ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The streets of downtown Anchorage were filled with barking dogs and screaming fans Saturday as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race got under way with a rollicking sprint through Alaska's biggest city.
The ceremonial start of the world's longest sled dog race is always a festive affair in which one of the city's main streets becomes crowded with dog teams and people seeking to greet their favorite mushers and bid them good luck in the 1,150-mile race to Nome.
The serious mushing begins Sunday at the restart in Willow, where there will be far fewer fans and less hoopla as the 16-dog teams leave the start line -- and the clock begins ticking -- in the quest to be the first to reach the coastal gold-rush town.
If it is a fast race, the winner could cross the finish line in eight or nine days.
Defending champion Lance Mackey is trying for his fifth consecutive Iditarod win. He is coming to the race with a young, untested team compared to last year. His dogs wore hot pink booties on their feet for the ceremonial start.
Mackey finished the 2010 race in eight days, 23 hours, 59 minutes -- the second-fastest finish in Iditarod history. The 40-year-old Fairbanks musher said there is nothing in his way to prevent him from reaching Nome first, again.
"If people didn't think I could do four and I did, why shouldn't I do five?" Mackey said. "I have the ability, the confidence and the dog team to do it, and it should be a great race."
Paul Kurtz, 56, was one of hundreds of fans cheering on the mushers. He said a trip to Alaska to attend the Iditarod and meet Mackey was on his "bucket list" of things to do. He plans to get a photo of himself shaking Mackey's hand blown up to poster size.
"Not too many people impress me, but he does," said Kurtz, a general contractor from West Bloomfield, Mich. "What he has been able to accomplish -- to dominate a sport to the extent that he has."
Sixty-two teams are entered in this year's Iditarod. The field includes nine of the top 10 teams. Absent is four-time champion Jeff King who was third last year and retired from the Iditarod.
The top 30 finishers in this year's race will share a purse of $528,000. The winner will get $50,400 and a new truck.
Cain Carter, Mackey's 19-year-old stepson, said he's gunning for the Rookie of the Year Award. He said he has a lot of confidence and determination and believes he will do well in his first Iditarod.
When his then not-so-famous stepfather was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001, Carter stepped up and helped out by feeding dogs, cleaning out runs and occasionally running his dogs. That experience, and all that Mackey showed him after that, helped him a lot, he said.
"Once he taught me, it was a lot easier," Carter said.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began in 1973 to commemorate a race against time, when sled dogs and drivers teamed up in 1925 to defeat a deadly outbreak of diphtheria in Nome.
It was feared the disease would decimate Eskimo families living near the gold-rush town on Alaska's western coastline. Dog drivers drove teams 674 miles from Nenana to Nome to deliver the lifesaving serum in five days.
Ray Redington Jr., the grandson of Joe Redington, who is credited with founding the race, said he would love to win the Iditarod but has to be realistic about his chances given how competitive the race has become.
"Now, it is definitely serious," said Redington, Jr., who finished 11th last year.
The Iditarod is not all that serious for some mushers.
Kris Hoffman of Steamboat Springs, Colo., is one of 13 rookies in the race. The 34-year-old guide operates a dog sled touring business and said he's hoping for a good adventure.
"For me, this is a vacation," he said.