Iditarod teams complete ceremonial start

Anchorage Daily NewsMarch 2, 2012 

Update, 4 p.m.: All 66 teams in the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race completed their ceremonial 11-mile jaunt from downtown Anchorage through city streets and on to Campbell Airstrip on Saturday. Racers will head to Willow on Sunday for the 2 p.m. official start.

Update, 10 a.m.: With Ray Redington Jr. leading the way down 4th Ave., Iditarod mushers began their 975-mile marathon to Nome with an 11-mile sprint through Anchorage on Saturday morning.

Thousands of fans lined downtown streets to meet, cheer and photograph the mushers, whose destiny today is Campbell Airstrip, about 11 miles from the start line.

We'll be posting updates and photos through the day, so check back.

Things to know about this year's Iditarod sled dog race

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race gets under way this weekend with 66 teams running through the streets and trails of Anchorage on Saturday starting at 10 a.m. The race to Nome begins for real Sunday afternoon in Willow at 2 p.m.

Some things to know about this year's race:

Wanna be a millionaire?

A purse of $550,000 is at stake, and while that sounds like a lot, it isn't easy getting rich off Iditarod prize money.

Four-time champion Jeff King, 56, is the race's biggest all-time money-winner with $808,720. For him to become the Iditarod's first millionaire, at least based on prize money, King needs to collect another $192,000 -- the equivalent of five more finishes in fifth place or better or eight more finishes in 10th place or better.

This year's Iditarod champion wins a $50,400 check plus a Dodge Ram pickup worth about $43,400.

Each subsequent finisher earns a little less prize money -- $46,500 for second place, $42,900 for third, down to $1,500 for 30th place. Every finisher after that pockets $1,049, a figure based on the notion that the race is 1,049 miles long.

It's not.

The (real) distance

In previous years, the length of the Iditarod was said to vary between 1,000 and 1,100 miles, depending on the route and conditions. Often people split the difference and called it 1,049, an homage to Alaska's status as the 49th state.

This year, following the northern route, the race is 975 miles -- an acknowledgement, race officials say, to changes to the start made in recent years:

• The ceremonial start in Anchorage is just 11 miles, shorter than back in the days when mushers went to Eagle River. Now they stop at Campbell Airstrip.

• The restart is in Willow instead of Wasilla, a change that eliminates a portion of trail around Wasilla and Knik as well as some Yentna River mileage.

So the Iditarod isn't as long as it used to be. It isn't quite as treacherous either.

Goodbye, switchbacks

For the first time, mushers will not have to negotiate the treacherous Happy River Steps out of Finger Lake, a series of steep switchbacks that has left its share of carnage over the years -- broken sleds, broken bones and broken dreams.

The route will bypass the steps in favor of a winter mining road that parallels the Iditarod trail. The road was built by a Vancouver company that's exploring for minerals around the nearby Skwentna River.

Bloodlines of dogs, mushers

Just as you can find teams that share dogs from the same bloodlines, so can you find mushers who share bloodlines:

• The Seaveys will start three generations of mushers for the second time in race history. Patriarch Dan, 74, will share the trail with son Mitch, the 2004 champion, and grandson Dallas, the 2011 Yukon Quest champion.

• The Smyths have the potential for serious sibling rivalry. Ramey, 36, was second last year, and Cim, 35, was fifth in 2009. Their dad, Bud Smyth, was an Iditarod pioneer.

• The Beringtons, Kristy and Anna, are the first identical twins to enter the same Iditarod. Kristy is the veteran of two races, and Anna is an Iditarod rookie.

• The Redingtons will bookend the start and restart, with Ray Redington Jr. wearing the No. 2 bib, and Ryan Redingon drawing the No. 66 bib, making them the first and last mushers who will leave downtown Anchorage on Saturday and the Willow restart on Sunday.

Who's No. 1?

So who's wearing Bib No. 1?

As usual, no one.

The No. 1 bib is given to an honorary musher. This year, that musher is Dave Olson, who cleared trail for the 1973 and 1974 races, repaired numerous snowmachines and sleds and finished four races.

In 1984, Olson was racing in a pack with DeeDee Jonrowe, Rick Mackey and Sue Firmin when the group encountered an open creek -- 12 feet across and about eight feet deep. They needed to build a bridge, said Olson, who got the project started by cutting small trees and brush.

"That's one reason you carry an ax in your sled bag," he told the others, according to the Iditarod media guide.

But it's not the only reason.

Mandatory means mandatory

An ax is one of several items Iditarod racers are required to have at all times.

Other mandatory gear includes a cold-weather sleeping bag, a pair of snowshoes, eight booties for each dog, a cooker and pot capable of holding at least three gallons of water plus adequate fuel to bring the water to a boil; a veterinarian notebook and a cable gangline or cable tieout capable of securing an entire team of dogs.

Gear is checked at the restart and at the spot where a musher takes his 24-hour layover, and it may also be checked at any checkpoint but Safety.

Don't think this stuff doesn't matter.

Hugh Neff jeopardized his Yukon Quest victory last month by accidentally leaving his ax in Dawson. He was penalized 30 minutes and wound up beating Allen Moore by 26 seconds.

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