ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Eighty-two teams and about 1,000 howling dogs lined up Saturday in downtown Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the 35th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race _ the longest sled dog race in the world.
Defending champion and four-time winner Jeff King looked relaxed, sending his daughter to the coffee shop around the corner to get him a latte as he waited for his turn to let his dogs loose on the Iditarod trail.
Given the tough trail conditions this year _ hard-packed snow and bare ground _ King said he expects a bumpy ride. That's not a problem, he said.
``The Iditarod trail will never be easy,'' the 51-year-old King said.
Too little fresh snow shortened the ceremonial start to an 11-mile run ending in Anchorage. The restart, where the mushers get serious about racing, begins Sunday in Willow, about 50 miles northwest of Anchorage.
This year's race carries a $795,000 purse for the top 30 finishers. The winner will get approximately $69,000 and a new pickup truck worth about $41,000. The mushers who finish out of the money will receive about $1,000 each to help with the cost of flying their dogs home.
King finished the 1,100-mile race last year in 9 days, 14 hours and 11 minutes. Four-time winner Martin Buser holds the 2002 race record of 8 days, 22 hours and 46 minutes.
Almost half of the mushers this year are rookies.
The field includes three, four-time winners who hope to join Rick Swenson as the race's only five-time winner. Doug Swingley, 53, the other four-time winner, placed second last year.
Swenson, 55, said he's not afraid.
``They're not going to get it. I'm going to get six,'' said Swenson, who last won in 1991.
The ceremonial start is a festive affair where thousands of people line up to get autographs and cheer on their favorite mushers. The elite racers garner most of the attention, as crowds gather around their trucks emblazoned with their names on the side. Some of the top mushers have teams of dog handlers who wear coordinated snowsuits.
Tim O'Leary, a retired insurance salesman from Merrill, Wis., and his wife, Chuckie, are spending a week in Anchorage for the start of the race. Their friends don't quite understand their idea of a good vacation, he said.
``They are all going to Florida,'' O'Leary said. ``They think we're nuts because we go north.''
This year's field includes two-time champion Robert Sorlie from Norway. The 48-year-old firefighter has won the race two out of three times he's raced.
``I think I have the best team in the world. I will try to do it again,'' he said.
Lance Mackey, 36, is coming off three consecutive wins in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, but has yet to win the Iditarod.
Mackey is wearing bib No. 13 _ the same number his father, Dick, and his brother, Rick, wore when they won the Iditarod in 1978 and 1983, respectively.
Mackey, who finished 10th last year, said he thinks the Iditarod is harder than the Quest because it has more checkpoints. Mackey said he spends too much time in the checkpoints, getting warm and socializing with the people in the villages along the way.
``It is easy to get wrapped up at the checkpoints. I consider myself a checkpoint junkie,'' said Mackey, who arrived at the start in a used 1993 pickup.
``It is nice to have a nice truck but that doesn't make my team go any faster,'' he said.
The Iditarod got its start in 1973. It commemorates a shorter race by dog teams to Nome in 1925 to deliver diphtheria serum after an outbreak of the disease threatened the lives of the Eskimos living there.
The trail goes through dense forests, over two mountain ranges and along the windy Yukon River, then across dangerous sea ice along the Bering Sea Coast.
Randy Cummins, 50, who quit his Washington state medical practice in 2003 and moved to Alaska to mush dogs, is running the race for only the second time. Cummins said his plan was to get down the street without careening into the hot dog stand.
``I'll be a happy guy,'' he said.