ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The 38th running of the world's most famous sled dog race kicked off last Saturday amid depleted finances that have slashed the cash purse even as the cost of competitive mushing continues to climb.
Yet the mystique of the 1,770-kilometer Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race keeps drawing mushers from all over, including a first this year — a rookie from Jamaica.
Among those rooting for 26-year-old Newton Marshall is Margaritaville icon Jimmy Buffet, who spends a lot of time in Jamaica and has been the team's primary sponsor since it was founded by a friend.
"I just love the whole idea of it," the singer said. "I love the absurdity that when we first did this, people laughed and thought it was a joke and guess what? It isn't."
Marshall last year completed the 1,610-kilometer Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, finishing 13th out of 29 mushers.
Also running in the Iditarod are five past winners, including Lance Mackey, a throat cancer survivor from Fairbanks who is going for a fourth consecutive win.
The Iditarod begins Saturday with a ceremonial start in Anchorage. The actual competition gets under way Sunday in Willow, 80 kilometers to the north. The trail crosses two mountain ranges, scores of Alaska native villages, then a stretch of the frozen Bering Sea shore before it reaches the finish line in the old gold-rush town of Nome on Alaska's western coast. It's a trail where temperatures can plunge to -45C and fierce winds can wipe out visibility.
This year's race is the first time in Iditarod history in which mushers will be tested for drugs and alcohol.
Mackey, 39, has acknowledged using medical marijuana on the trail, but said he is abiding by the new rule. He said he believes it was implemented to single him out and that other competitors have complained about his pot use.