By Steve Quinn
(Reuters) - Dozens of mushers and their sled-dog teams on Saturday will mark a ceremonial start to Alaska's famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race that will take contestants through nearly 1,000 miles of wilderness during the next week.
The 11-mile (18-km) jaunt through the state's largest city of Anchorage sets the stage for the Sunday start of a race that commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum to Nome by sled-dog relay. Some 69 mushers, some from as far away as Jamaica and New Zealand, are expected to take part.
"Saturday is an opportunity to interact with mushers, watch dog teams excited to leave the starting line, travel 11 miles of the city streets and call it a day," said race Executive Director Stan Hooley. "There is much more of an opportunity to touch and feel the race, and celebrate this great race."
Timed racing will start on Sunday when the mushers reach Willow, a small community about 80 miles north of Anchorage. The competition will eventually see them glide into Nome, a city on the coast of the Bering Sea.
They will hit 21 checkpoints with distances between stops ranging from 18 to 85 miles before reaching the finish line in Nome. Race officials peg the distance at 975 miles, not accounting for any topographical changes.
Most races last slightly longer than nine days, and the winner will receive $50,400 and a new truck. Other top finishers will also be awarded cash prizes from the race purse, which totals over $650,000. Each musher is required to take a 24-hour rest and two separate eight-hour stops. None can be combined.
"Anyone who has attended both the ceremonial start in Anchorage and the re-start in Willow, one of the first things they notice is the mindset of the dogs," Hooley said. "They sense the difference between the purpose of those two days. That's a fascinating thing to see."
UNPREDICTABILITY OF RACE
Of the 69 mushers, nearly one-fourth are rookies. While most live in Alaska, some not far from Sunday's starting line, the lineup comes replete with international flavor including mushers from Norway, Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Sweden.
Even as Saturday's start remains ceremonial, it creates anticipation of what new feats could be accomplished this year. Each race seems to produce signature performances.
Three years ago, John Baker became the first Eskimo to post a win, clocking in a record eight days, 18 hours, 46 minutes. A year later, 26-year-old Dallas Seavey became the youngest musher to win. Last year, his father Mitch become the oldest.
In nearly 20 years as executive director, Hooley said Baker's victory remains vivid.
"It put an exclamation point on how special this race is to Alaska and how it galvanizes seemingly everyone in the entire state," Hooley said. "For him to be the first Native Alaskan to win in many years brought forth a whole new level of emotion, excitement and statewide pride I hadn't felt before."
The only thing predictable about the race is its unpredictability.
"The unique thing about the Iditarod is there is no norm," said Dallas Seavey, after completing construction of his new sled, made in part with aluminum shaft hockey sticks. "It's not like NASCAR racing cars going around a track. You and your dogs are overcoming tremendous variables and adversity. That's what this race is about."
(Reporting by Steve Quinn in Juneau, Alaska; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)