This article by Liz Ruskin was originally published by Alaska Public Media. It was republished with permission through a partnership with KNOM.
Iditarod rookie Jed Stephensen said he was trying to have “only little thoughts” as he packed his final items in his sled in Willow.
“Little thoughts, like just getting down the trail and stopping in about 50 miles and leaving it at that,” said Stephensen of Sand Point, Idaho, “and not thinking of a thousand (miles) because that would crush my soul if I thought about that too long.”
He worked at thinking small as he waited for the start.
“No big thoughts,” he said. “Big thoughts are bad thoughts.”
The sun was shining on him and 32 other mushers at the official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which went off without a hitch Sunday afternoon.
While Stephensen was working at calming his nerves, defending champ Brent Sass seemed to have nerves of steel. Sass was cool as a cucumber, giving news interviews while hugging the youngest member of his team.
“This is Marty. This is going to be his first Iditarod. He’s the son of my main leader, my Golden Harness winner last year, Morello, who is retired, so he’s taking her spot this year,” Sass said. “He’s young, energetic and has no idea what he’s getting himself into right now, but he’s ready to go. It’s pretty fun.”
The crowds were thick on frozen Willow Lake, creating a chute of cheering fans. More chutes formed on subsequent lakes.
2010 Iditarod musher Kathleen Frederick watched the race from Long Lake. She was eager to see Wade Marrs, her neighbor who has leased and purchased dogs from her kennel.
“There was one girl he ran when she was two,” Frederick said. “She’s now four, and I’m pretty sure she’s on his team.”
Just then Marrs came through, high-fiving children and accepting candy bars from outstretched hands.
“Hey neighbor!” Frederick shouted.
“Hey Kathleen!” Marrs responded, and then he was off, down the trail toward more high fives and more outstretched hands holding candy, for a few miles more.
From Willow, teams have 42 miles to the first race checkpoint at Yentna Station.
Image at top: Jed Stephensen prepares his team for the 1,000 mile trek to Nome in Willow. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)