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‘Not compromising one iota’: Iditarod officials look to altered 2021 race

Several plans including pandemic-prompted changes are under consideration
 Mitch Seavey on the trail near Elim, far in the Iditarod lead. (Tracy Sabo / KTUU)
Mitch Seavey on the trail near Elim, far in the Iditarod lead. (Tracy Sabo / KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Nov. 24, 2020 at 6:41 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Iditarod race officials said Monday they are working on several different mitigation plans for the 49th running of the race, with various options available depending on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve been working every day since coming off the trail,” said Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach. “I got back from Nome on March 25th. We’ve worked seven days a week on all different scenarios.”

Among the guaranteed changes is one not decided upon by race officials: Reigning Iditarod Champion Thomas Waerner will sit the race out due to logistical challenges prompted by the pandemic.

“I’ve been calling all the different companies, the embassy, and everybody said, ‘Nope, this is not the year,’” Waerner said.

Waerner, who hails from Norway, took this year’s title on March 17. He ended up stuck in Alaska with 24 dogs, for several months, before he was able to get home. Even then, it took unconventional measures and a plane bound for a Norwegian museum to make it happen.

“All these things happening, these things were beyond my control,” Waerner said. “And I said, ‘Okay, I have to make this date for when I have to be the time to decide. If I don’t have a solution around the first of December, I have to pull the plug.’”

Like Waerner, Urbach said all options were under consideration for the race in March. Each of the group’s plans is tailored to different COVID-19 alert levels.

“A lot can happen in terms of twist and turns with COVID, I think,” Urbach said. “I mean, think about where we were a few months ago versus today.”

The Iditarod met with state health officials on Friday, Urbach said, to further discuss mitigation plans for the race. Some of the adjustments all but set in stone include an altered race route, mushers and their teams camping out instead of utilizing village buildings, and more resources and space for race volunteers.

“This year, we may be navigating around a substantial number of checkpoints,” Urbach said, referring to a trail detour around Shaktoolik this past year. “We have to think about how we fly, what airports we can use with our Air Force. Are we going to create our own landing areas with campsites? Just imagine building a whole campsite with nothing out there. It’s everything from sanitation to power to heat to keep every single dog, not compromising one iota on dog care or any life, human or otherwise.”

Along with other safety precautions, Urbach said anyone who is participating as a racer or volunteer in the Iditarod will be tested immediately upon arriving to Alaska, with regular testing throughout the race. Depending on what job they’re doing, volunteers, veterinarians and others will be issued different types of personal protective equipment.

The plan, for now, is to go through with holding the ever-popular ceremonial start - which injects about $8 million into the Anchorage economy, according to Urbach - though that could change at any point. Pretty much everything about race logistics is being adjusted, he said, “but it’s not reinventing the way we do things.”

In many ways, the race may prove to be a return to the race’s roots, as officials maintain they’re doing all they can to make sure the Iditarod survives and even thrives in 2021.

We’ll probably have the healthiest race ever because we’re super conscientious,” Urbach said. “There will be more challenges, but we’re looking forward to it.”

For some, like Waerner, there’s no way around the disappointment of not being able to race, but 2022 will hopefully offer an easier time getting overseas.

“I think I could have a really good shot at being competitive this year also,” he said. “All the other racers have been really supportive. You know, if you want to win the race, you want to win against the mushers you think are good.

“I hope this COVID will be gone, and we can actually start normal life again,” he added. “And I hope all the races are surviving and dealing with the problems this is causing. It’s not easy for anybody. But I’m looking forward to coming back in 2022.”

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