Alaska's famed Iditarod sled-dog race starts with ceremonial jaunt

Sat Mar 1, 2014 6:43pm EST

Jessica Hendricks' team races down the trail at the re-start of the Iditarod dog sled race in Willow, Alaska March 3, 2013. REUTERS/Nathaniel Wilder

Jessica Hendricks' team races down the trail at the re-start of the Iditarod dog sled race in Willow, Alaska March 3, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Nathaniel Wilder

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(Reuters) - Dozens of mushers and their sled-dog teams on Saturday joined in the ceremonial start to Alaska's famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race that will take contestants through nearly 1,000 miles of wilderness over the next week.

Fans lined the streets of downtown Anchorage with cameras, banners and signs and outstretched hands hoping for a passing high five from the competitors.

The 11-mile (18-km) jaunt through the state's largest city sets the stage for Sunday's start of a race that commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum to Nome by sled-dog relay. A total of 69 mushers, some from as far away as Jamaica and New Zealand, are expected to take part.

"Saturday is an opportunity to interact with mushers, watch dog teams excited to leave the starting line, travel 11 miles of the city streets and call it a day," said race Executive Director Stan Hooley. "There is much more of an opportunity to touch and feel the race, and celebrate this great race."

Timed racing will start on Sunday when the mushers reach Willow, a small community about 80 miles north of Anchorage. The competition will eventually see them glide into Nome, a city on the coast of the Bering Sea.

They will hit 21 checkpoints with distances between stops ranging from 18 to 85 miles before reaching the finish line in Nome. Race officials peg the distance at 975 miles, not accounting for any topographical changes.

Most races last slightly longer than nine days, and the winner will receive $50,400 and a new truck. Other top finishers will also be awarded cash prizes from the race purse, which totals over $650,000. Each musher is required to take a 24-hour rest and two separate eight-hour stops. None can be combined.

"Anyone who has attended both the ceremonial start in Anchorage and the re-start in Willow, one of the first things they notice is the mindset of the dogs," Hooley said. "They sense the difference between the purpose of those two days. That's a fascinating thing to see."

UNPREDICTABILITY OF RACE

Of the 69 mushers, nearly one-fourth are rookies. While most live in Alaska, some not far from Sunday's starting line, the lineup is replete with international flavor, including mushers from Norway, Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Sweden.

Three years ago, John Baker became the first Eskimo to post a win, clocking in a record eight days, 18 hours, 46 minutes. A year later, 26-year-old Dallas Seavey became the youngest musher to win. Last year, his 54-year-old father Mitch became the oldest.

In nearly 20 years as executive director, Hooley said Baker's victory remains vivid.

"It put an exclamation point on how special this race is to Alaska and how it galvanizes seemingly everyone in the entire state," Hooley said. "For him to be the first Native Alaskan to win in many years brought forth a whole new level of emotion, excitement and statewide pride I hadn't felt before."

The only thing predictable about the race is its unpredictability.

"The unique thing about the Iditarod is there is no norm," said Dallas Seavey, after completing construction of his new sled, made in part with aluminum shaft hockey sticks. "It's not like NASCAR racing cars going around a track. You and your dogs are overcoming tremendous variables and adversity. That's what this race is about."

(Reporting by Steve Quinn in Juneau, Alaska; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Grebler)

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Comments (4)
Akunaferret wrote:
I wonder if there is a way to follow the race and this story. Would love to do so.

Mar 01, 2014 5:12pm EST  --  Report as abuse
hawkeye19 wrote:
What, no homosexuals?

Mar 02, 2014 10:34am EST  --  Report as abuse
Ann_Rogers wrote:
You can follow the race and see how many of the dogs get dropped along the way at Iditarod.com, Race Center, Current Standings. About half the dogs do not finish the race,–they are dropped due to injury, sickness, exhaustion, or not wanting to continue.

This infamous race kills dogs practically every year,–on average of about 3 per race, the total known deaths is over 140.

They are kept sort-chained most of their lives to their own small enclosure in the mushers’ kennels when not training. They cannot play or interact with their kennel mates. Some kennels have up to 200 dogs.

Mar 03, 2014 7:21pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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