Rick Mackey of Nenana is racing in his 20th Iditarod, but the 1983 champion skipped the races in 1996, 1997, and 1998. Instead, he raced the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest those years, finishing second, first and third.
However, Mackey ended up just 16th in last year's Iditarod and said this race is just way faster than the Quest.
"You can't get behind," said Mackey. "You don't realize how much it hurts until you do it. It's just a different race (from the Quest). The competition is so hard and fierce."
Mackey, whose father Dick won the 1978 Iditarod, said he is better prepared for the 2000 Iditarod than he was for the 1999 race.
"The team looks good," said Mackey. "We had a good winter. I feel well-prepared. Compared to last year, I'm in good shape."
Bruce Lee, the Denali Park musher who is also back in the Iditarod for the first time since 1996 and returns as a 1998 Quest champ, has similar feelings.
"It's different because there's so many more highly competitive teams (in the Iditarod)," said Lee, whose best showing in four previous Iditarods was 10th. "Stopping for a cup of tea can make a difference in places."
Lee said he is running his best-ever Iditarod team, but after a gap of so many years, feels like a rookie. A lighter-weight rookie, to be sure. The 5-foot-7 Lee said he weighs 145 pounds, at least five pounds less than usual.
"We do everything we can to strip weight off these sleds," said Lee. "I knew I could lose five or 10 pounds."
- Lew Freedman