By Mary Pemberton Associated Press
WILLOW, Alaska — The quest for 66 mushers to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race started Sunday with the competition’s official start in Willow.
The mushers and their dog teams will spend about the next eight days traveling across nearly a thousand miles of Alaska wilderness in a sled, all trying to be the first musher to reach the old gold rush town of Nome.
The grandsons of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s co-founder Joe Redington were the first and last mushers on the trail this year.
Ray Redington Jr. picked the first spot during the musher’s draw. The 36-year-old musher is competing in his 11th Iditarod and finished in 7th place last year. His younger brother, 29-year-old Ryan Redington, is competing in his 8th race, but will have to wait to get on the trail. Ryan picked the last spot.
There are six former champions in the race, including last year’s winner, 49-year-old John Baker of Kotzebue.
Baker said he doesn’t feel any pressure as the defending champion.
“I’m hoping to do the very best that the dogs can do, and if they do that, then we’ll be actually in fine shape,” he said Saturday at the race’s ceremonial start in Anchorage.
Also in the race is Lance Mackey, whose string of four consecutive wins was ended by Baker in 2011.
Mackey said his biggest competitor is himself, and writes off talk that he is past his prime.
“I feel I still have a team that capable. I know I’m confident, and I’ve got the ability,” he said Saturday.
Mackey said he’s not in the race for an eight-day camping trip or to make new friends, and he intended to be all business as of Sunday.
“I’m going to have blinders on,” he said. “I have a job to do, and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability and see what happens.”
Also in the field is Hugh Neff, who won last month’s Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Organizers are now saying the northern Iditarod route between Willow and Nome taken on even years is actually 975 miles, not as long as the 1,150 miles quoted in the past. However, some mushers believe the new estimate is too low and that the race is at least 1,000 miles.
Organizers cited various reasons for the mileage tweak, including the move of the competitive start north from Wasilla to Willow.
On Saturday, they added one mile back in. Last month, organizers decided to remove the Happy River Steps, a dangerous set of switchbacks between the Finger Lake and Rainy Pass checkpoints. However, officials recently said the alternate route, a winter road created by a mineral exploration company, was no longer a better option because of snow, and they went back to the Happy River Steps route.
The total purse is $550,000 for the first 30 finishers, with the winner receiving $50,400 and a new truck. A record purse of $875,000 was handed out in 2008. In past years, the winner’s take was as high as $69,000.