Alaska's Iditarod sled-dog race rerouted due to COVID-19 pandemic

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - The famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race across Alaska will not run to Nome in 2021, a drastic change called necessary to protect the mushers from the COVID-19 pandemic and reduce its spread in rural Alaska, race officials announced on Friday.

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Instead, the 2021 Iditarod race route will take racers and dogs to the halfway point - the abandoned gold-mining town of Iditarod for which the trail is named. Then they will double back to the starting point.

“The board, after thoughtful deliberation has determined that the highest standards of safety can be maintained for the canine and human athletes, volunteers, and communities, so we are excited for the unique setting and challenges of this year’s race,” Mike Mills, president of the Iditarod’s board, said in a statement.

The total distance of what is now dubbed the “Gold Trail Loop” is about 860 miles, close to the nearly 1,000 miles of the traditional route.

The change for the world’s most famous sled-dog race will skip the mostly Native communities along the Yukon River and Bering Sea that are normally checkpoints on the northern half of the trail.

The new route will be challenging, requiring mushers and dogs to cross the rugged Alaska Range twice, race officials said.

Nome Mayor John Handeland, whose city is usually packed with celebrating visitors gathered to watch Iditarod teams cross the finish line, said the city supports the change. “We understand the circumstances and wish they were different,” Handeland, an Iditarod board member, said in the statement.

The announcement came a day after the Iditarod released a detailed COVID-19 plan that includes mandatory rapid testing at the ceremonial start in Anchorage, use of face masks wherever groups are gathered, limited access to checkpoints and other measures.

The Iditarod is scheduled to start on March 6 in Anchorage, with timed competition starting the following day at Willow, a small about 80 miles north of the city. Willow will now be the finish line as well.

This is the fourth time the Iditarod course has been significantly altered, though it is the most drastic change. Three times in the past, the start of timed competition was moved north to Fairbanks because of warm and snow-sparse conditions.

Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and David Gregorio