ANCHORAGE, Alaska - When the 39th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race starts in Anchorage on Saturday, 62 mushers and their dogs will embark on an annual trek that has evolved far from its shoestring roots.
The leading contenders are professionals, working year-round to prepare for the race and financed by corporate sponsors. There is a significant monetary reward at the end — $50,400 and a new truck for the winner, and smaller cash prizes for all the finishers.
Mushers are equipped with the most high-tech outdoors equipment available, including custom-made sleds with adjustable runners for varying snow conditions and, starting this year, global-positioning-satellite devices to check on their progress.
There are cell phones and blogs and live-streamed updates keeping the world informed about events along the 1,150-mile trail, which is especially smooth and groomed this year.
"It looks like we've got as good a trail as I've seen in a long time," Race Marshal Mark Nordman said at a media briefing this week.
The winner is expected to reach the Bering Sea town of Nome in about nine days, less than half the travel time needed by winners in the Iditarod's early years, when races were more akin to long wilderness tours than serious sporting events.
But despite the modern advances, the world's most famous sled-dog race still pays homage to its historic roots.
The trail through the wilderness is the same route traveled during the gold rushes a century ago.
Native villages and ghost towns
Mushers will stop at checkpoints established in small native villages, where residents maintain ages-old traditional lifestyles, and in ghost towns that were once bustling gold-mining hubs. The race itself was organized to commemorate the 1925 sled-dog relay that delivered life-saving diphtheria serum to a stricken and isolated Nome.
The team to watch, experts say, will be led by Lance Mackey, who has won in each of the last four years.
Mackey, 40, is a rail-thin cancer survivor known for his toughness. When cancer treatments left lingering pain in one of his fingers several years ago, he simply chopped off the offending digit. When the race imposed a new drug rule last year, Mackey went without the medically prescribed marijuana he uses to maintain his appetite and ward off post-cancer pain.
He is the son and brother of past Iditarod champions. Race family pedigrees also extend to a number of his rivals.
One is Dallas Seavey, a third-generation Iditarod competitor who won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International sled-dog race last month. Seavey turns 24 on Friday, the day before the ceremonial start in Anchorage.
Other twenty-something mushers include Mike Williams, a second-generation Iditarod competitor from the Yupik Eskimo village of Akiak, and Melissa Owens, a second-generation competitor from Nome.
The wave of young mushers is exciting, four-time champion Martin Buser, 52, said Thursday. "Good for the sport. Bad for us," he added with a laugh.
Some long-dominant mushers are out of this year's running. Four-time champions Doug Swingley and Jeff King have retired. However, five-time winner Rick Swenson and 2004 victor Mitch Seavey, Dallas Seavey's father, remain in competition.
In a race where the average musher is 42, don't count out the old-timers, some veterans say.
"That's one of the things that I love about mushing, is wisdom and judgment play as big a role as physical strength," DeeDee Jonrowe, a 57-year-old perennial contender, told Anchorage public radio station KSKA earlier this week.
"It's not like I'm dealing with the same body I entered with in 1980. But I have judgment. I have wisdom on my side. I have patience. And the youth are not necessarily known for patience."
Buser also was confident. "I'm the team to beat," he said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton)