From Kyle Hopkins in Willow --
The world’s top sled dogs began the 1,000-mile race from here to Nome Sunday under a low afternoon sun, panting in the 30-degree “heat.” As 69 strings of leaping huskies bolted from the starting line every two minutes to launch the 42nd Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, fans considered three key questions:
1. Last year, four-time champion Martin Buser shocked the field by dashing all the way to Rohn without a long rest. Is anyone going to pull a Buser in the coming days?
Buser finished 17th, fading after his fast start. Still, the Big Lake musher said he expects a few others to adopt variations on his risky strategy by attempting a longer-distance sprint prior to the 24-hour mandatory layover.
“Last year they all pooh-poohed me and bad mouthed me for doing something like that, but I got a nice tribute during the banquet ... some of the competitors spoke highly of the potential of a move like that,” he said.
Mushers who want to follow his lead might tweak their schedules to avoid leaving Rohn in the energy-sapping sun.
2. Will the return of two-time winner Robert Sorlie, and the 2013 success of Rookie of the Year Joar Leifseth Ulsom, signal new dominance from the once-prominent Norwegians?
Mushers recognize Sorlie as a threat, said former Iditarod contender Sebastian Schnuelle, now a blogger for iditarod.com. His countrymen, champions at home, might catch them by surprise.
Sorlie has started four Iditarods since 2002. He won two of them. Ulsom posted the fastest finish ever for a first-timer. Ralph Johannessen, meanwhile, is an Iditarod rookie but at 54 years old is the reigning Norwegian long-distance champion.
3. Can anyone catch the Seaveys, following wins in 2012 by son Dallas, now 26, and last year’s victory by his father Mitch, 54?
As always, any of a dozen or more racers are a threat to win. Among the former champions on the trail are John Baker of Kotzebue, Denali Park musher Jeff King and Buser.
Hans Gatt, the quiet Canadian who notched two top-three Iditarod finishes in 2010 and 2011 is back with a team that he says hasn’t lost a step since he was last here two years ago.
“I have as good a chance as anybody,” said the former Yukon Quest champion.
Fan favorite and 2013 runner-up Aliy Zirkle also returns, with dogs from the family kennel that won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in February with her husband, Allen Moore.
Twelve of the 14 huskies that finished first in that arguably tougher Alaska-Canada race are now running with Zirkle, including little lead dog Quito.
“A lot of friends, family, fans really want me to win,” Zirkle said of her consecutive second-place finishes. “So you would think there would be more pressure. But no one puts more pressure on themselves than me.”
Danger is on the minds of many mushers this year — and not just the fear of rocky, snowless ground early in the race. Several said they’re thinking of Eureka racer Brent Sass, who suffered a head injury while leading the Yukon Quest and was forced to sit out the sport’s most lucrative distance race.
“If I had to sum up the trail report in one word, ‘Yikes.’” said Kristy Berington.
Jim Lanier, 73, has as few fingers and as many bruises as any musher on the trail. He always wears hockey pads under his parka early along the trail. This year he added a helmet, wrapped in duct tape. “For Brent,” it says on the side.
Missing from the field this year is four-time champion and trash-talking swashbuckler Lance Mackey, although if you like his attitude, root for younger brother Jason Mackey, who starts 38th and is determined to become the fourth in his family to win the race.
“Before I’m done running dogs in my lifetime, I will win this race. And this year could be the year. I’ve got the nicest team I’ve ever had, by far,” Mackey said.
“There might be faster teams, but I don’t think speed is the key. Healthy, strong dogs is what it’s going to take,” he said.
As he talked, fans watched from across the icy parking lot. Some wore camouflage hunting jackets. Some shaded their eyes under designer umbrellas.
Parked a few spaces away, Buser lounged on his sled, his fur-trimmed hood on his shoulders. No need for a hat in the warm temperatures that set the table for a hard, fast and potentially bruising trail ahead.
Buser said he’s chasing a fifth title with an “ultra-competitive” team, one of his best ever. As for Question No. 1, he wouldn’t say if he’s going to race out to a fast start again.
“You’ll see in a couple of days.”
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Anchorage Daily News / adn.com