WASILLA, Alaska -- Musher Doug Swingley waved to fans and gave his two lead dogs a reassuring pat as he waited in the chute to defend his title in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
A record 81 teams took to the trail Sunday to officially begin the 1,150-mile race to Nome. The trail goes through Knik, home of Joe Redington Sr., who started the race in 1973 and died of cancer last June at age 82. From there it continues through muskeg and forests. Mushers were expected to reach the Alaska Range sometime Monday.
Given the crowded field, the top mushers said they would likely forgo resting much early on to put as much distance between themselves and the others. The warm weather, however, could change that strategy.
The teams, which include 29 rookies, are competing for a share of a $525,000 purse, the largest ever. The race was begun to commemorate the lifesaving relay of diptheria serum to Nome by mushers in 1925.
Swingley, who holds the 1995 course record of nine days, two hours and 42 minutes, refused to say whether he can break his own record this year. If temperatures remained in the 30s, other mushers said it would be difficult. The warm weather will force them to go slow, perhaps moving mostly at night, so as not to overheat the dogs.
Swingley said 11 of the dogs in his team this year were on last year's winning team.
''They are really animated and resilient,'' he said. ''They don't need much rest.''
Three-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser of Big Lake, who placed second last year, said he's hoping to avoid the injuries that forced him to drop six dogs early in the 1999 race. While many of the dogs are the same, this year's team feels stronger, he said.
''It feels like they're heading toward a peak,'' Buser said.
DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow said she has an inexperienced team this year but will try and win if given the opportunity. She was in second place last year when her lead dog refused to go on and she was forced to scratch. It was the first time in 16 Iditarods she didn't finish.
Two weeks ago, Jonrowe said she had a mishap with her new lead dog, 3-year-old Softail. An ice hook snagged his back leg while she was practicing with another team. The injury required 10 stitches.
''I couldn't cry. I couldn't say anything. I just picked him up and put him in the sled,'' she said.
The dog's injury healed well. She is relying on him to lead the way over two mountain ranges, along rivers and miles of frozen sea ice. But, just in case, she has two other dogs that could lead the team.
While waiting for his turn, Dan Dent, an investment counselor from Baltimore, checked the contents of his sled bag to make sure he had packed everything, including plenty of peanuts and raisins. Dent was forced to scratch as a rookie last year when, shortly after the start of the race, his hands were badly damaged in a dog fight.
This year's team gets along nicely, he said.
''We ought to make it this year,'' Dent said.
Emmitt Peters, who won in 1975 but hasn't raced since 1992 when he scratched because of a knee injury, said his goal is to make it to Nome one last time.
''This is it,'' he said. ''I'm in no hurry.''
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