WILLOW, Alaska (AP) — Fans lined the starting chute and filled the cold Alaskan air with cheers for their favorite mushers — some leaning forward to exchange high-fives — as 66 teams took to the trail Sunday in the official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The mushers and their dog teams will spend about the next eight days crossing nearly a thousand miles of Alaska wilderness in a sled, all trying to be the first musher to reach the old gold rush town of Nome.
"They look like this is what they live for," said Leigh Hopper, 53, a registered nurse from Hendersonville, Tenn., as she watched mushers get their dogs ready for the start. "They can't wait to get out there and run."
The grandsons of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's co-founder Joe Redington were the first and last mushers on the trail.
Ray Redington Jr. picked the first spot during the musher's draw. The 36-year-old is competing in his 11th Iditarod and finished in 7th place last year. He said he hopes to do even better this year with his team, most of them veteran Iditarod dogs.
Ray Redington said this year's competition is "tough, very tough," with the racing teams becoming more professional and serious about winning.
"They're getting better. So am I," he said Sunday.
His younger brother, 29-year-old Ryan Redington, is competing in his 8th race but had to wait to get on the trail after picking the last spot. He looked relaxed as he left the chute, actually sitting on the seat of his sled while smiling and waving to the crowds.
There are six former champions competing, including last year's winner, 49-year-old John Baker of Kotzebue, the first Inupiat Eskimo to win and first Alaska native since Jerry Riley in 1976.
Baker said that after winning last year's race on his 16th try, he considered retiring, but realized there were too many people counting on him to run again.
When he isn't training for the race, Baker spends his time traveling to Alaska villages and giving Native children a message: Work hard, follow your dreams, and you can do it.
Did the children treat him any differently now that he is an Iditarod champion? He said yes.
"They were quiet and listening for once," said Baker.
Also in the race is Lance Mackey, whose string of four consecutive wins was ended by Baker in 2011.
Mackey admitted feeling deeply disappointed by his 16th place finish last year. He has said he won't let himself feel that way again, no matter what the outcome.
But Mackey also said his team this year is ready to race, and he's in it to win it.
"This team is as good as any team here," he said.
Organizers are now saying the northern Iditarod route between Willow and Nome taken on even years is actually 975 miles, not as long as the 1,150 miles quoted in the past. However, some mushers believe the new estimate is too low and that the race is at least 1,000 miles.
Organizers cited various reasons for the mileage tweak, including the move of the competitive start north from Wasilla to Willow.
On Saturday, they added one mile back in. Last month, organizers decided to remove the Happy River Steps, a dangerous set of switchbacks between the Finger Lake and Rainy Pass checkpoints. However, officials recently said there were snow problems with the alternate route and they went back to the Happy River Steps route.
Brent Sass, who is competing in his first Iditarod but six times has run in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race — considered by many to be a tougher race — said he was glad the infamous Steps were back in the Iditarod.
A homemade sign atop his dog truck read, "Wild and Free. All the way to Nome."
"It is the Super Bowl of mushing," Sass said of the Iditarod. "It is the big one."
The total purse is $550,000 for the first 30 finishers, with the winner receiving $50,400 and a new truck. A record purse of $875,000 was handed out in 2008. In past years, the winner's take was as high as $69,000.
Anjanette Steer is married to veteran Iditarod racer Zack Steer but instead of looking from the sidelines this year she is the one taking the dog team to Nome. The 39-year-old rookie said she expects to make it but isn't sure when she will cross the finish line. It could be after much of the excitement has died down. It could be in the middle of the night.
"Any team that makes it across the finish line in Nome should have 1,000 people because it is a huge accomplishment," Steer said. "It is an adventure I will remember for the rest of my life."