Iditarod 2013: Previewing the world's best-known sled-dog race


Mushers converge on Anchorage, Alaska this weekend as the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins its 41st year.

This much we know: the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will be an adventure for each musher and his (or her) dogs. Whether the musher is a rookie or a former champion, stories will be told afterward about the challenges faced during the next 10-17 days.

The race, being run for the 41st time, has been held since 1973, but contrary to popular myth is not in honor of the famous serum run between Anchorage and Nome in 1925. Rather, the event was conceived as a way to honor the sled-dog heritage of the state as well as draw attention to the historic Iditarod Trail, which actually begins southeast of Anchorage at Seward.

Sixth-six mushers will begin at a ceremonial start at 10 a.m. local time (2 p.m. ET) in Anchorage Saturday before beginning the race proper down the road at Willow. Each team comprises a musher, 12-16 dogs and countless supporters,handlers and sponsors who help make the race possible. Supplies -- food, dog booties, materials to repair sleds and even lighter "sprint" sleds for the final miles -- must be shipped to the 25 checkpoints that guide teams from Anchorage to Nome along the 1,049-mile southern route of the historic Iditarod Trail.

Mushers will compete with the conditions as much as each other along the way, facing blinding snow, dangerous cold and dark, lonely nights, two mountain ranges, the Yukon River and Norton Sound.

The leaders will have their names written and broadcast by media worldwide. Some mushers will drop out due to unexpected troubles along the trail or the need to keep their dogs safe. (Canine safety has been debated by some, but remains a key interest of event organizers, who have implemented a number of rules and who have a team of 52 veterinarians to ensure dogs' health is kept at the forefront.)

The first 30 finishers will divide a $600,000 purse this year, up from last. (Last year's winner, Dallas Seavey, earned $50,400, as well as a Dodge Ram truck.) Meanwhile, the lagger will have the honor of carrying the red lantern, first awarded as a joke but later turned into a symbol of commitment to finishing the race.

Seavey, who holds the record for the youngest winner of the race for his victory as a 25-year-old, will again compete this year. As will John Baker, who had the fastest winning time at 8 days 19 hours 46 minutes 39 seconds in 2011. Rick Swenson, who has won a record five times in the past, has withdrawn. But Lance Mackey, who won four titles from 2007-10, will be trying to match his feat. Jeff King, who won three times in the '90s and again in 2006, will be going for a fifth win as well.

And then you have the twin Berington sisters, Anna and Kristy, age 28, who might be two of the best known among the 16 women entering the race. They began driving sled dogs in northern Wisconsin before moving to Alaska. However, Aliy Zirkle returns to the 2013 race after finishing second overall in 2012, and DeeDee Jonrowe has finished in the top 10 on 15 occasions.

The story to pull at your heart-strings this year is that of Cindy Abbott, who has Wegener's Granulomatosis, a rare disorder that restricts blood flow and can cause damage to a person's kidneys, lungs and upper respiratory system. Now blind in one eye, Abbott has already summited Mt. Everest. She would be the first female, and only the second individual, to both finish the race and summit the mountain.

There are 13 rookies, and entrants are listing such places as Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Washington; Illinois and California; Norway, Russia, Canada, New Zealand, Brazil and, yes, Jamaica.

Win or lose -- and many mushers will admit they are in the race fully knowing they have little shot at victory -- there will surely be plenty of stories told by mushers at the 2013 Iditarod and plenty for race enthusiasts to follow, too.

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