It is difficult to tell if the musher standing behind a sled pulled by 16 dogs and wearing a puffy red parka and a face protector shrouded in frost is a man or a woman. However, in competitive sled dog racing, it does not really matter.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, promoted as “the last great race on earth,” is a 1,600km trek across some of the world’s harshest terrain, from the wilderness of the Alaskan interior to the rugged coastal town of Nome, Alaska. This year’s race started on Monday last week with almost 80 teams of dogs and mushers from the US, Canada, Norway, Sweden, France, New Zealand and Australia.
This year’s race also includes a notable increase in female competitors. Among the top contenders is Aliy Zirkle, who has come in second in the Iditarod three times and is the only woman to have won the 1,600km Yukon Quest.
Other female challengers this year include Jessie Royer, 38, who grew up in Montana and has won the La Grande Odyssee, in the French and Swiss Alps; and Michelle Phillips, 46, from the Yukon, in Canada, who won the Yukon Quest 480km race. DeeDee Jonrowe, 61, a cancer survivor, also cannot be overlooked — she often mushes in hot pink, has raced in the Iditarod since 1980 and finished in the top 10 about half the time.
In the 1970s and 1980s, women like Susan Butcher and Libby Riddles not only competed in the races, but dominated them. In 1985, Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod, then Butcher won it multiple times. Mushers say the sport has a level playing field, regardless of gender.
Even so, a woman has not won the Iditarod since 1990. However, that might change this year, with women making up nearly a third of the entries.
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