WILLOW -- Lance Mackey, the two-time defending champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, isn't afraid of making last-minute decisions.
With just 30 minutes to go before beginning the world's longest sled dog race, Mackey was still deciding Sunday which 16 dogs would go with him to Nome, and hopefully carry him to a third consecutive victory in the 1,000-mile run.
One dog was sure to make the cut, Mackey said: 9-year-old Larry, the dog that led him to victory last year.
Sixty-seven teams, down from a record 96 last year, are entered in the 2009 Iditarod, which requires mushers and their dogs to cross two mountain ranges, travel long, boring stretches of the frozen Yukon River and then head up the sometimes treacherous Bering Sea coast, where storms can crush a musher's quest to finish first.
Asked if he could get a third win, Mackey said, "The last two boosted my confidence really good. ... I have as good a shot as anybody."
Canadian Sebastian Schnuelle, who less than two weeks ago won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, said he was satisfied in previous races to do well. He came in 10th last year and said he wants to win this time.
Aaron Peck, a 29-year-old a Canadian who conducts sled dog tours, was the first musher out of the chute Sunday, followed by rookie Nancy Yoshida of Thompson, N.D., one of only 13 women in the race. The 58-year-old said she got into long-distance mushing after her son got busy with his own after-school activities.
The winner of the race will earn $69,000 and a new truck, just like last year, though many mushers are distressed by the $610,000 purse, down by more than a third.
Aaron Burmeister, racing in his 12th Iditarod, said after this year's race he is going to take a couple of years off to work with the Iditarod Trail Committee and get the purse back to where it should be.
Four-time champion Martin Buser said Burmeister's plan was "highly commendable," but he has enough on his plate without having to work to increase the race purse.
"It is a sad state of affairs where we have reduced by a third the purse and the entry (fee) has increased. It is a double whammy," Buser said.
The entry fee increased to $4,000 this year, up from $3,000 last year. Race officials are considering raising the fee to $5,000 in 2010. They blame the reduced purse on paying out too much in prize money the past two years.
Mushers estimate it costs a minimum of $20,000 to run the race.
DeeDee Jonrowe, a fan favorite racing in her 26th Iditarod, said she likes her dog team this year but is not making any predictions.
"We're here to give it a try," she said.
The 55-year-old Jonrowe has twice finished second, and was 15th last year.
Amy Shafran, a fan from Eagle River, introduced her 10-year-old daughter, Taylor, to Jonrowe.
"She is a tough lady," Shafran told her daughter. "She is an inspiration to young ladies. Look what she can do."
Jonrowe and the other mushers may be required to do a lot of the heavy lifting on the trail this year. Near-record snowfall has some areas of the trail buried under 10 feet of snow. When that happens, mushers can expect to don snowshoes and break trail for their dog teams.
If it turns out that way, Ryan Redington, the 26-year-old grandson of race founder Joe Redington, said mushers will end up helping each other. While one musher breaks trail, the other will be taking care of the dog teams.
"If you're breaking trail, mushers will be working together," he said.