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Series / Iditarod: The Toughest Race on Earth

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Snow Dogs this ain't.
Iditarod: Toughest Race on Earth was a Discovery Channel reality series about the 2008 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. The Iditarod runs from near Anchorage to Nome in Alaska, traveling over a thousand miles. The show follows the competitors as they struggle to make it to Nome through the harsh and desolate Alaskan winter, mostly allowing them to tell their stories in their own words. Along the way, they battle the elements, their competitors, and their own inner doubts and fears.

The series spotlights several veterans of the race, whose goal is victory:

  • Lance Mackey, the defending champion.
  • Jeff King, a four-time Iditarod winner who lost to Mackey last year and is determined to beat him this time.
  • DeeDee Jonrowe, a breast cancer survivor running her 25th Iditarod.
  • Martin Buser, a Swiss dog breeder and four-time Iditarod winner, who holds the record for the fastest finishing time.

It also focuses on a few rookies, whose goal is to finish:

  • Rohn Buser, Martin Buser's 18-year-old son, who's running his first Iditarod alongside his father.
  • Bruce Linton, a Type I diabetic seeking to inspire others who have his disease.
  • Rick Holt, a former high-school teacher who sacrificed his career to pursue his sled dog-racing dream.
  • Darin Nelson, an Alaska Native running on a shoestring budget and a homemade sled.

This series provides examples of:

  • Badass Family: A couple run in this race — Martin and Rohn Buser, as well as Jason and Lance Mackey. Jonrowe is also the wife of one of the chief directors of the race.
  • Big Eater: The dogs may burn 5,000 calories a day, but special mention goes to Mackey. He looks forward to making it to Ruby, solely because the first musher to reach that checkpoint gets a gourmet seven-course meal.
  • The Chick: Several women are mentioned running the trail, but Dee Dee Jonrowe stands out—she wears a bright pink overcoat that resembles a dress, and her dogs are attached with pink harnesses. Justified in that she has survived breast cancer, and that's her way of showing it.
  • Determinator: Everybody. It's practically an entry requirement, and an absolute necessity to finish the race. Naturally, this carries over into the mushers' personal lives: two of the featured mushers are cancer survivors, one is diabetic, and two have sacrificed thriving careers and time with their families in order to run the Iditarod.
    • The dogs themselves—as Buser emphasizes, it's in their blood. Not only can they survive running hundreds of miles at subzero temperatures, that's what they're bred and trained to do. They're described as "finely tuned running machines," and their aerobic capacity is three times that of an Olympic marathon runner. The mushers complain about unseasonably warm weather for a good reason—racing at 30 degrees Fahrenheit can give their dogs heatstroke.
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  • Disc-One Final Boss: The Dalzell Gorge, a treacherous ridge featuring rocky, icy trails and switchbacks near a creek. After the mushers conquer it, there's still over 700 miles left to go.
  • Easy Logistics: Defied. Setting up each checkpoint and getting the racers' supplies to them is no easy matter, especially in the remote Alaskan outback in the middle of winter. In fact, one musher scratches (pulls out of the race) because the system failed: he couldn't continue because he had made it to a checkpoint and his supplies hadn't.
  • Eldritch Location: Norton Bay, covered over in thick ice. On an overcast winter day, there's nothing to see but white ice and white sky, for fifty miles or so. Since everyone is physically exhausted and sleep-deprived, it's enough to wig out the most experienced racers.
  • Epic Race: But of course—the Iditarod is billed as the "Last Great Race on Earth."
  • Germanic Efficiency: Martin Buser, who is Swiss, touts its benefits. He himself can get in and out of a checkpoint in only a few minutes.
    Buser: [All the mushers] do the same things…Yet some of us arrive [in Nome] five days ahead of others. The faster I can do my chores, the more I can sleep. The more I can sleep, the better rested me and my team will be…It's all about efficiency, who can do the most with what they have.
  • Heroic Dog: The dogs put in at least as much effort as their mushers do- and usually more.
  • Heroic Second Wind: Everyone experiences it at some point, but Mackey and his team seems to thrive off of it. Ultimately, it's what carries them to victory.
  • Hometown Hero: Holt, who used to teach high school in the checkpoint town of Elim. Even though he's far from finishing first, the town gives him a hero's welcome when he arrives.
  • In Harm's Way: While most of the mushers are more subdued examples, the documentary makes it very clear that overly cautious people don't run the Iditarod.
    Jonrowe: I don't want to live safe. I want to live fast.
  • Inspirationally Disabled: The show seems to play up Linton as this, even though he's run several marathons and triathlons before running the Iditarod. Somewhat justified: his diabetes puts him at a disadvantage to the other mushers. If he's separated from his food and insulin (which he almost was at one time), he loses his ability to control his disease in Alaska's dangerous conditions, and his life could quickly be in jeopardy.
  • It's Personal: Averted. The racers have a lot of respect for each other, but it's not going to stop them from trying to win.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Good judgment about this is essential — if mushers push their team too hard, they risk getting stranded in the Alaska wilderness. And, to mushers worth their salt, risking the life and health of their dogs is not worth any race. Eventually, when sickness starts to ravage his team and reduce the number of dogs from sixteen to seven, Nelson pulls out of the race.
  • Manly Tears: Linton sheds a few when an encouraging email from his wife makes it to a remote checkpoint.
  • Metagame: Both King and Mackey note the importance of this in the race, and both rivals engage in it whenever they're resting at the same checkpoint.
  • Meaningful Name: Rohn Buser is named after one of the Iditarod checkpoints.
  • Must Have Caffeine: Several times, Mackey breezes through a checkpoint and skimps on rest to feed his dogs, asking only for himself a cup of coffee.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: In light of recent outcries by animal rights groups about the well-being of Iditarod sled dogs, the series emphasizes how well the dogs are treated. The mushers know their dogs inside and out, and put their safety above all else. All dogs given a close physical check-up before the race; if a dog is sick or injured, they are pulled out and flown to Anchorage for medical treatment. The racers are not allowed to give their dogs injury-masking drugs of any kind. Each team is required to rest a full 24 hours, as well as take two eight-hour rests. Additionally, the race has 40 vets to take care of the dogs — but only one doctor to take care of the humans.
    Holt: I'm eating rice and beans, but the dogs are eating steak and eggs.
  • Old Master: King, Buser, and Jonrowe — all of them have run the Iditarod for more than a decade.
  • Ordinary High-School Student: Rohn Buser, whose girlfriend is waiting for him at the finish line in Nome.
  • Playing Possum: Martin Buser's initial strategy was to hold back at first and come from behind (though he did it partly to race alongside Rohn). He waited too long to make his move, and ultimately takes fifth in the race.
  • P.O.V. Cam: Used frequently.
  • The Rival: The top competitors have this kind of relationship with each other, but the show focuses specifically on the rivalry between Mackey and King.
  • Serious Business: There's a lot at stake. Racing the Iditarod costs tens of thousands of dollars in supplies and training for the dogs. The grand prize meanwhile is sixty thousand and a pickup truck, as well as a number of prizes (a couple thousand in gold nuggets, for example) for being the first to reach certain checkpoints. The greatest prize, however, is listed as "the ultimate bragging rights."
  • So Proud of You: Martin has this attitude towards his son's racing. While he's glad that Rohn is running the Iditarod with him, he also knows that, at some point, they will need to run their own races.
  • Technician Versus Performer: How the conflict between King and Mackey is played up. It's more complicated than that, however—even though Mackey has run fewer Iditarods than King has, they both possess a great deal of technical knowledge, survival skills, racing know-how, and mental toughness.
  • True Companions: The veterans all have this relationship with their dogs.
    Jonrowe: I see my heart in these dogs, and I think that's unconditional love. I know it is.
  • The World Is Just Awesome: During a difficult time in the race, Holt finds a moment of this.
    I turned off my headlamp and looked up to the sky, and I saw a fantastic display of the Northern Lights…I remembered why I was doing this.
  • Worth It: Even though the mushers endure sickness, cold, rough terrain, grueling physical labor, hunger, and sleep deprivation, they all see the Iditarod (and the massive cost of sled-dog racing) as this.