WILLOW, Alaska -- Mushers got down to the real business of dog racing Sunday as 68 teams lined up for the official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Three-time Iditarod winner Jeff King of Denali Park was the first musher out of the chute at the re-start, moved about 30 miles north to the tiny town of Willow this year because of lack of snow.
''They're definitely fast,'' King said of his team as he gave each dog a reassuring hug before setting off.
This year's field includes six previous champions. Among them are the three men who have shared first place since 1992: King; Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont.; and Martin Buser of Big Lake. About one-third of the mushers are rookies.
The purse is $550,000, with the first finisher getting $62,857 plus a new quad-cab pickup.
King said if the race goes his way, he has the team to topple Swingley, the only non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod. Swingley is looking for his third consecutive victory. He got to Nome last year in a record nine days and 58 minutes, about five hours in front of second-place finisher Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof.
Swingley said he hoped to position himself to take advantage of any opening that would put him on top again.
''You only have a few opportunities with a dog team to do that. If the opportunity comes, you have to be in a position to do that,'' he said.
The 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome is held to honor sled dogs and mushers who in 1925 delivered lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome.
The trail goes over two mountain ranges and along the Bering Sea coast, considered one of the most dangerous parts of the trail because of storms that can quickly turn into raging blizzards.
Weather was on the minds of many of the mushers as they gave their sleds a last-minute check for required gear, including an ax, snowshoes and cold-weather sleeping bag. While it was sunny in Willow as the teams set out, forecasts warned of a large storm moving toward central Alaska.
If the weather gets bad, the best strategy is to keep moving, King said. Sometimes, however, that's not possible. Mushers have been known to zip themselves inside their sled bags for protection while waiting out storms.
Charlie Boulding of Manley said he also would try to keep moving.
''I can freeze to death just as good as anybody else,'' he said.
Buser, a three-time champion, spent the last hour before the race soaking up sun while sitting in a fold-up chair. He finished seventh last year and comes to this year's race with a new team.
''Every year, I try to infuse some new genes,'' he said.
Rookie Danny Seavey of Seward said he wasn't nervous about his first trip to Nome.
''It's only running dogs,'' Seavey said. He was so relaxed he had overslept, and was hungry because he had just three bananas for breakfast.
Seavey's nonchalance perhaps comes from being born into a mushing family. His father, veteran Iditarod musher Mitch Seavey, and his grandfather Dan Seavey, who raced the first Iditarod in 1973, are also in this year's race. It's the first time three generations of the same family are competing in the same Iditarod.
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