Irvine Moms had the opportunity to experience the Hollywood premiere of The Great Alaskan Race this past Thursday at the Arclight Cinema theater. Written and directed by Brian Presley, the film hones in on the true story of Leonhard Seppala, a sled dog racer who among others, relayed a serum 700 miles through a violent storm in a valiant effort to stop the flu epidemic that was taking the lives of children in Nome, Alaska. The route that was taken to deliver the serum in 1925 has been famously named the Iditarod, and professional dog sledders race along the course to this day.
While the story of Seppala becoming a hero and saving his daughter’s life is heartwarming, the film simultaneously highlights the strength of the dogs Togo and Balto, who ran the lengthiest legs of the race in intense weather conditions.
Upon arriving at the premiere, we were met with snow dogs identical to the stars of the movie, and were given the opportunity to take photos with them on the glamorous white carpet.
After the photo op with the puppies, we entered the building where we were escorted up the stairs and into the theater where the screening would take place. Inside the theater, we had the privilege of engaging in a private Q&A session Jeff King, a professional dog sledder who has won the Iditarod 4 times. Here are some highlights from the Q&A:
How did you get started in sled racing?
- I went up to Alaska for a summer job, and got a chance to be a caretaker at a wilderness lodge… a dream come true for me. The only neighbor a mile away had a small team of dogs. I was immediately fascinated with the dogs and that was the beginning for me.
How much sleep do you get during a race and how often do you get to sleep?
- The single biggest physical discomfort I’ll have during a race is lack of sleep. During our six hour breaks, I’m working four and a half of them. So typically I sleep 90 minutes twice a day. I may lay on the sled using it as a piece of furniture, or run into the village gymnasium and lay on the floor.
How do you steer the dogs when you get to a fork in the road?
- We have verbal commands to steer the dogs. “Djee” means right, “Haw” means left. But understand that the command is is very insignificant to what the message is. The timing of saying something and the tone of which I say it is more important to what it is I say.
How do you decide when to send a dog home during the race?
- I watch them on each six hour run and I measure when they ate last. Its knowing which dog needs a relief and something that is unique to the team and their needs. I know these dogs like your parent knows you. I can tell what they look like when they’re feeling good and if they’re not feeling good and everyone else is, when I get to the next checkpoint I’ll look at the dog and if it looks tired, I’ll send it home and move on with the rest of the team. There are 22 places along the way where veterinarians will inspect our team and administer care, and they are able to send them home.
How old are the dogs when they start racing and when do they retire?
- Typically it is 2 ½ years old where a dog is first ready to be an adult able to run in the Iditarod. The general age of retirement is around 7 or 8 years old. But I’ve had them in my finishing team at 9 and one of my competitors had a finishing dog win the race at 10 years old. Just like with human athletes, the more endurance the event is, typically the older the athlete can be and still be competitive.
What do you do when you fall off the sled?
- If you fall off your sled, you’re going to hang on for dear life. You have to drag along until you come to spot where the trail gives you the ability to stop. An uphill, a corner, softer snow, a tree … something that allows you to deal with your anchor. There is no magic “stop”. The dogs won’t leave the trail so you do not need to wonder where they go, you have to wonder how far they are going to get and how you’re gonna catch up with them. The next musher in the race will probably give you a ride until you catch up with your team.
How long do the races usually take?
- 1,000 mile race going about 10 miles an hour for 12 hours a day. Thats 120 hours a day. We have a mandatory 24 hour break that we get to pick. My fastest time in the Iditarod was just seconds under 10 days of lapsed time.
Do you ever run into wild animals during the race?
- Typically [the animals] can hear us coming and they want to get out of our way. The one animal that has probably been the most troublesome for sled dogs is a porcupine. They don’t hibernate, they look like a bush, and they look really slow. Moose are the next ones you need to watch for. If you get close to a moose they’re going to try to stomp you. I’ve done this for 45 years and I’ve only had one dog hurt by a moose. But she was ok.
Now that you know the fascinating true story and learned behind-the-scenes facts about racing in the Iditarod, you can take your family to watch The Great Alaskan Race in theaters everywhere on October 25th.