Prerace jitters, thinking like a dog and more cowbell: Iditarod kickoff begins with mushers touring Anchorage

Bundled-up spectators lined streets and trails winding through a swath of Anchorage on Saturday, cheering on Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race competitors and their dog teams as they mushed through town for the race’s cold and windy ceremonial start.

Led by Knik veteran musher Anna Berington, competitors took off in two-minute intervals under sunny skies to follow an 11-mile route traversing from Fourth Avenue downtown to the Chester Creek greenbelt all the way to the Campbell Airstrip.

The ceremonial start has the feel of one big community party in Alaska’s largest city.

“It’s pretty unreal,” said rookie musher Isaac Teaford, who grew up around Salt Lake City, Utah, and mushes out of Talkeetna. “Prerace jitters are completely normal, but this is just next level compared to the races I’ve done in the past. The energy is palpable with the fans and all the people. It’s pretty crazy.”

Thirty-eight mushers are competing in the 52nd Iditarod, including 16 rookies and three former Iditarod winners. They include defending champion Ryan Redington of Knik, whose grandfather was instrumental in establishing the first Iditarod; five-time winner Dallas Seavey, who’s seeking a record-breaking sixth victory this year; and Bethel’s Peter Kaiser, an accomplished distance musher who won the race in 2019.

On Saturday morning, along Cordova Street between 15th and 16th avenues, brothers Jaime and Conrad Hedges posted up with signs of support. Jaime’s friend Joseph is a nephew of Kaiser’s, so the boys had a rooting interest.

“I’m having a good time,” 7-year-old Jaime said.


Conrad, 9, was making plenty of noise, ringing a cowbell as teams whizzed past. The mushers seemed to enjoy the accompaniment.

“More cowbell,” Fairbanks musher Deke Naaktgeboren shouted as his sled cruised by.

An Iditarod obsessive, Rachyl Devenport came from Salt Lake City to watch the race. She said she first learned about the Iditarod in third grade from her teacher, who was a musher.

“I’ve wanted to come here since I was 8 years old,” she said. “I came for the first time last year, and now it’s a tradition.”

Spectators along the route snapped photos of trotting sled dogs, hollered as teams zipped by and extended their hands to passing mushers to dole out high-fives and — in some cases — frosty beverages. At the Trailgate Party along the Chester Creek Trail, revelers could be seen offering shots of “diphtheria serum” to incoming mushers.

Race veteran Matt Hall of Two Rivers said this year’s relatively mild winter in the Interior had made for excellent training for his team. Personally, he said, he’s as ready as he’s ever been for the nearly thousand-mile race, aside from the bit of extra weight he’s put on since last year’s Iditarod.

“I got married and she cooks really good, so I got about 10 pounds on me from last year. That’s a difference,” he said, gripping his belly with both hands. “But I still feel good.”

Bethel-born Jessica Klejka has become a mother since she last ran the Iditarod in 2020. She said it wouldn’t have been possible to balance the responsibilities of parenting with long-distance race training if not for help from family. Though she’s prepared for difficult sections of the trail, she compared the process of planning for the Iditarod with planning for having a kid.

“I spend all this time worrying about the beginning. It’s kinda like pregnancy. You spend all this time worrying about labor, and then you have the baby and you’re like, ‘Actually, now we’re going home with a baby and we don’t know what to do!’” she said.

Another musher with a small child at home is Matt Failor. His 1-year-old son, Theo, shares the same first name as a dog Failor’s borrowing from a friend. If anything, Failor said, fatherhood has toughened him up in preparing for the race.

“We got the same amount of training on them as last year, and the year before. But I went to bed at 12:30 last night because Theo was wide awake,” he said. “So it’s probably helped my training because I’m handling sleep deprivation better than ever.”

The Willow musher said that while he has a run-rest program he intends to stick to, there’s only so much planning and forward-thinking that’s possible in a sprawling, multiday wilderness race like the Iditarod.

“You gotta think like a dog and not worry about the trail ahead, and just worry about what you’re doing right then,” he said.

[‘On my bucket list’: Why this musher is returning to the Iditarod 23 years after his last finish]

One of the race veterans returning this year is Nome/Nenana musher Aaron Burmeister, who stepped back from the Iditarod after the 2022 race — he finished in eighth place that year — to spend more time with his family.

But then Iditarod legend Howard Farley, considered one of the race’s founding fathers, died this January at the age of 91. One of his final acts within the mushing community was to coax Burmeister out of retirement.

After sitting out the 2023 race, Burmeister is making his 22nd start with eyes on earning his first-ever Iditarod title.


“He told me, ‘Aaron, you’ve got to go one more time,’ " Burmeister said. “I’ve got the honor of carrying Howard’s ashes with me, so I’ll be bringing him to Nome.”

After Saturday’s ceremonial start, sled dog teams will relocate to Willow on Sunday to officially launch their roughly 975-mile race to Nome.

Related stories:

Meet the mushers of the 2024 Iditarod

Top contenders, race start details and more to know heading into the 2024 Iditarod

Getting to Willow for Sunday’s 2024 Iditarod restart

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.