860 miles long this year. Urbach noted that the course may be shorter than years past, but it offers its fair share of challenges along the way.

“We’ve gotta go up and over the Alaska Range twice, never done before. Then we’re coming up the other way up that gorge, which is probably the most difficult part of the course,” Urbach said.

On this new route, the teams will make their way through the Alaska Range, the Happy River Steps and the notorious Dalzell Gorge, twice, a unique milestone never seen before at the Iditarod. According to Urbach, the plan is to return the race to its normal restart and finish locations next year.

The alternate course and surrounding changes are taking place to safely maintain the race while protecting the mushers, volunteers, Iditarod personnel, and the various communities along the trail, according to Urbach.

He said the Iditarod has laid out a comprehensive COVID-19 mitigation plan built on checkpoint “bubbles,” strong testing protocols, and social distancing requirements like mandatory face masks, and physical separation. He said they’ve also limited their overall staff and volunteers to only crucial positions as further means of mitigation.

“The world has changed, clearly. We’ve had to adapt and innovate to change the race, not so much from the mushers’ standpoint, but more from the veterinary care, from the staff and the district people that may have been sleeping on the floor of a school are now probably gonna be in a tent out on the trail. So, it’s gonna be a little bit more rugged but we’re open to it,” Urbach said.

According to Urbach, there’s very limited spectator opportunities beyond the secured area that only essential race essential personnel and participants are allowed to enter. He said it’s going to be a tough year, but being tough is what the Iditarod is all about.

“There’s just a lot of challenges. The Iditarod and challenges are synonymous, right?” Urbach said. “This is the 49th race, the 49th state, just gotta get through it… We’re excited... It’s just another opportunity for us to excel.”

There are currently 57 teams on the 2021 Iditarod roster. This year’s race features eight of the top eight of the top 10 finishers from the 2020 race, and four past Iditarod champions.

“We’re just looking forward to counting down to race day,” Urbach said.

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