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Mild Alaska Winter Forces Shift of Historic Iditarod Start

Due to poor conditions along the Alaska Range, the 43rd Iditarod Sled Dog Race will begin in Fairbanks, Alaska, rather than Willow, Alaska, for only the second time in the event's history.

While the ceremonial start will still take place Saturday, March 7, in Anchorage, race officials determined in early February that it it would be best to "restart" the race Monday, March 9, in Fairbanks. Weather continues to throw a wrench into plans, however. Earlier this week, organizers moved the Fairbanks restart to a different part of town following deteriorating river ice near the original location, according an Alaska Dispatch News report.

"While some snow did fall east of the Alaska Range over the past couple of weeks, other parts of the trail, in very critical areas, did not get much or any of it," said CEO Stan Hooley, when the decision to move to Fairbanks was announced.

The forecast in Anchorage for Saturday is mostly cloudy with some rain and snow possible and a high approaching 40, according to AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Jason Nicholls. For Monday's restart, some light snow is possible around Fairbanks with a high around 10, and lows Monday night will approach 20 below zero F, he added.

"There will be a shot of colder-than-normal air across Alaska during the week of [March 9]," Nicholls said. "The coldest weather will likely be early in the week with an easing of the cold late in the week. Above-normal temperatures are likely to return the week of the 16th," he said.

For dog musher Matt Failor, 32, of Willow, located in the south-central part of the state, warmer-than-normal weather has forced him to alter his training regime. Failor, who is gearing up for his fourth Iditarod, has been driving north to find colder weather and safer trails for his 30 Alaskan Huskies to train.

All mushers train and strategize differently. Failor runs his dogs about 40 miles a day for two or three days in a row, before giving them a day off to recover. As it gets closer to the race, they'll go on camping trips, where they bring bedding for the dogs, to get them acclimated to the Iditarod routine by sleeping outdoors and racing after about five or six hours of sleep. Earlier this season, they ran two shorter races to simulate what they would do in Iditarod.

As it gets closer to the start of the competition, like any other sport, Failor will have to trim his roster to choose the best 16 dogs for the competition. And like any other athlete, Failor's dogs need to eat right.

Failor and his team have been diligently cutting up to 2,000 pounds of beef, lamb, chicken and other types of dog food. Typically, the food is left outdoors because temperatures are below freezing, but this year they've had to keep rotating the food in and out of whatever freezer space they have.

"Forty degrees is really challenging when it comes to trying to cut up 2,000 pounds of meat for your dogs. It's a constant job," he said.

Sleep deprivation is one of the biggest challenges for mushers. On the Iditarod, it's so fast paced and competitive, those who are sleeping for more than a few hours are already losing, Failor said. Each day is a rigorous grind of running 30 to 60 miles, stopping to massage, rest and feed the dogs, get whatever sleep time allows them and then do it all over again the next day. Other ailments mushers will battle through include general soreness and aching, he added.

During the race, Failor will sleep outdoors in the elements with no cover, except for his sleeping bag and sled bag. However, along the Iditarod trail, there are checkpoints in various towns set up in community centers and schools so mushers can sleep indoors. In past years, Failor said he's spent nights in his sleeping bag in temperatures as low as 50 below zero F.

Ironically, the harshest conditions Failor has faced during his years of competition have not come from wintry weather. Last winter also saw mild conditions in Alaska and Failor estimated that at least 500 miles of the course was a combination of bare ground, ice, dirt and water.

"Last year was the roughest conditions I've ever seen," Failor said. "When you throw 16 supercharged, athletic racing dogs and you hook [them] up to a 35-pound sled and you go careening down the Alaskan Mountain Range with no snow on the ground, it's a harrowing ride for the musher, but a fun ride for the dogs because they can go as fast as they want to go."

Snowfall totals for Anchorage, Fairbanks and Nome, Alaska, are down this winter. Anchorage has received 20.5 inches of snow, only 34 percent of normal through March 2. Fairbanks (33.6 inches this season) and Nome (42.1 inches) are at 59 and 75 percent of normal respectively.

The mild conditions Alaska has seen this winter are due to a persistent ridge of high pressure that is blocking storms from moving in from the Pacific Ocean, according to AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson.

The official mileage of the course from Fairbanks to the finish in Nome is 968.05 miles, nearly 19 miles shorter than if the race began in Anchorage. Last year, musher Dallas Seavey won Iditarod by completing the course in eight days and 13 hours.

Though Iditarod is an extremely grueling competition, Failor said he enjoys living an outdoor lifestyle with his dogs and bringing a positive light to the sport of mushing.

"It's a competitive lifestyle and I've always had that running through my veins, ever since a young age, just wanting to compete and push your body further," he said.

Galena, Alaska, serves as an Iditarod checkpoint every two years. A small village of around 500 along the Yukon River in central Alaska, travel to Galena can only be done through air or by water as there is no connecting road system outside of town. Dog sledding, along with all-terrain vehicles, and snow-machines are the primary methods of grounds transportation.

The ability to pay tribute to the culture of remote Alaskan villages, such as Galena, is one of the reasons Failor is proud to participate in Iditarod.

"These places rely on dog mushing and sled dogs and they've relied on these things for many years," Failor said.

"It's rewarding and honoring to be part of their culture and kind of keep it alive," he said. "The sled dogs are truly an amazing animal and they're are just a lot of fun to share your life with.