A new Iditarod distance?


Nome Aalska fatbiker Phil Hofstetter at Iditarod Trail mile 230.7956, give or take 10 miles/ Craig Medred photo

The exact length of Alaska’s Iditarod Trail has been the subject of debate for years now.

The distance from Anchorage to Nome started at more than 1,100 miles, shrunk to 900 miles and then grew back to 1,000. But now a cycling website is suggesting it is a mere but precise 553 miles.

But before getting into that, a little history.

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officials originally pegged the distance at 1,049 miles. That was a marketing ploy. They took an estimate of 1,000 miles and added 49 in honor of the 49th state, which those who know their U.S. history will recognize as Alaska.

That was in 1973 when many snowmachines lacked odometers, and the odometers that were in others weren’t all that accurate.

Technology improved. The odometers got better. Based on odometer numbers, the Iditarod started to look more like a 1,100-mile trail from Wasilla to Nome. The media and everyone else settled on calling the Iditarod a 1,100-mile race often with the added adjective “grueling.”

Then along came the Global Positioning Satellite (GSP) system. It was high tech. Satellites in space could pinpoint an object on the ground and track it as it moved. It’s debatable, however, as to whether GPS was better technology.

The first satellites to track the race took a picture only every 15 minutes. A computer then generated straight lines between the pictures. A trail that snaked its way through terrain constantly rising and falling became a trail with a lot of the curves smoothed out and the dips gone.

That trail was noticeably shorter. The first GPS distance came in at a very precise sounding and not-so-grueling 908.5 miles in 2007. The former Anchorage Daily News, then the state’s largest newspaper, started using 900 miles as the distance not long after.

The flaws in the GPS tracking system, however, were soon the subject of much debate, and the Daily News eventually settled on 1,000 miles as the distance. It was a compromise between the flawed 900 of the GPS and the likely inflated 1,100 of early odometers.

A thousand miles give or take a few hundred is probably fairly accurate. The Iron Dog snowmachine race, which uses three-minute tracking on its GPS transmitters, puts the distance at 953.1 miles. But even at three-minute intervals, with snowmachines moving at 45 to 100 mph, the GPS takes out some curves and still misses the ups and downs.

The official Iditarod dog race distance these days is listed at 964 miles. The Iditarod Trail Invitational, a human-powered race that attracts only the toughest (or craziest) runners and cyclists on the planet, pegs its race to Nome on the same trail as the dogs at 1,000 miles. 

But now there’s that entirely new number – 553 miles – courtesy of the cycling website VeloNews.

Where that one came from is hard to determine. It appears never to have entered the discussion before, but it pops up in a story offering defrocked Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong new ideas for competitive events now that his doping suspension is over for all sports but cycling.  The website suggests, among other things:

“Iditarod Trail Prancercise

“The challenge: Are you familiar with “Prancercise,” the self-described “Springy, rhythmic way of moving forward, similar to a horse’s gait?” Well, this is what it looks like. Yeah, the lady is making pretty good time, right? Well, what if Lance combined Prancercise with the world’s most grueling and dangerous endurance challenge, the 553-mile Iditarod, and followed the route in the dead of winter? I know, it would be amazing.”

A Google search for “Iditarod Trail” and “553 miles” brings up only some stories relating to Iditarod checkpoints near that distance along the trail and a 1908 report to the Alaska Road Commission warning that opening a trail route that avoided flood plains “means the cutting of 553 miles, more or less, of trail through the timber and brush.”

That is still the case, which explains why the Iditarod really only exists as a “winter-only trail” which makes heavy use of frozen rivers, frozen swamps and frozen lakes, and shifts its route around a fair better every winter based on where the snowmachines that pack the trail find the easiest going.

There is no known 553-mile winter race in the entire state of Alaska. The Invitational does run a race along the Iditarod Trail from Knik up and over the Alaska Range to the tiny Interior village of McGrath, but that distance is listed at 350 miles and might not be quite that far.

The closest distance to 553 miles for anything resembling the Iditarod in Alaska might be the famous, sled-dog serum run from Nenana to Nome in 1925, but that covered a reported 674 miles if you can believe Wikipedia.  

Any number accurate to the mile is immediately suspect. It is hard to measure the trail with that sort of precision, and even if it was, the distance is almost sure to vary by at least a mile year-to-year as trail breakers search for the best places to cross rivers or streams or wander around lost in places where over the years multiple trail routes have been marked with reflective trail markers.

Given the states of journalism and technology in this the year 2016, of course, it is impossible to avoid pondering whether Velo news writer Fred Dreier just sort of made up the number 553 because it felt right, or found someone with some newer, fancier, gee-whizzier technology that has come up with yet a another length for the Iditarod Trail.







6 replies »

  1. All that I know after having run the trail twice to Nome is that is a hell of a lot further than 553 miles. I guess the actual trail distance at 950 miles and any one that completes it has had an adventure that they will never forget.

  2. I think Tim’s on the money. BTW, I’m really not sure what IonEarth (Iditarod’s first tracker vendor) did but it’s typically the case that people writing tracker software will weight the distance between readings to account for curves in the trail. It’s not accurate but it’s better than a straight line measurement. I think Trackleaders does a pretty good job of it.

    The first year that Iditarod was using their own tracker software they were calculating a team’s trail distance by summing all previous segments, so that you could have two teams at the same spot on the trail but who were reported as being at different trail miles.

    • I wrote the original IonEarth software and tracking. I can tell you there were compromises galore but there’s no way 533 is remotely possible. It’s above 900 to over 1,000 depending on the year.

  3. Ah you’ve found the realm of fractal math…the distance between two points on earth is dependent on the number of segments used to measure the distance. For example the fractal dimension of a coastline is something like 1.2 to 1.5. That explains the range of values in the 1000 mile zone. For me it can remain 1049.

  4. Craig, This 553 miles number likely came from the author doing a web search for the phrase “how far is it from anchorage to nome”. And then mistakenly thinking air miles are trail miles. Try searching for that phrase yourself. Google gives 537. Bing returns 559.2. Not sure what search tool the author used, but his/her 553 is in the ball park (er, dog lot).

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