Dog days of winter

Record Iditarod field of 81 starts toward Nome

Posted: Sunday, March 05, 2000

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Iditarod Sled Dog Champion Doug Swingley has a simple plan for defending his title this year in the grueling 1,150-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.

''I'm just going to get to Nome quicker than the rest of them,'' said Swingley, as the Lincoln, Mont., musher readied his dog team Saturday for the race's ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage. The event, which takes on the atmosphere of a huge block party, gives fans a chance to get autographs taken and pictures of their favorite mushers before the serious racing begins.

As more than 1,000 dogs yipped with excitement, mushers put in harness a record 81 teams to start the lazy 20-mile trek to Eagle River, northeast of Anchorage. The mushers are competing for a record $525,000 purse to be divvied out among the first 30 finishers.

Swingley, who holds the trail record set in 1995 of nine days, two hours and 42 minutes, said his team is ready for the official start Sunday in Wasilla.

''The dogs are ready to go; they'd blow out of here now and go 1,200 miles,'' he said.


Three-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race champion Jeff King mushes in Anchorage Saturday during the start of the race.

AP Photo/Al Grillo

Ariel Courtwright of Chugiak, a 6-year-old girl with leukemia, rode in Swingley's sled as one of the race's Iditariders -- people who pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to ride the first section of trail. Her spot in Swingley's sled was donated by a Florida woman through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

''I'm not going to be scared,'' Ariel said. A stuffed animal, a Husky, had been placed inside the basket of Swingley's sled.

Musher Ramy Brooks of Healy said given that the temperatures were warm and hovering in the upper 30s, he was grateful to have randomly picked the No. 1 spot out of the chute. That way it would be cooler than later in the day, he said. Sled dogs like to run best when it's 10 above zero or colder because they can get overheated.

In these temperatures, ''You really have to take it easy,'' said Brooks who finished eighth in 1997.

The race's only five-time winner, Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, said he lost 20 pounds to get ready for the race, partly because of something Joe Redington Sr. told him. Redington founded the race in 1973 and died last year of cancer at age 82.

Swenson, who won last in 1991, said Redington told him he thought this was his year to show everyone he still could win.

''Knowing Joe as well as I know him, that was his way to get me out there and training harder,'' he said.

Edward de la Billiere, a lawyer from Herefordshire, England, said he was running his first Iditarod to fulfill a boyhood dream. He was a handler last year for musher Vern Halter of Willow who came in third. He and his then-fiancee learned the ropes while living in a trailer Halter owned that had no electricity or running water.

''It was a good test of our engagement,'' he said, glancing at his wife, Pips. She said their families would be waiting for him in Nome.

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