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A look at the historical trends of scratching in the Iditarod and what it tells us about those who finish

Alaska's News Source staff along the trail in Ruby gives you an update on the mushers.
Published: Mar. 14, 2022 at 10:05 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race tests mushers and their dog teams through hundreds of miles through Alaska’s backcountry, and every year, mushers have to make the difficult decision to leave the race and scratch.

So far, the 2022 Iditarod has lived up to its reputation as mushers say parts of the trail have been a white-knuckle affair. Despite tough trail conditions, it took four days before Anja Radano of Talkeetna became the first musher to scratch at the Nikolai checkpoint.

“The Iditarod has data going back to 2006 that has checkpoint-by-checkpoint information, and in every single one of those years, there is someone who has scratched by the point you have reached 250 miles into the race,” data analyst Ben Matheson said. “So that’s Nikolai and if they’re doing the Fairbanks route it’s Tanana.”

Matheson is a journalist turned data analyst who was introduced to the Iditarod when he began covering the race in 2011 for KNOM radio in Nome.

After the 2020 race saw a high number of scratches, Matheson’s curiosity got the best of him and he dug into the numbers. He began researching scratch data from the Iditarod website and used the programming language R.

“In 2020, we saw 22 mushers scratch out of 57,” Matheson said. “I wanted to see is that a record? What is the record? What’s typical for the mushers who scratched?”

He found the average scratch rate is 21%, which means about one out of every five mushers scratch in a given year. The highest rate of mushers scratching came courtesy of the 1974 race at 40.9%, and in more recent history, the 2020 race saw 38.5% of mushers scratch.

The top four years of the Iditarod with the highest rate of mushers scratching.
The top four years of the Iditarod with the highest rate of mushers scratching.(KTUU)

“With this year’s field, we have 49 mushers, so if we follow the historic trend, 10 mushers will scratch if we live up to history,” Matheson said.

When it comes to checkpoints, Matheson found between 2006 and 2020, Rainy Pass saw the most scratches with 30, and Unalakleet had 22.

A look at the Iditarod checkpoints with the highest number of scratches from 2006-2020.
A look at the Iditarod checkpoints with the highest number of scratches from 2006-2020.(KTUU)

“Some years you see the Alaska Range (checkpoints) shoot up really fast when the Alaska Range has low snow cover or really icy conditions, rocky, gravely conditions,” Matheson said. “Other years you see the Alaska Range was fine but the slog going down the Yukon going towards the coast.”

Matheson said the research taught him no matter how low a musher finishes, getting to the finish is something to be celebrated.

“Even though the absolute best mushers in the world still sometimes scratch, and to me it speaks to when the mushers say finishing the race is an accomplishment, it really is a big accomplishment,” Matheson said.

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