‘Incredibly competitive’ as mushers begin 47th running of the Iditarod

Aliy Zirkle at the ceremonial start in Anchorage. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The 47th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is underway. Fifty-two dog teams sped out of Willow Sunday afternoon for the 1,000-mile race to Nome.

With 35 men and 17 women slated to run, it’s the smallest field of mushers starting an Iditarod in decades. But that doesn’t mean the competition is any easier. Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle is one of the contenders.

“It’s incredibly competitive, just as competitive as last year,” Zirkle said. “The sad part is we’ve lost some folks who do it for the sake of doing the Iditarod, but maybe they’ll come back next year.

This year’s field includes five former race champions, as well as 10 rookies. After poor snow forced the race to relocate twice in recent years, race officials say conditions are better than average. One of last year’s top rookies, Matt Hall is happy with what he’s hearing.

“Seems like a lot of snow, that’s also a slow trail, which is kind of good, we train a little slower than most teams, we compete in the Yukon Quest right before Iditarod each year, so we’re kind of of geared down a bit. I’m looking forward to another sort of soft trail out there.”

And the recent weeks of good weather have four-time champion Martin Buser feeling optimistic about the trail.

“The forecast looks really good, including the trip up and over the Alaska Range. That’s alway the challenge,” Buser said. “The Burn has gotten to the point where it’s not really the burn anymore, the burn has grown up and matured and and there’s a defined trail through it.”

Trail crews had to build bridges over open water in parts of the Dalzel Gorge. The race’s most technical sections are within the first couple days, a fact that rookie Jessica Klejka knows well.

“I’m just going to take it one checkpoint at a time,” Klejka said. “The sections we all hear about, my husband keeps saying ‘they’re not that long of sections, you’re going to be fine.’ [and I say] well what about the steps!? [He says] ‘there are going to be a few minutes of terror and then you’ll be fine.’”

There’s spotty snow around the Iditarod checkpoint, and much of the sea-ice along the coast is in poor shape after severe winter storms pounded the region.

A winner is expected to reach Nome in about 9 days and will take home $50,000 plus a new truck out of a race purse of $500,000.