Iditarod mushers start for Nome

Posted: Monday, March 07, 2011

Veteran musher DeeDee Jonrowe was dressed in her signature hot pink parka trimmed with wolverine and wolf fur on Sunday as she crossed the start line in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and pointed her dog team toward Nome.

The restart was held in the town of Willow, north of Anchorage, where 62 teams took off on the Iditarod Trail across a frozen lake marking the competitive portion of the 1,150-mile race.

The racers also left behind the party-like atmosphere that surrounded Saturday’s ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage. The restart is a more businesslike affair as mushers say goodbye to family and loved ones and turn their attention to the world’s longest sled dog race.

Some of them want more than just to finish the race. They want to oust defending champion Lance Mackey, who has dominated the Iditarod with four consecutive victories.

Mackey, 40, says he’s hungry for a fifth and has the dog team to do it.

“Whoever takes the title from me will have to earn it,” he said Sunday. “I’m good to go.”

The mushers include Juneau resident Matt Giblin, 40, who also entered in 1998.

The Massachusetts native began the sport in Colorado in 1992 and moved to Alaska for the first time in 1996. He moved back to Alaska from Montana two years ago to return to the Iditarod Trail.

“My reasons for running the Iditarod are numerous. The 2011 race for me will be the first part of a long term goal,” Giblin stated on the official Iditarod website.

Giblin is running veteran musher Mitch Seavey’s two-year-old sled dogs.

Race officials have described this year’s Iditarod field as especially competitive, consisting of nine of the top 10 teams. Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King retired after last year’s race when he finished third.

The trail has good snow cover and is one of the best in recent memory, perhaps promising a fast race. If it is, the winner could cross the finish line in eight days or less.

The top 30 finishers will share a purse of $528,000. The winner will get $50,400 and a new truck. The payout for the others is reduced somewhat this year, ranging from $46,300 to $1,500.

Mackey, who finished the 2010 race in eight days, 23 hours, 59 minutes — the second-fastest finish in Iditarod history — acknowledges he doesn’t need a new truck, but he wants one anyway.

However, what he really wants is to get every one of his 16 dogs in his team to the finish.

“They are pretty amazing animals,” Mackey said.

Among Mackey’s top competition this year is musher Hans Gatt of Whitehorse, Canada, who spent years training his dog team to run the Mackey way — at a slower and more methodical pace that conserves energy and boosts canine performance on the trail. That pace is particularly useful in the kind of broken snow often found along the main route into Nome, which can be churned up by snowmachines and can mean slower going than smooth and icy parts of the trail. Gatt came in second last year after beating Mackey in the Yukon Quest weeks before. But this year’s Quest took a serious toll on Gatt, who broke through Birch Creek into three feet of water and suffered second degree frostbite to his hands.

The Yukon Quest’s brutal weather this year also challenged other veteran mushers, but Mackey was not among them — he and his team did not race in the Quest.

The Iditarod began in 1973 to commemorate a race against time, when sled dogs and drivers teamed up in 1925 to defeat a deadly outbreak of diphtheria in Nome.

It was feared the disease would decimate Eskimo families living near the gold-rush town on Alaska’s western coastline. Dog drivers drove teams 674 miles from Nenana to Nome to deliver the lifesaving serum in five days.

Seavey, the 2004 champion, said while Mackey has done an outstanding job it is important that he gets a second Iditarod win. This year he has the team to do it, too.

“As good as Lance Mackey is and as successful as he is, he is not the only one who is a champion and can win this year,” Seavey said. “I have a dog team that I think can do anything I ask them to do.”

• The Empire contributed to this report.

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