The event began in 1984 as a 1,000-mile (1,600 km) race from Big Lake near Wasilla, Alaska to Nome, Alaska. It was extended by approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 km) at the 10th annual race in 1994. The race route now follows parts of the Iditarod Trail, the route of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It starts at Big Lake and follows the main trail and its connecting trails until it hits to the Yukon River at Ruby. It follows the river to Kaltag before it heads to the Norton Sound on the Bering Sea at Unalakleet, Alaska and it follows the coast until Nome. Then it returns back along the same path in the reverse order to Ruby, where it diverges off its original path by following the Yukon River and its tributary the Tanana River until the competitors finish in Fairbanks. The current course record of 37 hours, 19 minutes is held by the winners of the 2009 Tesoro Iron Dog; Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad.

Races are typically run in temperatures well below freezing, and -20?F (-30?C) to -50?F (-45?C) air temperatures are common without taking wind chill into effect. Some drivers apply duct tape to their faces to protect against frostbite. The machines are equipped with tall windshields for protection from the cold.

Drivers compete in two-driver, two-sled teams for their safety since they travel through remote areas of Alaska. Teams are required to take three six-hour breaks between Nome and Tanana. They also take a 42-hour break in Nome to recuperate before they start making their return. Sleds are impounded during the break, ensuring that they rest since they are not able to work on their sleds. Twenty-seven of the 40 teams entered in 2008 made it to Nome. The race never had a fatality in its first 25 years, although there have been close calls.