WILLOW - Lance Mackey, the two-time defending champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, isn't afraid of making last-minute decisions.
With just 30 minutes to go before beginning the world's longest sled dog race, Mackey was still deciding Sunday which 16 dogs would go with him to Nome, and hopefully carry him to a third consecutive victory in the 1,100-mile run.
One dog was sure to make the cut, Mackey said: 9-year-old Larry, the dog that led him to victory last year.
Sixty-seven teams, down from a record 96 last year, are entered in the 2009 Iditarod, a grueling race requiring mushers and their dogs to cross two mountain ranges, travel long, boring stretches of the frozen Yukon River and then up the sometimes treacherous Bering Sea coast, where storms can crush a musher's quest to finish first.
Asked if he could get a third win, Mackey said, "The last two boosted my confidence really good. ... I have as good a shot as anybody."
Teams took off every two minutes Sunday at the restart in Willow, about 50 miles from Anchorage. The ceremonial start, a mostly fun affair, was held a day earlier in Alaska's largest city.
The restart is where the mushers get serious about getting their dog teams to Nome over the next eight, nine or 10 days - and sometimes longer.
Some are running to win it. Others are in the race just to finish and be able to wear the Iditarod finisher's belt buckle.
Canadian Sebastian Schnuelle, who less than two weeks ago won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, said he was satisfied in previous races to do well. He came in 10th last year and said he wants to win this time.
The Iditarod was first run in 1973 to commemorate an event in 1925, when dog teams were sent on the trail - at that time used mainly to deliver mail and supplies to villages in the Bush - to bring serum to Nome to combat a deadly outbreak of diphtheria.
Aaron Peck, a 29-year-old a Canadian who conducts sled dog tours, was the first musher out of the chute Sunday, followed by rookie Nancy Yoshida of Thompson, N.D., one of only 13 women in the race. The 58-year-old said she got into long-distance mushing after her son got busy with his own after-school activities.
The winner of the race will earn $69,000 and a new truck, just like last year, though many mushers are distressed by the $610,000 purse, down by more than a third.
Aaron Burmeister, racing in his 12th Iditarod, said after this year's race he is going to take a couple of years off to work with the Iditarod Trail Committee and get the purse back to where it should be.
Four-time champion Martin Buser said Burmeister's plan was "highly commendable," but he has enough on his plate without having to work to increase the race purse.
"It is a sad state of affairs where we have reduced by a third the purse and the entry has increased. It is a double whammy," Buser said.
The entry fee increased to $4,000 this year, up from $3,000 last year. Race officials are considering raising the fee to $5,000 in 2010. They blame the reduced purse on paying out too much in prize money the past two years.
Mushers estimate it costs a minimum of $20,000 to run the race.
DeeDee Jonrowe, a fan favorite racing in her 26th Iditarod, said she likes her dog team this year but is not making any predictions.
"We're here to give it a try," she said.
The 55-year-old Jonrowe has twice finished second, and was 15th last year.