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ANCHORAGE - When the Iditarod gets under way this weekend, fans of the 1,100-mile mile race across Alaska will get a look at a record number of the remarkable athletes.
Oh, and the humans might also get some attention.
Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee, said the race's sled dogs are not your normal, household pets. They may even be the strongest endurance athletes on the planet, he said.
"A 45-pound sled dog burns 11,000 calories a day and that's eight times as much on a pound-per-pound basis as a Tour de France cyclist, obviously another high performance athlete," Hooley said.
A record 87 teams were expected to be on hand Saturday at the ceremonial start of the race in downtown Anchorage. The serious racing begins Sunday at the official restart in Willow and lasts for more than a week. The restart normally takes place in Wasilla, but was moved north to Willow earlier this week due to snow conditions.
Alaska mushers, as well as contestants from Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming are in the 2004 race. Mushers from Canada, Italy, Germany and Norway also are competing.
This year's purse is more than $700,000, with the winner getting $69,000 and a new Dodge pickup truck worth $41,410. The purse for the first race in 1973 was $50,000.
The Iditarod is healthier than it's ever been, said Hooley. The race has a $2.7 million budget, with nearly one-third coming from corporate sponsors. The Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated the economic impact for the city on race start day last year at $6.8 million.
"It just continues to grow," Hooley said.
The 2004 field includes two four-time winners, Martin Buser of Big Lake, Alaska, and Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont. They will be looking to join Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, Alaska, as the Iditarod's only five-time winner.
Jeff King, of Denali Park, Alaska, who was third in 2000, 2001 and 2003, will be looking for his fourth victory. And Ramy Brooks of Healy, who came in second in 2002 and 2003, will be looking for his first win. Last year's winner, Norwegian musher Robert Sorlie, is not racing.
Buser, who along with Swingley and King has dominated the race for more than a decade, said he expects teams to go out fast. "I predict it will be the year of the rabbits," he said.
Part of that is dependent on the sled dogs, each of which can easily pull three times its own weight. A 16-dog team has almost 2 1/4 tons of pulling power, thanks to its large heart-to-body-weight ratio, Hooley said. It gives the dogs the blood-pumping capability to complete in long runs.
The Iditarod commemorates a 674-mile relay from Nenana to Nome that took place in February 1925 to deliver serum to combat an outbreak of diphtheria among children.
Iditarod competitors are required to go over the Alaska Range, steering their teams through the 3,160-foot Rainy Pass before descending 1,500 feet to 2,000 feet into the Dalzell Gorge.
After that, it's a boring 150 miles on the frozen Yukon River where tired mushers sometimes fall asleep slumped over their sleds. And then the trail follows the Norton Sound coast along the Bering Sea, where quick-moving storms can crush one musher's dreams while catapulting another toward victory at the finish line in Nome.
Buser aims to do exactly what he did in 2002 when he became the only musher to finish in less than nine days. But how he did that remains a secret shared only with his wife.
"No two years are the same, but it is certainly something to emulate," said Buser, who was born in Switzerland and became a naturalized American citizen after winning the 2002 race.
Swingley - who along with retired musher Susan Butcher, of Manley, Alaska, is the only musher to win three consecutive times - is back this year. He was situated for a fourth straight win in 2002 when he decided to run a different kind of race, enjoying the scenery and marrying his girlfriend in Nome. He came in 40th.