Iditarod kicks off with fan-filled ceremonial start

Above, the dog team of Mike Ellis rounds a corner Saturday during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska. The competitive portion of the 1,000-mile race is scheduled to begin today in Willow, Alaska.
Above, the dog team of Mike Ellis rounds a corner Saturday during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska. The competitive portion of the 1,000-mile race is scheduled to begin today in Willow, Alaska. Photos by Bill Roth, Anchorage Daily News/AP Photo

Anchorage, Alaska - Mushers and their dogs took a leisurely jaunt through Anchorage on Saturday in the ceremonial start of Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The 1,000-mile race kicked off in a festive mood as 66 teams posed with fans and sailed their sleds 11 miles on streets covered with trucked-in snow. Each sled carried an Iditarider, a fan who won the short ride at auction.

"Today is fun, with a capital F," said smiling veteran musher Aliy Zirkle, the runner-up in last year's race. "If you don't have a good time on Saturday with your dogs and all these fans, you're not in the right sport."

The event comes ahead of the real, competitive start of the race today in Willow, 50 miles to the north. This is when teams leave the big crowds behind for remote terrain shared mostly with their dogs.

"Today we have fun. Tomorrow we're serious," defending champion Dallas Seavey of Willow said Saturday between chatting with spectators and signing autographs for fans, including Bunky Nistler of Beach, N.D.

Nistler said the Iditarod was on her bucket list following her husband's death of cancer a year ago.

"I've been in love with the Iditarod for over eight years," she said. "This was my dream of a lifetime."

From Willow, where the race clock starts ticking, mushers and their dog teams will begin making their way through unforgiving wilderness toward the finish line in the old frontier town of Nome on Alaska's western coast. Before reaching their destination, the teams will cross mountains, frozen rivers and forests before hitting the wind-pummeled coast. They'll sign in at village checkpoints, sometimes stopping for mandatory layovers.

The winner gets a new truck and $50,400. The rest of the $600,000 purse will be split shared by the next 29 mushers across the finish line.

Participants in the 41st running of the race include six past Iditarod winners, including Seavey and his father, Mitch Seavey. Dallas Seavey also is among six past winners of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, held just weeks before the Iditarod.

Lance Mackey of Fairbanks - the only musher ever to win both races the same year - just scratched from the Quest in February because of a team of ailing dogs. He is going for a fifth win in the Iditarod, this time taking mostly young dogs and only four veterans from the Quest.

At Saturday's ceremonial start, fans regularly stopped by to wish him luck.

"This is like a pregame warm-up," Mackey said of the party-like atmosphere.

Today will bring a more highly charged approach among contenders.

"It's game time, and you get your game face on," Mackey said. "Put some blinders on - and go race."

Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen in Anchorage contributed to this report.

Left, Michael Williams Jr. greets fans Saturday along the ceremonial start course.
Left, Michael Williams Jr. greets fans Saturday along the ceremonial start course. Bill Roth, Anchorage Daily News/AP Photo

Iditarod facts

Fastest winning time: Martin Buser, 2002, eight days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds.

Slowest winning time: Carl Huntington, 1974, 20 days, 15 hours, 2 minutes and 7 seconds.

Closest finish: 1978, Dick Mackey finished one second before Rick Swenson.

Average team: 16 dogs

Most mushers to finish: 77 in 2004.

Youngest musher: Defending champ Dallas Seavey turned 18 on March 4, 2005, the day before his first race.

— iditarod.com

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