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The race is on: Iditarod teams hit the trail in Willow under clear skies

Musher racing with dogs. Crowd cheering him on.
Musher Joshua McNeal takes a refreshment from a fan near the official start of the Iditarod in Willow on Sunday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Under clear and sunny skies in Willow Sunday afternoon, 49 teams started their 1,000-mile sprint to Nome, kicking off the 50th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Alaska Public Media’ Lex Treinen reports:

The official race start followed a snowy ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday.

Trail conditions appeared excellent, though slightly soft from recent snowfall.

At the top of mushers’ minds was the temperature, which hovered in the mid-30s — comfortable for humans, but warm for sled dogs.

A dog team runs down a trail with fans lining up against some orange fencing
Martin Buser’s team runs through crowds of fans at the official start. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser said mushers often take more breaks in higher temperatures, letting their dogs cool and hydrate during the warmest parts of the day.

“We don’t tend to rely on snow as a source of hydration. But on a warm day like today with fresh snow all over the place, it’s a good cooling aid,” he said. 

Buser said the warm conditions would favor dogs from more coastal areas like Southcentral, while dogs that live in Interior Alaska may struggle because they grow thicker undercoats.

A man in an orange parka sits on a sled next to a truck
Brent Sass relaxes before the official start of the Iditarod. Sass’ dogs train north of Fairbanks. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

While Buser sat casually in his sled, other mushers like rookie Julie Ahnen, paced around their trucks nervously. 

She tried to reassure herself. 

“There’s nothing to be nervous about. I’m here. I’m prepared. I’m ready to go. I don’t have any problems. Just talking this through as I go,” she said with a nervous chuckle. 

Out on the trail, fans were enjoying the warm weather. Hundreds of people gathered around the start area. Some brought portable grills, foldout tables and speakers to blast music. 

After leaving Willow, teams have 42 miles to the first checkpoint at Yentna Station.

A dog tied up in a harness on a team leaps in the air
An excited dogs leaps in the air in the holding area at the official start of the Iditarod. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A woman with braids wearing sunglasses poses for cameras in front of a pickup truck
Bridgett Watkins poses for a photo before the official start of the Iditarod. Watkins team was attacked by a moose earlier this year, seriously injuring some of her dogs. “We’re here. We did it,” she said about being at the start. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A man in a cat in the hat hat on the sled of a dog team
Hugh Neff heads out on trail with his team of all-white huskies. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A dog team passes under a banner on a frozen open lake
Apayauq Reitan, the first out trans female musher to compete in the Iditarod, high-fives fans at the official start of the Iditarod. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A dog team runs down a trail next to a powerline surrounded by fans
Karin Hendrickson near the official start of the Iditarod. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A bunch of people near a dog yard
Crowds gathered near the holding area at the official start of the Iditarod in Willow. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
A dog team drops down a short hill in spruce forsest
Travis Beals descends onto Willow Lake at the official start of the Iditarod. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Image a top: Musher Joshua McNeal takes a refreshment from a fan near the official start of the Iditarod in Willow on Sunday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

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