A blessed Iditarod
Yep, that was a Roman Catholic priest inside the 4th Avenue start chute, wearing a cream-and-gold vestment and carrying holy water and a book of blessings. And yep, that was an Orthodox priest hanging out with him, dressed in black from head to toe.
Father Leo Walsh of St. Benedict's Catholic Church and Father Daniel Anderjuk of St. Tikhon Orthodox Church were there to offer blessings as teams began their long, treacherous trek to Nome.
"He took the mushers and I took the dogs," Walsh said.
The men have been offering Iditarod blessings for a few years now. Their connection is musher Scott Janssen, an Anchorage mortician.
"He knows all the clergy," Walsh said.
Walsh's book of blessings includes a couple of options for animals, and the one he chose Saturday was 11 lines long, which seems long, but apparently isn't.
"You should hear the Orthodox blessing," he said.
Zirkle vs. Moore
Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore, distance mushing's most successful couple, have settled into a pattern. He gets the A team for the Yukon Quest, she gets it for the Iditarod.
"She'd like to say we arm wrestle for it," Moore said with a laugh, but there's a reason Zirkle gets SP Kennel's best dogs for the higher-profile race.
"She's won the Quest and she really wants to win the Iditarod, so until that happens I'm happy with it," said Moore, who last month won his second straight Quest.
Zirkle, the Iditarod runnerup the last two years, is a magnet for fans, and Moore is happy with that, too.
"I can just walk away -- 'You deal with all the people, baby,' '' Moore said. "She has the charisma. For her to win would be fantastic -- for the race, for women, for everything. It'd be like Susan back in the day."
Pulling her weight
Marcelle Fressineau of Whitehorse was bequeathed one of her sled dogs.
Actually, she was bequeathed a house dog and turned it into a sled dog. Team-dog Lola was the pet of a friend who died from cancer.
"And the last words she told me were, 'You have to take Lola for the Yukon Quest.' But she was not a sled dog, she was a pet," Fressineau said. "But I took her and she liked that."
Now Lola's on her way to Nome.
No Lance this year
A familiar name and popular personality was missing Saturday. Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey is sitting out this year's race.
"It's gonna be a lot quieter out there," said Hugh Neff, who has raced multiple 1,000-mile races with Mackey.
Citing concerns over his health and financial status, Mackey is taking a break from the Last Great Race for the first time since 2003. The Fairbanks musher did, however, manage to participate in the Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race a few weeks ago.
Neff got a chance to watch Mackey in action.
"He actually got me juiced about running it myself," said Neff, a nine-time Iditarod finisher from Tok. "With a person like Lance, if he's not here, his spirit will always be part of this race."
"Lance is a good character," said Ken Anderson of Fox, "but there are plenty of good characters left."
With Mackey out, younger brother Jason is the only Mackey representing a family that owns a combined six Iditarod championships -- his father Dick Mackey won in 1978 and his half-brother Rick Mackey won in 1983.
On Saturday, Jason's confidence resembled that of his older brother Lance.
"Got big shoes to fill, man," he said. "Making my family proud is awesome. I've been asked so many times, 'Can you win?' Damn right I can win."
Even if he can win, he admits it would be hard to match that magical ride his brother experienced when he won four straight titles from 2007 to 2010.
"I'll never, ever accomplish what Lance has accomplished," he said. "Nobody ever will."
Libby Riddles didn't hesitate when asked for her top five picks -- in no particular order -- for this year's race: perennial contender Aliy Zirkle, four-time Jeff King, two-time Robert Sorlie, "one of the Seaveys," and rookie Ralph Johannssen of Norway.
Zirkle is the 2013 and 2012 runnerup who hopes to join Riddles on the short list of women who have won the Iditarod -- Riddles, the 1985 champ, and the late Susan Butcher, a four-time champ.
A Zirkle win, Riddles said, "would be great for the race."
"And she's totally earned it," she said.
All it took was one head injury to change Jeff King's mind.
When King read that Brent Sass injured his head a few weeks ago after falling off his sled during the Yukon Quest, the four-time Iditarod champion imagined the same thing happening to himself -- especially once he factored in the less-than-ideal Iditarod trail conditions, which are expected to be rock hard along many stretches.
"Quite frankly I wondered why it has taken this long for me to wear a helmet," said King, 58. "I'm sorry it took somebody getting injured to change my mind."
His primary concern is braking and how difficult that may be. Steep and narrow sections of the trail like the Steps and the Dalzell Gorge can break bones, sleds and dreams.
King decided he doesn't want those places to break his head open.
To survive those sections, he said, the key will be getting his team to slow on his command. But even he admits that's easier said than done, especially when a team is faced with glare ice.
"Unlike the Iron Dog, we can't just let off the gas anytime we want," he said.
Jim Lanier, a 73-year-old from Chugiak, said he will wear a helmet from start to finish.
Cindy Abbott of California, who wore a snowboarding helmet for the ceremonial start, understands the risks that come with participating in extreme sports. She's an avid mountain climber who once summited Mount Everest.
An Iditarod rookie, this 55-year-old professor said she wouldn't think twice about wearing a helmet while traversing a mountain peak.
"In mountain climbing, you would never consider going up a mountain without a helmet on," she said. "Did I ever get hit with anything? No. Did I always have a helmet on? Yes."
Fox musher Ken Anderson admitted he hasn't put much thought into wearing a helmet.
"It seems like a valid concern," he said, "But I haven't thought about it much."
King hopes the helmet conversation continues. For him, wearing one is a no-brainer.
"The equipment is warm, it provides the security of preventing a head injury, and it's a great place to mount my Go Pro," he said. "It's a win-win."
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335. Daily News correspondent Kevin Klott contributed to this report.
By BETH BRAGG