The town of Iditarod in Alaska was an Athabascan settlement on the river of the same name. In 1908 gold was discovered in the area and the town became the centre of a mining district named after it. The Seward to Nome Mail Trail, now the southern branch of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, passed through it after being surveyed by the Alaska Road Commission in 1910. The gold rush was over by 1915 and the trail was forgotten by 1925, after air transport became practical and efficient. The trail bearing the town's name is impassable in any season other than winter. Several possible definitions of the word "iditarod" have emerged, the most plausible one being an Ingalik word for "distant [place]."
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, as its full title is, is an annual event held since 1973 and covers 1150 miles (1850 km) between Anchorage on the Gulf of Alaska and Nome on the Bering Sea coast. Every year, on the first Saturday of March, between fifty and eighty men and women on sleds pull out of Anchorage on the first stage of a long race.
The race that bills itself as The Last Great Race® (arguably so since there are also events like the Paris - Dakar Rally and ultra-marathon races) commemorates the 1925 Serum Run to Nome in which a relay of sled teams delivered a quantity of much-needed serum to Nome to stem a mid-winter diphtheria outbreak. It does not, however follow the route that was actually taken but rather takes the traditional freight route between the two towns. The original sled run in 1925 was "only" 674 miles (1084 km) long.
The race is held over two different routes depending on the year. The stretches between Anchorage and Ophir, and between Kaltag and Nome are common to both. Between these two locations there are two possible routes, both formerly used as freight trails: the southern route (1161 miles/1868 km) turns south at Ophir, passes through the ghost town of Iditarod and then turns north at Anvik to head up the Yukon river to Kaltag. The northern route (1151 miles/1852 km) goes north from Ophir to Ruby, Alaska and from there follows the Yukon downstream, again to Kaltag where the trails merge. The southern trail is used in odd years, the northern one in even years. Of the two, the northern one is closest to the 1925 route which it matches from Ruby all the way to Nome. The decision to use two routes was made to relieve villages on the northern trail of the burden of hosting it every year, and give villages on the southern trail the opportunity to be part of it and allow the race to pass through the old gold rush town of Iditarod itself.
The Iditarod race is a stage race, with 24 (north) or 25 (south) checkpoints between Anchorage and Nome. Each musher may use up to 16 dogs on his or her team and the journey takes the fastest drivers just over nine days. Race times have become significantly faster as organisation has improved and things have probably become somewhat more cushy (bearing in mind that it's still over a thousand miles in the snow and ice). The first two races took the winners over 20 days while all winners since 1986 but one took less than 12 days. The last driver to finish is awarded the "red lantern" and the times for that have also become significantly faster, the 20 days it took in 1973 becoming less than ten days for every year since 1996.
There's been only one five time winner, a legend in his sport. Rick Swenson has won the race five times out of 25 starts, in 1977, 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1991 and he was in the field for his 29th race in 2005, that also being the first time he scratched. Five other mushers have won the race four times: The late Susan Butcher won in 1986-8 and 1990; Doug Swingley won in 1995 and 1999-2001; Jeff King came first in 1993, 1996, 1998, and 2006; Swiss champion Martin Buser took home the spoils in 1992, 1994, 1997, and 2002; and Lance Mackey one-upped his Iditarod-winning father and half-brother as he put together the only ever four-in-a-row streak in 2007-2010. Rick Swenson's Andy is the only dog to have led four teams to victory. Not quite as famous as Balto but still a pretty good record. The complete list is here.
Cash prizes are awarded to the top finishers. Not much by racing standards but the top drivers have career earnings of over 400,000 dollars. A mostly symbolic prize of 1049 dollars is paid to finishers, that's 1000 plus 49 because Alaska was the 49th state to join the Union. Hardly any of the hundreds of mushers age 18 to 88 have made a profit worth mentioning from racing the Iditarod. Only the best can recoup the cost associated with maintaining a top-notch sled team and transportation with their winnings. It's a race where amateurs and professionals mingle freely with even chances. Actually, anyone who takes part in a race like this has to be an amateur at heart. Hats off to them, I know for sure that this is not something I'd do.
Race information and updates during the race are posted at http://www.iditarod.com/.
Official Iditarod site
Fairbanks Exploration Inn
Other stuff from memory