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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Competition in the famed sled-dog race known as the Iditarod began in earnest on Sunday as 65 mushers and their canine teams set off from a frozen lake to venture into the snowy Alaska wilderness.
The Iditarod's official restart, a day after a ceremonial launch in Anchorage, was staged on an ice-covered lake in Willow, a small community about 80 miles north of Alaska's biggest city.
With the race clock turned on for the 41st edition of the race, mushers and their dogs departed the start chute in two-minute intervals. After Willow, the next checkpoint in the 1,000-mile trail to Nome is the tiny settlement of Yentna Station, a distance of 42 miles.
While mushers on Saturday spent time mingling with fans, signing autographs and posing for photos, Sunday's focus was almost all business.
Contestants had their full 16-dog teams hitched to sleds, instead of the 12 dogs each used for the untimed 11-mile ceremonial jaunt through Anchorage.
One musher, Ed Stielstra of McMillan, Michigan, completed the Anchorage ceremonial run but dropped out of the race before the Willow restart, officials said.
The Iditarod winner, expected in Nome in about nine days, will receive $50,400 and a new truck. Other top finishers will also be awarded cash prizes from the race purse, which totals $600,000.
The race commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum to Nome by sled-dog relay.
Top competitors include several past winners - four-time champions Martin Buser, Jeff King and Lance Mackey; 2004 winner Mitch Seavey and his son, 2012 victor Dan Seavey; and 2011 winner John Baker, who holds the race speed record of eight days, 18 hours and 46 minutes, and was the contest's first Alaska Native to claim the title since 1976.
At least two other Alaska Natives - Pete Kaiser of Bethel, Alaska, who finished third last year, and Michael Williams Jr., of Akiak, Alaska, who finished eighth, are also considered strong contenders this year.
Sixteen women are competing, including Aliy Zirkle, runner-up in last year's Iditarod, and DeeDee Jonrowe, a longtime contender who has twice finished second.
The field includes a pair of identical twins, Kristy and Anna Berington, who moved from their native Wisconsin to Kasilof, Alaska, to focus on sled-dog racing.
While most Iditarod racers are from Alaska, a few have exotic backgrounds.
One competitor is a Chukchi Native and marine-mammal hunter from the Russian Far East region across the Bering Strait from Alaska. There are also mushers who hail from the warm-weather countries of Brazil and Jamaica, as well as from New Zealand, Norway and Canada.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Christopher Wilson