ANCHORAGE - Defending champion Jeff King shot back with one word when asked to describe his team for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race set to start Saturday.
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"Fast," said the 51-year-old musher, who will find himself in fleet company again as 82 teams - and some familiar faces - line up for the ceremonial start of the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
The restart, where the mushers get serious about getting a piece of this year's approximately $795,000 purse, begins Sunday in Willow, moved 30 miles up the trail because of too little, hard-packed snow near Anchorage.
The Iditarod - the longest sled dog race in the world - commemorates a shorter dash of 674 miles by dog teams in 1925 using the mail route from Nenana to deliver diphtheria serum to Nome after an outbreak of the disease threatened the lives of the Eskimos living there.
The modern-day Iditarod trail from Anchorage quickly leaves city-life behind as it courses through miles and miles of wilderness. The trail goes through dense forests, over two mountain ranges and along the wide and often windy Yukon River, then along the dangerous sea ice up the Bering Sea Coast to the finish line in Nome.
In the first Iditarod in 1973, it took Richard Wilmarth 20 days, 49 minutes and 41 seconds to get to Nome. It was the only time Wilmarth ran the race. He got $12,000.
King, a four-time winner from Denali Park, finished last year's race in less than half the time - nine days, 11 hours and 11 minutes. For winning, he got $69,000 and a new truck.
King will be in familiar company this year. There's Martin Buser, 48, of Big Lake and Doug Swingley, 53, of Lincoln, Mont., both four-time winners themselves who also will be hoping to join Rick Swenson of Two Rivers as the race's only five-time winner. Swenson last won in 1991.
King, as well as the other top mushers, will be keeping an eye on Robert Sorlie, 48, of Norway, who has won the race twice in only three tries.
While someone else might win, King said it is unlikely.
"I'm into statistics," he said. "Statistically, it is the four of us. There are going to be really long odds on anybody but the four of us winning the Iditarod," he said.
One familiar face will be missing this year. Four-time champion Susan Butcher died of leukemia on Aug. 5, 2006. While she hadn't raced in years, she dominated the race in the late 1980s, stringing together four victories in five years. The state Legislature is considering naming Saturday as Susan Butcher Day.
Lance Mackey, 36, of Fairbanks, whose father, Dick, and brother, Rick, have both won the Iditarod, is back again this year, fresh off his third consecutive victory in record-setting time in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, considered by many to be a tougher race than the Iditarod.
Mackey, the first musher to sign up for this year's race, said he will pick bib number 13 for his starting position - the same number worn by his father and brother in their sixth Iditarod races. Mackey is running for the sixth time.
Ramy Brooks, 38, of Healy, who finished third last year and was runner-up in 2002 and 2003, is back and eager for a win. Brooks, a Yukon Quest winner, comes from a family of renowned sprint mushers, grandfather Gareth Wright and mother Roxie Wright.
King said his team is in top physical condition. He began swimming the dogs for two hours a day, five days a week, in a lake last summer. When it got time to hook them up and go out for a training run, they were going 50 to 60 miles a day, no problem. By Halloween, the dogs were going 80 miles.
"Their conditioning was just staggeringly advanced," King said.
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