ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Dogs strained at their leads and howled with anticipation as mushers competing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race took to the trail Saturday.
Sixty-eight teams are competing in Alaska's premier sled dog race, a 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome held to honor sled dogs and mushers who in 1925 delivered lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome.
Thousands of people crowded Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage to give the mushers a boisterous send-off during the ceremonial start of the 29th Iditarod. Fans use the occasion to get their pictures taken with the mushers and get autographs, many of them choosing to have their favorite mushers sign the sleeves of their parkas.
The serious racing for the $550,000 purse begins Sunday at the restart, which was moved further north this year because of too little snow.
Three-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser of Big Lake said his goal is the same as his competitors, except one -- winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont.
''Everybody but one guy is trying to do a little better this year,'' Buser said, as athletes from his native Switzerland competing in the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Anchorage crowded around him.
Swingley -- a three-time champion and only non-Alaskan to win -- has dominated the race for the last two years. In 2000, he got to Nome in a record nine days and 58 minutes, about five hours ahead of second-place finisher Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof.
Swingley, who in the past has irritated some of his competitors with his boastful statements, is not guaranteeing a fourth win.
''I've got a good team, deeper than last year's,'' he said.
The field consists of six previous champions, including the big three who have shared first-place finishes since 1992: Swingley, Buser and Jeff King of Denali Park.
King, a three-time champion who was third last year, drew the first slot out of the chute.
Mushers carry passengers for the first miles of the race. King carried 8-year-old Reese Cherry of Alpharetta, Ga., in his sled. The boy was diagnosed with leukemia in October 1999. The ride was a gift from the Make-A-Wish-Foundation.
''I never really knew about the Iditarod,'' Reese said. ''I think I'm going to like it.''
Rookie Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race last year, got a last-minute hug of support from 1985 Iditarod winner Libby Riddles. Four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher is the only other woman to win the race.
''I don't know what to expect,'' Zirkle said. ''I expect to see about 1,000 miles of trail I've never seen before.''
Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, the race's only five-time champion, is competing in his 25th Iditarod.
''I'm more serious about winning this year. I know I have a really good team that deserves to win,'' he said.
Ramy Brooks of Healy said he's hoping to remain healthy this year. Brooks came down with pneumonia during last year's race but still managed to come in fourth, his best finish.
Brooks said he got banged up during training this year. On one run the tip of his snow hook, used to anchor the team during stops, lodged in his leg after he tipped the sled over and he was dragged for more than a half-mile.
Brooks doesn't mind a few dings and bruises along the way.
''I enjoy being out there on the trail and living my dream,'' he said.
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