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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Some 67 mushers and their eager dogs began the grueling trek to Nome on Saturday in the Iditarod dog-sled race, with a ceremonial start amid the sounds of yapping huskies and crunching snow.
The 11-mile run through Alaska's largest city, cheered on by a crowd of well-bundled spectators, was just a formality.
Timed competition for the 1,100-mile trek will start on Sunday in Willow, a small community about 80 miles north of Anchorage and a gateway to the roadless wilderness where the real adventure takes place.
The trek commemorates a lifesaving medicine relay in 1925.
Under sunny skies, teams of mushers and their dogs, mostly Alaskan huskies, lined up with start times every two minutes, then rode through downtown streets to the cheering of dog-sled fans.
Economic strains have reduced the lineup of competitors in the 37th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from last year's record of 96. Besides the $4,000 entry fee, many mushers must take time off from regular jobs to train. And some sponsors have cut their Iditarod budgets in response to the economic downturn.
The 2009 winner will take home $69,000 and a new truck, the same reward as last year, but the total purse has dropped to about $650,000 from the roughly $900,000 paid out last year.
Typically, the winning sled bounds into Nome after about nine days on the trail. But with deep snow burying the middle portion of the trail, the sledding is expected to take more time this year.
"I don't think we're going to set any speed records, that's for sure," said two-time champion Lance Mackey, pausing between stops to sign autographs and pose for camera-toting fans.
Mackey is a fan favorite. A cancer survivor and one-time commercial fisherman, he is the only musher to win both the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International back-to-back in the same year. He accomplished that feat twice, in 2007 and 2008.
"This puts everybody on a pretty level playing field," he said of the heavy snow conditions. Still, he said, "realistically, the old familiar faces are the ones to watch."
Along with Mackey, likely contenders include four-time champions Jeff King and Martin Buser and former champion Mitch Seavey.
Libby Riddles, who in 1985 became the first woman to win the Iditarod, said this year's Yukon Quest champ, Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Yukon, was another strong contender.
Another possible winner, Riddles said, is Bjornar Andersen, a Norwegian who finished fourth in his rookie race in 2005 and who trains with two-time Iditarod champion Robert Sorlie of Norway, the only non-U.S. citizen to win the Alaska race.
But not all mushers are looking for victory.
First-time Iditarod musher Harry Alexie, a staff sergeant with the Army National Guard, wants to tout the idea of military service to residents of the tiny villages along the trail.
A Yupik Eskimo from Bethel, Alaska, Alexie said the National Guard offers career opportunities for rural natives.
"Where else could you have a part-time job and also have retirement benefits?" said Alexie, who has a crew of fellow Guardsmen working as his dog handlers. "It's a good fit, because jobs are scarce back in the villages."
Editing by Alexandria Sage and Vicki Allen