"There's no place like Nome" will be the mantra for close to 100 mushers competing in the 2005 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The entry deadline closed Wednesday, but race officials were still waiting on a few mushers who had mailed their entries from out of state and called to say their paperwork was on the way.
On Friday, Iditarod race director Joanne Potts said the final number of entrants were in.
"We're at 98, and as far as I know, that's it," she said.
Potts said the number of entrants was actually more than 100 for the second year in a row, but a few mushers had withdrawn prior to or shortly after the sign-up deadline. Potts added that not everyone who enters will make it to the starting line.
"It's not unusual," she said.
Last year, 106 mushers signed up, but only 97 started the race. This year, 102 mushers were at one time signed up, but Potts said she expects roughly 80 to 82 mushers to make the start.
"A lot can happen between now and then in regard to weather and the individual musher's training," she said.
Eight Kenai Peninsula mushers have signed up, and with more ice and rain than snow this winter, they already can attest to the difficulties of preparing their canine cohorts for the more than 1,000-mile trek.
Judy Merritt, a Moose Pass musher who has competed in two Iditarods, has had to continue four-wheeler training her dogs rather than being behind the sled, which is more typical for her training at this time of year.
"It's been miserable weather this year, but we're still trying to train as best we can," she said.
Iditarod veterans Lance Mackey of Kasilof and Tim Osmar of Ninilchik have been training in the Caribou Hills in order to get miles on their teams.
"The snow conditions aren't as good as they were last year at this time, but the trails are still OK," Osmar said.
"They were good for awhile, then they got bad last week, but with this colder weather they're getting better again," Osmar said Friday.
He also reported that last Thursday's dip in the temperature brought 5 inches of snow in most areas of the hills, with even greater accumulations in higher country.
Many peninsula mushers have headed north for training.
Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, who placed second in the 2000 Iditarod, has been running his huskies in the Sheep Mountain area between Chickaloon and Glennallen.
Trine Lyrek, a rookie from Seward, has relocated to Denali for the remainder of the training season.
2004 Iditarod champion, Mitch Seavey of Seward, as well as his sons Dallas and Tyrell, who have signed up for the race, have been making extended trips to Nenana to chase snow.
Including the senior Seavey, the 2005 Iditarod will feature six returning champions, four of whom are Alaskans Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, Martin Buser of Big Lake, Jeff King of Denali and Seavey. Former champions Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont. and Robert Sorlie of Hurdal, Norway also are slated to compete.
"We have a lot of people who haven't won yet, but they have been right there and could get first this year," said Iditarod race executive director Stan Hooley.
Nine mushers have signed up who finished in the top 10 in 2004.
"I'd say we've got 12 teams at least that could all be first to Nome," Hooley said. "I think when you look at the folks in this year's race, it's really shaping up to be the most competitive race ever."
In terms of the size of the field of competitors, Hooley said he was happy with the trend of growth.
"It's a good thing," he said. "It's indicative of the growth of the sport both nationally and internationally, and it shows that the Iditarod in a race known worldwide."
The 2005 race features 12 international mushers, as well as 23 mushers from the Lower 48 and 63 from Alaska.
The Iditarod begins at 10 a.m. March 5 in Anchorage.
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