WILLOW, Alaska - Dog teams whisked past hundreds of spectators on a frozen lake before climbing a small hill and disappearing into the woods at the official start of the Iditarod on Sunday.
Local resident Lori Townsend was the first musher to leave on the more than 1,100- mile journey to Nome in western Alaska.
Townsend, 43, kissed her husband and jumped on her sled, just seconds before handlers let her 16 sled dogs go tearing across the snow.
"I just wanted to get the heck out of Dodge," said the Iditarod veteran from Willow, explaining why she chose the first starting position in a field of 83 teams.
Competitors were allowed to choose their starting positions.
Mushers left the starting chute every two minutes, stepping hard on the sled brakes to slow their excited dog teams.
The first checkpoint is Skwentna, about 40 miles away, but most mushers would probably head straight through to the second checkpoint at Finger Lake, 45 miles up the trail.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in its 34th year, will take mushers and dog teams over two mountain ranges, across frozen seas and rivers, and through a treacherous gorge, where an avalanche killed an Iditarod volunteer grooming the trail in February.
Competitors will drive through 24 checkpoints in wilderness cabins and in some of Alaska's tiniest villages before heading up the windy western coast to the old gold mining town of Nome.
Top finishers usually vie to arrive in Nome in nine to 10 days.
The field includes two four-time winners and the Iditarod's only five-time champ. Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., and Martin Buser of Big Lake will be looking to match the record set by Rick Swenson of Two Rivers. Jeff King of Denali is looking for his fourth win.
Last year's champion, Robert Sorlie of Norway, is not competing. He is rotating Iditarod runs with another Norwegian and his nephew, Bjornar Andersen, whose fourth-place finish last year was the highest ever for a rookie.
Willow served as a stand-in starting area for the third straight year because of scarce snow in the traditional start town of Wasilla, about 30 miles north of Anchorage.
This year's top 30 finishers can expect to split a $795,000 pot. Another $40,000 will be divvied up among the remaining arrivals to Nome. The winner will pocket $69,000 and receive a new pickup valued at almost $45,000.
The race commemorates a dogsled relay in 1925 that carried serum 674 miles from Nenana to Nome to stop a diphtheria outbreak.
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