Just like every year, mushers from Alaska's Interior loaded up their dog teams, drove the 350-plus miles to Anchorage and rode the runners through cheering throngs during Saturday's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start on Fourth Avenue.
Eleven miles later, they loaded up the dogs and gear and hit the road for the return trip.
"I don't like to backtrack, and we have to backtrack," said Charlie Boulding, the veteran musher from Manley. "But this is part of the show, and without this part we wouldn't have the purse we have."
A victim of a wet, warm winter that produced little snow in Southcentral Alaska, the official restart of the Last Great Race will take place for the first time in Fairbanks, beginning at 10 a.m. today.
But while the Wasilla starting line and the string of villages between the Matanuska Valley and the Yukon River were abandoned this year, mushers from Fairbanks and the surrounding area still had to haul their full dog teams to Anchorage for Saturday's ceremonial start, an 11-mile jaunt over a patchwork trail with paying Iditariders tucked into their sleds.
"Strange, isn't it?" said Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers. "But Iditarod is Iditarod. It's always started in Anchorage. That's the way it should be."
There are good reasons for the ceremonial start on Fourth Avenue, most of them included in the race's approximately $600,000 purse.
The Iditariders who bid for their spots on the mushers' sleds contribute a hefty portion of the eventual payout in Nome. As do the race's major sponsors, who provide contributors a chance to press the flesh and have photos taken with the sled dog racers in the holding area prior to Saturday's ceremonial start.
"I can't blame them for having this deal down here," said 27-year-old Ray Redington Jr. of Two Rivers, whose grandfather, the late Joe Redington, founded the Iditarod in 1972. "People bought in to watch the race, and this is what they came for. Without this, we wouldn't be able to do it at all."
Mushers were quick to credit the Iditarod board for adapting to the springlike conditions and salvaging the race, which has no provision for cancellation. But the shift of the restart to Fairbanks did force several logistical challenges on drivers.
For starters, the mushers had to bring all of their Iditarod dogs to Anchorage for the pre-race veterinary check and implanting of identification chips, even though most ran six to 10 dogs Saturday in temperatures that reached 44 degrees.
"I would just as soon not have to bring all our dogs down here and then bring them back," said Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, who has run all but one Iditarod since 1976 and owns a record five victories. "It's definitely a change for everyone, but I wouldn't want to call it unfair. Everybody's breaking new ground."
Swenson flew back to Fairbanks Saturday evening while handlers drove the dogs home. But most Interior mushers drove back.
Ken Anderson of Fairbanks, running his third Iditarod, said his only hardship would come if his truck broke down on the way back home -- which was not out of the realm of possibility the way it's been running lately.
"There's a fair amount of hassle, but it's worthwhile," Anderson said. "We drive all winter anyway. I put 15,000 miles on the truck racing in Oregon and Wyoming, so 350 extra miles now is a drop in the bucket."
Dexter Kancer of Nenana, a 30-year-old Iditarod rookie, said this year's schedule might actually benefit him.
"Gearing up was a lot easier," said Kancer, who moved to Alaska two years ago after running mid-distance races in Colorado. "I needed just enough stuff to run 11 miles. And now I've got a day and a half to work everything out for the restart."
To compensate for the travel, the Iditarod shifted the official restart from Sunday to today. Mushers applauded the break and came up with a variety of ways to spend the free time.
Zirkle said she would hold an open kennel for the public. And while Redington Jr. said he would drop his dogs in Cantwell for a pre-race rest, Boulding said he would probably sneak in one last run with his dogs Sunday.
"It's not good to have the dogs too hyper when the race starts," he said.
The beneficiaries of the Fairbanks restart, mushers said, would be the people of Fairbanks and the towns of Nenana, Manley and Tanana, who can see their neighbors mush past for the first time in an Iditarod.
The Iditarod was started to commemorate the relay run of Diptheria serum to Nome during an outbreak of the disease in 1925. The original Serum Run began in Nenana, at that time the terminus of the Alaska rail system.
"That's pretty cool, that after all these years it's come back to Nenana," Swenson said.
Fairbanks already has the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile run between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory that alternates direction each year. Zirkle, who in 2000 became the first woman to win the Quest, said Interior fans can follow this year's Iditarod start as far as Manley on the road system.
"It'll be a little bit more like the Quest that way," she said. Then, with a laugh, she added, "Hopefully a lot more like the Quest."
Reporter J.R. Rardon can be reached at email@example.com.