WILLOW, Alaska – The relaxed atmosphere surrounding the world’s most famous sled dog race is about to become a memory.
Mushers were making their way to Willow, Alaska, on Sunday, for the competitive start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
In Willow, mushers make the final preparations for the nearly 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) race to Nome. This includes saying goodbye to friends and families and making the final checks of their sleds.
The winner is expected in Nome, along the Bering Sea coast, in about nine days.
On Saturday, thousands of people lined the streets for the shortened, fan-friendly ceremonial start in Anchorage.
The event is designed for fans, allowing them to interact with the mushers, take photos and pet some sled dogs.
The “ceremonial start is honestly the most fun day because you really get to show everyone, I mean, all of Anchorage and then plus everyone whose come here, your sport. And you get to show it with passion, which is so cool,” said Aliy Zirkle, a fan favorite who has four top-five finishes in the last four Iditarods.
“So running down Forth Avenue, 12 dogs, someone in your sled, it’s fun and it should be fun,” she said.
The event went forward despite a lack of snow in Anchorage this winter. Snow even had to be shipped this week to Anchorage from Fairbanks for the event. After all that, it snowed about an inch Friday.
The ceremonial start usually covers an 11-mile (17.7-kilometer) route, going along city streets and trails from downtown Anchorage to the east side of the city.
But the lack of snow forced organizers to shorten the race to a 3-mile (4.83-kilometer) route.
Race organizers said trail conditions will largely improve for mushers after the official start in Willow.
The mood changes Sunday from the party atmosphere of the ceremonial start, where beer tents popped up on downtown streets and reindeer dog vendors were selling to the crowds, Zirkle said.
“It’s a little more serious, kind of pull up your britches and get ready to race,” Zirkle said.
There are 85 mushers signed up this year for the race, which crosses long stretches of unforgiving terrain, including two mountain ranges and the wind-lashed Bering Sea coast.
There are seven former champions in the field, including Dallas Seavey. He has won three out of the last four races, and his only loss in that span was to his father, Mitch Seavey, in 2013.
Brent Sass, who finished second in this year’s 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race between Alaska and Canada, said it’s an incredibly talented field of mushers in the Iditarod and any one of them could be the favorite to win.
“I’m not even going to begin to mention them because there’s at least 20 teams that could win this race this year,” he said, including one of the eight mushers in the race from Norway.
Two-time champ Robert Sorlie, 58, is a firefighter in Oslo, Norway. In 2003, he became only the second man born outside the United States to win the race, a feat he repeated in 2005. He says this is likely his last Iditarod, citing age and costs associated with the race.