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ANCHORAGE -- Jeff King of Denali Park was the first musher through the tent checkpoint of Finger Lake today as leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began their long climb toward Rainy Pass.
King, who has racked up three wins in his 11 Iditarods, left Finger Lake at 4:11 a.m. (AST) Monday. Martin Buser from Big Lake and another three-time winner, was running two minutes behind.
Sonny King of Spartanburg, S.C., was third, leaving Finger Lake at 5:34 a.m.
Then came Jerry Riley of Nenana, checking out at 5:55 a.m.; Jim Lanier of Chugiak, leaving at 6:20; Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, at 6:34, and Linwood Fiedler of Willow was running seventh, departing at 6:35 a.m.
Sonny King, who placed 18th last year, noted that he was the only person from a non-snow area ever to break the Iditarod's Top 20.
"Each year, my goal is to get to Nome, and I sort of leave it up to the dog team as to how fast we're going to get there," King said in a pre-race interview. "Seems like last year they were in a hurry."
Rainy Pass is the highest point on the Iditarod Trail, at 3,160 feet. The checkpoint at Rainy Pass Lodge is 30 miles up a treacherous stretch of trail from Finger Lake.
Weather was on the minds of many of the mushers Sunday as they gave their sleds a last-minute check for required gear. While it was sunny in Willow as the teams set out, forecasts warned of a large storm moving in.
If the weather gets bad, the best strategy is to keep moving, Jeff King said. Sometimes, however, that's not possible.
Mushers have been known to zip themselves inside their sled bags for protection while waiting out storms.
"I can freeze to death just as good as anybody else," joked Charlie Boulding of Manley.
Sixty-eight teams are entered in the 1,100-mile race, which is held each year to honor sled dogs and mushers who in 1925 delivered lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome. Twenty-two of the mushers are rookies.
They're competing for a share of a record $550,000 purse, with the winner taking home $62,857 and a new pickup truck.
Mushers got down to the real business of dog racing Sunday as teams lined up in Willow for the official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Jeff King was the first musher out of the chute at the re-start, moved about 30 miles north to the tiny town of Willow this year because of lack of snow.
"They're definitely fast," King said of his team as he gave each dog a reassuring hug before setting off.
This year's field includes six previous champions. Among them are the three men who have shared first place since 1992: King; Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont.; and Martin Buser of Big Lake. The other former champions are five-time champ Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, and one-time winners Riley and Rick Mackey of Nenana.
King said if the race goes his way, he has the team to topple Swingley, the only non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod. Swingley is looking for his third consecutive victory. He got to Nome last year in a record nine days and 58 minutes, about five hours in front of second-place finisher Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof.
Swingley said he hoped to position himself to take advantage of any opening that would put him on top again.
"You only have a few opportunities with a dog team to do that. If the opportunity comes, you have to be in a position to do that," he said.
The trail goes over two mountain ranges and along the Bering Sea coast, considered one of the most dangerous parts of the trail because of storms that can quickly turn into raging blizzards.
Buser, a three-time champion, spent the last hour before the race soaking up sun while sitting in a fold-up chair. He finished seventh last year and comes to this year's race with a new team.
"Every year, I try to infuse some new genes," he said.
Rookie Danny Seavey of Seward said he wasn't nervous about his first trip to Nome.
"It's only running dogs," Seavey said. He was so relaxed he had overslept, and was hungry because he had just three bananas for breakfast.
Seavey's nonchalance perhaps comes from being born into a mushing family. His father, veteran Iditarod musher Mitch Seavey, and his grandfather Dan Seavey, who raced the first Iditarod in 1973, are also in this year's race. It's the first time three generations of the same family are competing in the same Iditarod.