WILLOW - Four-time champion Martin Buser relaxed with family, friends and fans around a small grill with sizzling sausages as he readied himself Sunday for the official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
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Eighty-two teams are competing in the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, now in its 35th year. The restart, when the clock starts clicking and the most competitive mushers began the serious business of getting to Nome first, was held in Willow because there wasn't enough fresh snow closer to Anchorage.
The 48-year-old Buser, one of three four-time champions hoping to join Rick Swenson of Two Rivers as the race's only five-time champion, knows what is ahead this year - a wind-swept, hard-packed trail that means sore muscles, bruises and battered sleds.
"I see a lot of bare ground ahead of me," the Big Lake musher said. "I'm packing a big repair kit, bigger than ever before."
With sunny conditions and temperatures reaching into the teens, mushers gave reassuring pats to dogs and checked the sled bags for the last time, making sure the requisite items - including snowshoes, an ax and dog booties - were on board.
This year's race carries a $795,000 purse with prize money awarded to the first 30 teams to finish. It should take about nine days for the race winner to reach Nome.
Buser said his team has not "peaked" yet, but he feels they are about to.
That's a good thing in the Iditarod, where even the smallest mistakes or bit a bad luck can dash dreams of winning.
"I feel they are ready for it. I feel they are on the verge of being superior," Buser said when asked about his dog team.
The buzz this year is that the win will go either to Robert Sorlie of Norway, who has won twice in three tries, or to one of the four-time champions - a sentiment that doesn't sit well with some of the other top mushers.
"Baloney," said Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, who finished third last year behind four-time champion Doug Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont. Jeff King of Denali Park became a four-time winner with last year's victory.
Gebhardt said he's returning with almost the same dog team as last year, but this year his dogs are bigger, stronger and more experienced.
"If they don't take us seriously, they're making a big mistake," he said.
Aliy Zirkle, 37, of Two Rivers, who finished 14th last year, said she doesn't mind all the talk about what she calls "the foursome."
I would rather they put all the hype on them," Zirkle said.
Even Buser and Swingley agreed that in the Iditarod, other team could take it.
"It's a race. Anyone can go," Buser said.
"There are a lot of wonderful teams here," Swingley said.
Mitch Seavey, 46, of Seward, said his dog team is every bit as good as his champion 2004 team.
Seavey said it's important to remember that the big names in the Iditarod tend to be the same, but the dog teams they bring to the race are different every year.
"We'll see what they're bringing," he said.
Nearly half of the teams in the 2007 race are rookies.
Jeremy Keller, 36, of McCarthy, took the last few minutes before the start to tighten a nut on his sled.
Keller said he chose to go out last on purpose. That's because in previous races, no matter where he started, he was last pretty quickly, he said.
This way, "it any passing happens, it's a good thing," he said.
Keller said he's heard the talk about who will win and who won't, but pays it no mind. He's living his childhood dream of racing in the Iditarod.
"To me, this is about seeing Alaska on a dog sled," Keller said.
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