By Steve Quinn
JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - Alaska's famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race got underway with a ceremonial run in Anchorage on Saturday with dozens of mushers and dog teams beginning a near 1,000-mile (1,609-km) journey through the snowy and sometimes unforgiving wilderness.
This untimed 11-mile (17.7-km) kickoff leg serves as a curtainraiser for a timed competition that commemorates a 1925 mission that delivered diphtheria serum to Nome by sled-dog relay.
The timed portion of the race, which typically lasts nine days or longer, begins Monday in Fairbanks, about 300 miles (482 km) away. Traditionally held in Willow, the timed start was moved to Fairbanks this year to accommodate an alternate trail selected after race officials deemed sections of the traditional path unsafe.
This year's lineup features 78 mushers, nine more than last year, and six ex-champions, with competitors traveling from as far as New Zealand and Australia for the race, which many Alaskans who have endured long winter nights see as a sign of impending spring.
"This can be the most beautiful time here in Alaska," race director Stan Hooley said. "It's a celebration of something that is very good about living in Alaska."
On Saturday, Canadian Dan Cook, one of 20 rookies in the lineup, kicked things off before a roaring crowd in downtown Anchorage, the state's largest city.
On Monday, Cook will be the first musher out of the gates for the timed staggered start.
The timed race will take mushers, each pulled by as many as a dozen dogs, through 16 checkpoints toward Nome, on the Bering Sea coast. Officials peg this year's distance at 968 miles (1,558 km) but that doesn't factor in topographical changes.
Most races last slightly longer than nine days, though last year's winner, Dallas Seavey, brought his dogs across the finish line in eight days and 13 hours after facing daunting wind gusts down the home stretch.
Each musher must take one 24-hour rest and two separate eight-hour stops. The winner gets $70,000 and a pick-up truck, and other top finishers receive cash prizes from a purse totaling more than $725,000, the largest since racing began in 1973.
"Maintaining a competitive racing kennel and preparing for this race is an extremely expensive proposition," Hooley said.
Seavey, last year's winner, posted his second win in three years. His father Mitch Seavey two years ago at 53 became the oldest musher to win the Iditarod.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Cynthia Johnston, Sandra Maler and W Simon)