Iditarod mushers begin nearly 1,000-mile race across Alaska

Dee Dee Jonrowe, of Willow, mushes during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska, Saturday, March 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Mushers pumped their fists and high-fived fans Monday as they set out one-by-one on the world’s most famous sled dog race, a nearly 1,000-mile trek through the grueling Alaska wilderness.

The grandson of a co-founder of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was the first competitor on the trail in Fairbanks, in the heart of the state.

Ryan Redington, 33, of Wasilla led the other 70 mushers out of the chute nearly a half-century after his grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., helped stage the first race in 1973.

The contest has a staggered start so fans, including 2,600 schoolchildren, can cheer on the competitors, who leave every two minutes.

One race rookie, 53-year-old Roger Lee, threw his fist in the air as he took off from the chute.

Lee was born in California to British parents and grew up near Liverpool, England, listening to the Beatles and harder rock groups. He has seen AC/DC in concert 157 times in 16 countries, according to his race biography.

Lee spent 10 years with the British Army Air Corps before moving to America, where he serves with the Air Force. He took a one-year sabbatical to train for the Iditarod.

The fan-friendly ceremonial start of the race was held Saturday in Anchorage.

The competitive start is normally held a day later in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. But that start would have taken mushers over the Dalzell Gorge, where a lack of snow has left alders exposed on the trail and open water in places that normally would be frozen this time of year.

Winter conditions were not a concern in Fairbanks, where the temperature was minus 35 degrees Monday morning. The start was delayed a day to give mushers time to drive their dogs 360 miles north to the city of about 100,000.

Eighty-four mushers signed up for the race, and 13 scratched. The latest was Otto Balogh, a 40-year-old rookie from Budapest, Hungary, who cited health concerns when dropping out of the race two hours before it began.

Dallas Seavey, 30, has won four out of the last five races. He feels no pressure to get a record-tying fifth win, and is fully cognizant that winning streaks can only go for so long.

“And I’m truly OK with that, as long as I can look back on the race and know I ran my team to the best of their ability, and we all had a good run,” Seavey said.

He received $75,000 and a new pickup for winning last year’s race.

Jeff King, a four-time champion wearing dark sunglasses, hugged friends before taking off. He then slapped hands with fans as his dog team went through the chute.

Last year, King and musher Aliy Zirkle were attacked by a drunken man on a snowmobile in separate assaults near the village of Nulato. One dog on King’s team was killed, and other dogs were injured.

The attacks prompted a rule change to allow mushers to carry satellite or cell phones.

Zirkle has told The Associated Press she sewed a satellite phone into her parka as a safety precaution after last year’s attack, which left her shaken. She finished third last year and has five straight top-five finishes.

The Iditarod hasn’t had a female winner since the late Susan Butcher won her fourth race in 1990. Asked at the ceremonial start if it’s time for another, 58-year-old Cindy Abbott said: “It is. That would be awesome.”

But she readily admits it won’t be her. The Beatrice, Nebraska, native and former California college professor suffers from a rare blood disorder. She said she can’t run at the level of sleep deprivation that is required to win the race.

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