Sixty-eight teams competing in Iditarod

Saturday, March 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Doug Swingley, the only non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, now will try to become just the second musher in history to take it three years in a row.

The man from Montana has plenty of competition in the 1,100-mile marathon from Anchorage to Nome. This year's field consists of six previous champions, including the big three who have won all the races since 1992: Swingley, Martin Buser and Jeff King.

Sixty-eight teams will line up Saturday in downtown Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod, first held in 1973 to commemorate a dash to Nome in 1925 to deliver lifesaving diphtheria serum.

Too little snow and unseasonably warm weather the past few months have plagued Alaska mushers, who've seen several races canceled.

Fearful that icy trails could injure dogs or damage sleds, officials shortened the ceremonial start from 20 miles to about 11. The problem was ice at the Eagle River VFW, which was to be the end of the run, according to Rick Calcote, coordinator of the Anchorage start.

``The parking lot is a sheet of ice, and we would need a ton of snow in order to cover it safely,'' Calcote said. ``Then we have this road we actually run on, Oilwell Road, and it also is a sheet of ice.''

This is just the second time in 29 Iditarods that the ceremonial start through Anchorage has been abbreviated.

The real racing begins Sunday.

The top 30 finishers will share a $550,000 purse. The winner gets $62,857 and a new truck. Swingley will try to match the feat of Susan Butcher, who won from 1986-88. Both have won four times overall, with Swingley getting his first victory in 1995.

Swingley took the lead halfway through the 1999 race. Last year, he finished in nine days, 58 minutes to trim his own record by more than 13 hours.

It's hard to know what Swingley will bring to this year's race, and that's just how he likes it. He lives and trains near his home in Lincoln, Mont. He likes keeping his Alaska competition guessing.

``If the opportunity is there, this team certainly is capable of winning,'' he said.

The buzz this year is about King, a three-time Iditarod winner who finished third last year. King won the Kuskokwim 300 and the Tustumena 200 mid-distance races this year. Mushers use those races to tune their teams for the Iditarod.

While Rick Swenson _ the only person to win the race five times _ hasn't taken the Iditarod since 1991, he's made a strong showing this year, finishing second to King in the mid-distance races. Swenson finished eighth last year.