Idi­tarod sled dog race un­der way

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - BY MARY PEM­BER­TON

WIL­LOW, ALASKA | To a rous­ing send-off from fans, dozens of teams took to the trail for the start of the Idi­tarod Trail Sled Dog Race, em­bark­ing on a near thou­sand-mile jour­ney through the Alaskan wilder­ness.

The 66 mush­ers and their dog teams will spend roughly eight days try­ing to be the first to reach the old gold rush town of Nome.

Ni­co­las Petit, a 32-year-old na­tive of Nor­mandy now liv­ing in Gird­wood, Alaska, was the race’s early leader. He was the first musher to pull into the Fin­ger Lake check­point, about 100 miles north­west of Wil­low, around 5 a.m. Mon­day.

“They look like this is what they live for,” said Leigh Hop­per, 53, a reg­is­tered nurse from Hen­der­son­ville, Tenn., as she watched mush­ers get their dogs ready for Sun­day’s start. “They can’t wait to get out there and run.”

The grand­sons of Idi­tarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s co-founder Joe Red­ing­ton Jr., 36, and Ryan Red­ing­ton, 29, were the first and last mush­ers on the trail.

Six for­mer cham­pi­ons also are com­pet­ing, in­clud­ing last year’s win­ner, John Baker, 49, of Kotze­bue, the first Inu­piat Eskimo to win and first Alaska na­tive since Jerry Ri­ley in 1976.

Mr. Baker said that af­ter win­ning last year’s race on his 16th at­tempt, he con­sid­ered re­tir­ing but re­al­ized there were too many peo­ple count­ing on him to run again.

When he isn’t train­ing for the race, Mr. Baker spends his time trav­el­ing to Alaska vil­lages and giv­ing Amer­i­can In­dian chil­dren a mes­sage: Work hard, fol­low your dreams, and you can do it.

Chil­dren treat him a bit dif­fer­ently now that he’s an Idi­tarod cham­pion. “They were quiet and lis­ten­ing for once,” he said.

Also in the race is Lance Mackey, whose string of four con­sec­u­tive wins was ended by Mr. Baker in 2011.

Mr. Mackey ac­knowl­edged feel­ing deeply dis­ap­pointed by his 16th-place fin­ish last year. He has said he won’t let him­self feel that way again, no mat­ter what the out­come, though he’s in it to win it.

“This team is as good as any team here,” he said.

The to­tal purse is $550,000 for the first 30 fin­ish­ers, with the win­ner re­ceiv­ing $50,400 and a new truck.

Brent Sass is com­pet­ing in his first Idi­tarod, but six times has run in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest In­ter­na­tional Sled Dog Race — con­sid­ered by many to be a tougher race. A home­made sign atop his dog truck reads, “Wild and Free. All the way to Nome.”

“It is the Su­per Bowl of mush­ing,” Mr. Sass said of the Idi­tarod. “It is the big one.”

An­janette Steer, 39, is mar­ried to veteran Idi­tarod racer Zack Steer, but in­stead of look­ing from the side­lines this year, she’s the one tak­ing the dog team to Nome.

“It is an ad­ven­ture I will re­mem­ber for the rest of my life,” she said.

ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Kristy Ber­ing­ton ac­knowl­edges fans Sun­day as she makes her way along the trail dur­ing the of­fi­cial start of the Idi­tarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Wil­low, Alaska. The eight-day trek of­fers $50,400 and a new truck to the win­ner.

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