Iditarod kicks off with snowy run through Anchorage

Sat Mar 3, 2012 7:20pm EST
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By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Hundreds of dogs barked, bundled-up spectators cheered and snow fell steadily as 66 mushers and their teams began the 40th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday with a run through downtown Anchorage.

Mushers said they welcomed the new snow, which added to near-record accumulations that have blanketed Anchorage and other parts of the roughly 1,000-mile trail to Nome.

They predicted the abundant snow would make for a safer and more competitive race, in an event that has grown from an obscure contest many considered a one-time lark into a world-famous, big-money sports extravaganza.

"The fast teams that have inexperienced drivers could be slowed down (initially)," said defending champion John Baker, who holds the race speed record of eight days, 18 hours and 46:39 minutes.

As Baker explained it, teams will have to avoid sprinting out for the first few hundred miles and will wind up with rested dogs that can run faster later in the race. "Before, everybody went out so fast. They're so tired in Skwentna ... that the race is over," he said, referring to a checkpoint 123 miles into the trail.

Baker, who sat in his truck and chatted before hooking up his dogs for the start of the race, said there were numerous top contenders this year. Along with six returning champions, there were several young mushers who could have breakout runs this year, he said.

Returning champions include four-time winners Lance Mackey, Martin Buser and Jeff King, five-time champion Rick Swenson and 2004 winner Mitch Seavey, as well as Baker. Some younger mushers who Baker said may be contenders include Aaron Burmeister of Nome, Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake, and Mike Williams Jr. of Akiak.

The winner will take home $50,400 and a new truck, part of an overall purse of at least $550,000.   Continued...