WILLOW, Alaska — Dogs aching to run bolted out of the chute Sunday to launch the 41st running of Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Now 65 teams will be making their way through punishing wilderness toward the finish line in Nome on Alaska’s western coast 1,000 miles away.
The Iditarod kicked off Saturday with an 11-mile jaunt through Anchorage, 50 miles south of the real starting line in the town of Willow. Sunday’s event marked the competitive portion of the race.
Saturday’s ceremonial start took place amid a party-like atmosphere. But Sunday’s mood was charged with tension as mushers switched to the business of racing — at least among top mushers like defending champion Dallas Seavey and four-time winners Lance Mackey, Jeff King and Martin Buser.
They are among six past Iditarod winners in the running. Mackey, of Fairbanks, is the only musher to win the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod races the same year — accomplishing dual championships not once, but two years in a row. Mackey, a throat cancer survivor, has won both races four times and was hoping for a comeback to his last Iditarod championship in 2010.
Others are in the race for the adventure and never come close to winning, yet there they are, year after year. Among them was Cindy Gallea, of Wykoff, Minn., whose best finish was 33rd among 10 Iditarods so far.
“I love running the dogs, working with the dogs,” she said before the start of her 11th race. “I love being in Alaska, being around the beauty.”
But even past middle-of-the-packers felt the pull of competition.
Musher and Anchorage funeral director Scott Janssen, known as The Mushing Mortician, said, “Today’s game time. Today we’re going to rock ‘n’ roll.”
To reach the finish line in the old gold rush town of Nome, the teams will encounter mountains to climb, and forests and frozen rivers to cross. They’ll possibly do battle with fierce winds and temperatures that can plunge to 50 below.
Along the way, they’ll stop at village checkpoints for a hot meal, to drop an ailing dog or to sit out mandatory rest periods. Sometimes they’ll blow right through after a hasty check-in.
As always, by the time the first musher reaches Nome, some participants will have dropped out of the race. Even the last place finisher knows that getting to Nome is a feat in itself.
The winner gets a new truck and a cash prize of $50,400. The rest of the $600,000 purse will be split between the next 29 mushers to cross the finish line.