Update: Kjeitil Backen reached Finger Lake first at 5:09 a.m. Monday. He made the 45-mile run in just less than five hours. At least 32 mushers were on the trail from Skwentna behind him. As of 3:30 a.m. Monday, 78 mushers had reached Skwentna, led by Matt Hayashida who was followed closely by Lance Mackey, but those two stayed while Gerry Willomitzer and Jeff King were the first out.
WILLOW -- As the 95 mushers and thousand-plus dogs prepared to start the real running of the 36th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, the sun broke through the clouds to lend a little light and warmth to the proceedings.
Although it was high noon, the sun wasn't quite overhead, instead back and to the left of the staging area on Willow Lake.
It was an oddly serene setting, considering the toil and trouble about to descend on the teams.
In contrast, a foreboding wall of gray consumed the horizon across the lake, a more appropriate harbinger of the long days and sleepless nights ahead on the 1,100-mile journey toward Nome's famed burled arch.
Myriad stratagems will be considered and choices made along the trail over the next several days-- when to rest, when to lay over, when to push ahead.
But even before the 2 p.m. restart Sunday, two major decisions had already come down.
Musher G.B. Jones of Wasilla scratched after the ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday due to illness, reducing the record field from 96 to 95 teams.
"The main reason he wanted to go (in Saturday's ceremonial start) was because he had an Iditarider," race marshal Mark Nordman said. "He wanted to give back to the race."
And Rachael Scdoris, the legally blind musher from Bend, Ore., had decided she and Joe Runyan, her guide for this running of the Iditarod, would skip their appointed start times -- Scdoris was to be the 53rd team out, Runyan 81st -- so they could leave together at the back of the pack.
Scdoris had hoped the Iditarod would let her and Runyan, the 1989 champion, leave together without penalty. By rule anytime a musher misses his or her start, the clock starts running on that team anyway, and the musher has to wait until the end to leave.
"We're just going to 'accidentally' miss our starting times and just go out last," Scdoris said. "We kind of had a verbal understanding with Mr. Nordman, but these things take some time and we didn't really get it officially, so there's nothing we can do."
Said Nordman: "There was never anything asked for on the official level. It's the way dog mushing goes."
Scdoris will be more than 80 minutes late leaving the restart, Runyan about 30.
"All together we'll lose about four hours with the start and the differential at the 24(-hour layover)," Scdoris said. "That aside, we have two very good teams and we're both competent mushers. If we have to make up that differential at the 24, that's just two hours extra rest for the team."
Scdoris said she considered leaving on time and finding a place somewhere beyond the starting chute to pull over and wait for Runyan, but there were too many problems to contend with.
"It would just be too crazy," said Scdoris, who is also soliciting donations for Central Oregon Resources for Independent Living through her Web site, GoRachaelGo.com. "I have really energetic dogs, and they're not just going to sit there for an hour and a half and wait.
"And all the other teams going by us could be distracted. It's just not a good idea."
Robert Bundtzen, an Anchorage musher entered in his 10th Iditarod, was to be the last team out of Willow before Scdoris and Runyan decided to shift to the rear.
Like those two, he still had a long wait ahead of him at 12:30 p.m.
"I'll crawl on top (of his truck) and go to sleep, probably," Bundtzen joked, noting that his crew had brought enough grub for a substantial tailgate party to while away the hours until his 5:10 departure.
"In a way that's an advantage. From a dog-running standpoint, it's an advantage (because it will be cooler later). From a trying-to-pass-a-whole-bunch-of-teams standpoint, that's not an advantage.
"I just like to do it. I like to run the dogs, get them to perform to the best of their ability and my ability. It's a real challenge."
By 1:30 p.m. the mass of gray from across Willow Lake had advanced, and the sun was obscured by clouds. A chill wind began to blow. The bright sunlight gave way to a dull, diffuse lighting, casting a monotone pall on all but the brightest of clothing.
Race officials began clearing the staging area and the first few teams scheduled to head out started final preparations.
The starting chute, demarcated only by orange temporary fencing just 90 minutes before was now a human tunnel, lined by thousands all the way across the lake and into the woods on the other side.
The dogs on Cim Smyth's team -- the first to hit the trail -- were calm, sedate. Many rested on their haunches still tethered to the truck.
At about a quarter 'til 2, Smyth and his handlers began harnessing the lead dogs to the towline, a signal that it was almost time to mush. Quickly, the sounds of Iditarod 36 reached full volume.
Smyth's other dogs voiced their desire to be next, and soon nearby teams joined the chorus.
The national anthem and Alaska Flag Song were sung over the loudspeakers.
Helicopters hovered. Airplanes circled.
Smyth took his place at the start line and a little after 2 p.m., the Last Great Race began again.
Find Andrew Hinkelman online at adn.com/contact/ahinkelman or call 257-4335.
Anchorage to Eagle River 20
Restart in Willow
Willow to Yentna 40
Yentna to Skwentna 34
Skwentna to Finger Lake 45
Finger Lake to Rainy Pass 30
Rainy Pass to Rohn 48
Rohn to Nikolai 80
By 9:45 p.m. Sunday, 12 mushers reached Skwentna, led by Matt Hayashida at 8:49 p.m. 2007 champion Lance Mackey was second at 8:54 p.m. However, Gerry Willomitzer was first out at 9:25 p.m., followed by four-time champ Jeff King at 9:39 p.m.