ANCHORAGE - Cathleen Griffin usually feeds her passion for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race through the Internet, but next week she'll travel to Alaska for the first time to see the winner cross the finish line in the old gold rush town of Nome.
"I just can't imagine being there," said the Sebago, Maine, resident. "It's something that a person only dreams about."
Most faraway fans - and they are legion - aren't so lucky as to be there in person for even part of the 1,100-mile race. So Iditarod buffs from around the world rely on their computers to experience the next best way to track a trail that crosses two mountain ranges then goes along the dangerous sea ice up the Bering Sea shore on Alaska's western coast.
They follow the race through the Iditarod Web site and other online venues, such as a forum provided by the Bering Strait School District. They watch footage of the race and tap Iditarod discussion forums and blogs to talk about current standings, favorite mushers, dropped dogs, love or frustration over the Iditarod's satellite team tracking system, even who could play defending champion Lance Mackey in a movie.
"Although I'm here in Maine and the Iditarod is so far away, you want to have some connection," said Griffin, who has a six-dog team herself. "To have dogs brings you so much closer to the experience."
Much of the online buzz is focused on the front-runners and speculation over who will be the first in Nome: Veteran musher John Baker of Kotzebue grabbed the lead Wednesday as the first musher to leave the ghost town of Ophir, more than 660 miles from the finish line. Canada's Hans Gatt, who won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in February, was the first to reach Ophir and was followed by Cim Smyth of Big Lake, but Baker beat them all out. The next to leave nearly five hours later was Dallas Seavey, the 22-year-old son of 2004 winner Mitch Seavey of Seward. Mackey, of Fairbanks, was running 14th in his attempt for a fourth consecutive win. Rookie musher Kathleen Frederick of Willow became the sixth musher from the original field of 71 to scratch. She quit the race Wednesday at the Rohn checkpoint because of equipment problems.
The jockeying for the lead remains fluid until mushers begin taking a mandatory 24-hour layover and two eight-hour rests, keeping fans hovering over their computers. At least a couple dozen mushers were taking their 24-hour stop in Takotna, considered by many to be one of the friendliest villages along the trail and renown for the feast Jan Newton has headed up since 1974, one year after the race began. Newton said those taking their layover there Wednesday included Mackey, Mitch Seavey, four-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park and the race's only five-time winner, Rick Swenson of Two Rivers.
Students across the nation study the race in school programs incorporating various subjects, including math, science and language arts. At Summit Christian School in West Palm Beach, Fla., computer lab teacher John Frizzell uses the Iditarod to teach elementary school students how "the Internet is the best outlet for some events in our world."
Students watch videos from the Iditarod site and practice working with numbers and other data. Each class also gets to choose a competitor they believe will win, with fifth-graders getting first dibs on a name.
"Of course, Lance Mackey is now the musher that ALL the classes want to pick," Frizzell said in an e-mail.
Fans aching to talk about their obsession directly with like-minded enthusiasts or send their favorite competitors a "musher gram" can always call 907-248-MUSH, staffed by volunteers round the clock. They might talk to someone like "rookie" volunteer Janice Lowers from Burbank, Calif., a longtime fan who finally made it here to watch the ceremonial and competitive starts.
Before that, Lowers went the computer route to follow the Iditarod, but she said Wednesday there's no comparison to seeing it up close.
"My goodness, if you don't have it bad before you watch it in person, you're completely bitten by the bug when you do," she said. "I already know I'm coming back next year."
Still, the computer is the next best way for those who have no choice but to monitor the race from afar. Just ask the fans who frequent the Race Talk forum from within Alaska, the lower 48 and other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Nadia Hancock of Queensland, Australia, has been following the Iditarod since she honeymooned in Whistler, British Columbia, in 2008 and experienced a sled dog adventure. Last year she began subscribing to the Iditarod Insider, which for a fee offers videos of the trail and the virtual progress of mushers, whose sleds are rigged with tracking devices.
"The live tracker is amazingly addictive," Hancock said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "I was up in the early hours of many mornings."
After tracking the Iditarod for years from Winchester, Va., Doug Kiracofe finally had to see it in person. Kiracofe and his wife, Rhonda, just returned home after watching the start of the race during their first trip to Alaska. Besides the two starts, the couple attended a pre-race banquet where they chatted with many of the mushers.
"It was just phenomenal," Kiracofe said of their Iditarod exposure. "My wife told me on the plane back, 'Well, now you've got me hooked, too."'