WILLOW - The festivities are over, and the serious competition began Sunday in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Under sunny skies, the drivers of 71 dog teams took off from frozen Willow Lake to begin the race to the old gold rush town of Nome on Alaska's western coast.
Lingering was the carnival atmosphere of Saturday's 11-mile ceremonial start in Alaska's largest city, Anchorage, 50 miles to the south. But mushers were focused on racing for real with their 16-dog teams.
"Get the heck out of dodge, just like all the other mushers," said veteran Zack Steer. "You know, we want to hit the trail."
Three-time champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks is seeking his fourth consecutive win, and is among five past Iditarod winners in the race.
Canadian Hans Gatt became a four-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in February, and is also running in Alaska. Mackey also has won that race four times, and is the only musher to win the back-to-back Quest and Iditarod in the same year - a feat he's accomplished twice.
For the first time in Iditarod history, mushers will be tested for drugs and alcohol along the trail. Anyone testing positive would face disqualification.
The Iditarod began testing the sled dogs for prohibited substances in 1994.
Mackey, a throat cancer survivor, has been open about using medical marijuana in past Iditarods. He said he is honoring the drug rule, which has existed in some form since 1984 but was never strictly enforced.
In another first, a Jamaican musher is the first Caribbean entry in the Iditarod.
Newton Marshall, a 26-year-old resident of St. Anne Parish, has been training with Mackey this winter. Sponsored by Margaritaville icon Jimmy Buffett, Marshall completed the Yukon Quest last year as a rookie.
The poor economy has forced Iditarod organizers to stage the race with a diminished budget.
Race officials say they lost almost $1 million in funding after video deals collapsed and major sponsors dropped their support.
The total purse is $590,000 - down from a high of $925,000 in 2008 - with $50,000 of this year's prize money donated by four-time champion Jeff King, who also is competing. The winner's take is a new Dodge truck and $50,000, compared with $69,000 of past years.
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