ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Dog teams in the Iditarod's ceremonial start on Saturday didn't care that the clock wasn't running. They just wanted to race.
Canine competitors from this year's field of 83 teams yelped and howled, begging to run as handlers halted them at the starting line in downtown Anchorage.
Some strained forward in their harnesses in fruitless solo attempts to pull their sleds and furred teammates past Fourth Avenue's storefronts toward the fog-veiled Chugach Mountains.
None seemed to care about conserving energy for the more than 1,100-mile journey to Nome.
"They're pretty excited," said Ed Iten, runner-up in last year's Iditarod. "Racing is what they're thinking about."
The 11-mile ceremonial start through Anchorage gives spectators a chance to view dog teams up close and hobnob with their favorite mushers.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race runs across windswept tundra, two mountain ranges and frozen seas and rivers, where temperatures can dip to far below freezing — not exactly fan-friendly terrain.
Pete Olhasso, of Temecula, Calif., brought a group of 180 people from 12 countries to Alaska for a ski trip, and made sure to tack on an extra day to watch the start.
"This is once-in-a-lifetime," said Olhasso of the International Skiing Fellowship of Rotarians. "I thought it would be neat to have everyone from around the world come and see the start of the Iditarod."
The official start takes place Sunday, 65 miles north in Willow. The town is serving as a stand-in starting area for the third straight year because of scarce snow in the traditional start town of Wasilla, 25 miles down the trail. In 2003, the restart was moved more than 300 miles north to Fairbanks because of too little snow.
The Iditarod, in its 34th year, passes a string of 24 checkpoints located in towns, villages and wilderness cabins.
The race commemorates a dogsled relay in 1925 that carried serum 674 miles from Nenana to Nome to stop a diphtheria outbreak.
This year's top 30 finishers can expect to split a $795,000 pot. Another $40,000 will be divvied up among the remaining arrivals to Nome. The winner will pocket $69,000 and receive a new pickup valued at almost $45,000. Last year's pot totaled about $737,000.
Top finishers usually vie to arrive in Nome in nine to 10 days, forgoing sleep, and often sanity, to complete the trek.
But, unlike their dog teams, most mushers were relaxed Saturday.
"Today's all about the fans and the crowds," said DeeDee Jonrowe, a top-10 musher and favorite of Alaska's Iditarod fans.
Hundreds of people leaned over wood-slatted fences along the sidewalks to watch dog teams as they passed over streets padded with snow trucked in from the city's snow dumps. Others watched from a six-story parking garage.
To slow their teams, mushers jammed down on the sled brakes while standing on the runners behind the seats. They added extra drag by hooking their teams to two sleds with a passenger in each.
The field includes two four-time winners and the Iditarod's only five-time champ. Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., and Martin Buser of Big Lake will be looking to match the record set by Rick Swenson of Two Rivers. Jeff King of Denali is looking for his fourth win.
Last year's champion, Robert Sorlie of Norway, is leaving the race up to his nephew, Bjornar Andersen, whose fourth-place finish last year was the highest ever for a rookie.
Sorlie said he is rotating Iditarod runs with Andersen, also of Norway, and one other musher, but said he'll be back.
"I'm a tourist this year," Sorlie said. "Next year I will do the race."