Mushers from around the world begin the competitive start of Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks on Monday, facing a new route that could be a factor in determining the winner of the iconic contest.
The nearly 1,000-mile (1,600 km) Iditarod commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that delivered diphtheria serum by sled-dog relay to the western coastal community of Nome, site of the finish line of the 43rd annual event.
But for the first time since 2003, the mushers will not compete along one of the two traditional trails.
Race officials deemed sections of the established route unsafe, created an alternate trail and moved the start to Fairbanks from Willow.
The change may level the playing field, said defending champion Dallas Seavey, noting the trail is as new to veteran mushers as it is to rookies and mushers from other nations.
“You’re not really sure how fast the race is going to be, considering the change,” Seavey said.
“It’s going to require mushers to have a lot of confidence in themselves and their dog teams.”
On Saturday, mushers enjoyed a ceremonial start, covering 11 miles through Anchorage streets lined with fans.
The race, which begins at 10 a.m, features lonely stretches from 18 miles (29 km) to 119 miles (192 km) between checkpoints, unpredictable wind gusts along the Bering Sea coast and temperatures forecast to reach as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 Celsius).
The winner will receive $US70,000 and a pick-up truck. Other top finishers will be awarded cash prizes from a purse totaling more than $US725,000.
There are 16 stops between Fairbanks and the finish line. The first is 60 miles (97 km) away in Nenana.
Seventy-eight mushers set off in staggered starts Monday. Most live in Alaska, but formidable opponents come from Norway, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, France and Australia.
Seavey, who has won twice in the last three years, said four-time winner Jeff King, three-time runner up Aliy Zirkle and his father, two-time winner Mitch Seavey, are favourites.
So too are Norwegians Thomas Waerner and Joar Ulsom, along with Pete Kaiser, he said.
The race features the return of Lance Mackey, who posted four victories from 2007 to 2010 while overcoming cancer.
(Editing by W Simon)
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