ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Fearless, foolhardy or just plain stubborn, four-time champion Martin Buser cheerfully started the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (search) on Saturday, a few days after the middle finger of his right hand was amputated above the second joint.
Buser loaded up on painkillers, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory pills, wore bandages and a special splint on his mangled hand — he also had stitches up the inside length of his ring finger and two stitches on his index finger from a table saw accident Tuesday — and stuffed it inside an oversized black mitten.
Yet there he was at the festive, ceremonial start of the 33rd Iditarod, happily signing autographs — he's left-handed — and posing for photographs with fans on a crisp, sunny morning before setting off on a journey to Nome that is perilous even for mushers in the best of health.
The first day was easy, starting out on trucked-in snow downtown, then taking a slow run for 11 miles with reduced teams of 12 dogs hauling "Iditariders" who paid for the thrill. The race really gets going Sunday with a restart from Willow, 70 miles north of the city. From there it's a danger-filled trail through steep gorges, along frozen rivers and over menacing mountain passes in subzero temperatures with howling winds.
Buser, 46, born in Switzerland and living in Alaska (search) since 1979, is not in the race merely to finish, as are some of the other 78 mushers. This is his 22nd Iditarod and he's out to claim the $75,000 top prize.
"First place is the expectation, with the realization that if my health deteriorates I'm going to have to regroup," said Buser, who last won in 2002 and is seeking to tie Rick Swenson's record of five victories. "It would be foolish to jeopardize my long-term health. I don't want to get blood poisoning or infections. But as long as everything goes good, we're racing for first."
Buser, who lost an inch and a half off his middle finger, is carrying various contraptions to get him through the race. He hopes to switch in a few days from the cumbersome splint he's using now to a lighter one that will give him more freedom to move his fingers if some of the dexterity comes back.
Throughout the race he'll have to keep medicating his fingers with ointments and taking antibiotics. With sleep deprivation a factor for all mushers — more than a few have fallen off their sleds over the years after dozing off — Buser will try to limit the painkillers so they don't make him too drowsy.
What he can't do is simply rely on his left hand.
"It can't be a one-handed race," Buser said. "I can't do my dog chores effectively with one hand. So I'm going to require a lot of help from my index finger and my thumb, especially to put on booties and ointments to the various dogs. That's a daily chore that we do five or six times a day."
To those who would call Buser reckless — risking his own safety and the lives of his dogs — for taking on this nine-to-10-day challenge in his condition, he responds that this is his livelihood. His physician, Dr. Mike McNamara, examined his hand at the start and said it was healing well.
"Those of us who only get one paycheck a year, we would say we can't miss out on the day we get paid," said Buser, though he also has a thriving kennel business, numerous sponsors and competes in other races.
"It's certainly more than a paycheck, but that's a big part of it. The people who say, well, you shouldn't go, they probably don't put their whole year on one day. It's an experience. It's a proving ground, a testing ground for my dogs and myself and my whole operation. It's a lifestyle and we work toward this year-round. It would be foolish, if it's at all humanly possible to do it, to stay home."
This Iditarod, which features six former champions, the youngest of rookies and grizzled veterans in theirs 60s, is filled with compelling personal dramas.
Rachael Scdoris, who sees her dogs and the trail only as blobs and blurs, became the first legally blind musher to start the Iditarod. Aided by a "visual interpreter" running with a team ahead of her — former powerlifter, professional wrestler and 2000 Iditarod competitor Paul Ellering — the 20-year-old Scdoris fulfilled a lifetime dream when she put on her No. 10 bib and took off from 4th Avenue and H Street at exactly 10:10 a.m.
"Gosh, I'm so nervous," said Scdoris of Bend, Ore., her sensitive eyes shielded from the bright sun by black, leather-sided sunglasses. "Just the fact that I'm here and this is the ceremonial start of Iditarod is pretty overwhelming. I'm sure once I get out there everything will be fun."
Defending champion Mitch Seavey of Seward, Alaska, hit the trail along with two of his sons, Dallas, who turned 18 on Friday and is the youngest Iditarod starter in history, and Tyrell, 20, who finished 36th two years ago.
Other former champions include 2003 winner Robert Sorlie of Norway, who skipped last year, five-time winner Swenson of Two Rivers, Alaska, four-time winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., and three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park, Alaska (search).