WILLOW — Marking the 48th year since the start of The Last Great Race, 57 dog mushers set out on the Iditarod Trail from Willow Lake on their way to Nome on Sunday. With a stacked field of human drivers and dog teams, the 1,049 mile race will captivate the entire state of Alaska for the next two weeks as Alaskans follow mushers along the northern route from Willow to the burled arch in Nome.
“It’s almost like a once a year family reunion and I get to go see what I consider and call my winter friends that I only get to see one time a year during the Iditarod,” said Lance Mackey. “What this Iditarod has done for people that you see all over here, we are somebody to a lot of people and that's huge, that’s very powerful. The Iditarod has gave us all a title and we’re all just normal people that probably wouldn't fit in in most parts of the world.”
Mackey is the only person to win both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest in the same year and has won each race four times.
“It's a powerful moment. The energy’s high. We are rockstars to a lot of these people and to us we're just people so it’s cool as hell in that aspect,” said Mackey. “This is our comfort zone. I bet you everybody here would say there's nothing in the world that energizes them like this event, this adventure and this challenge. You never feel more alive than when you’re out there and this is just the beginning. It’s only going to get better and more emotional and more exciting as we go.”
The 57 mushers took off onto Willow Lake for the 48th Idtitarod from the Willow Community Center past thousands of spectators that spread down the lake and beyond, trail-gating for miles. The story for many of the mushers was the amount of snow that had already fallen and continued to dump on Willow. In temperatures above 20 degrees, the warm, wet snow meant that many mushers would change their initial race strategy and determine how to run their dogs based on the conditions.
“Pete Kaiser is the defending champ so he’s got a big target on his back, Mitch Seavey’s got awesome dogs in this kind of snow and Brent Sass is obviously good at plowing through deep snow like he’s done all year and in a winning Quest team. Even though Nic has traditionally fast dogs, I’m sure his dogs will do fine in this,” said Matt Failor.
Sass’ team has won the last two Yukon Quests, the ‘other’ 1,000-mile sled dog race through Alaska. Sass said he came under the start chute confident in his team.
“I have a lot of confidence in this dog team and it’s pretty much the same team from the last 19 and 20 championships in the Quest,” said Sass. “There’s 20 teams here that could win theI Iditarod so I think we’re going to focus on just getting down the trail as fast as we can and doing right by the dogs and making sure that we’ve got a team that can race towards the end of the race.”
Sass has run the Yukon Quest 13 times and is competing in his fifth Iditarod.
Competing in just her second Iditarod, Palmer’s Meredith Mapes prepared her sled last-minute as she arrived at the start hours before taking off down the trail. As Mapes packed her sled, her mother helped prepare her equipment along with Mapes’ handlers.
“I’m just pretty anxious. The last time I was mostly excited and I think that was because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and now I do so I’m slightly terrified of the next 10 to 14 days,” said Mapes.
While also hailing from the Valley, Willow musher Wade Marrs sees no hierarchy in where mushers hail from.
“It’s pretty cool to have great training trails and stuff like that but we've got mushers here from Bethel and all over the place and Norway and stuff so I think I take more pride in the diversity of the people who are here than where I’m from,” said Marrs.
Marrs races to raise awareness for Turner Syndrome, which only affects females and causes a variety of medical and developmental problems. Prior to his gear check, Marrs sat cool, calm and collected surrounded by his friends and family as they ate a pre-race meal of spaghetti. Marrs said that he usually eats steak as his last meal before going out on the trail, but wanted to mix it up this year. During the 2019 Iditarod, Marrs was charging near the front of the pack before a broken runner caused him problems near the middle of the race. After repairs, Marrs jumped from 32nd near the midway point to his finish in Nome at 14th place. This year, Marrs said he wants to win.
Competing in his first Iditarod, Deke Naaktgeboren’s coworkers at the Bureau of Land Management were some of his most diligent handlers. Naaktgeboren hopes to break the race down into 20 smaller runs with his first goal set on sitting down for a cold adult beverage in Nome. As many mushers do, Naaktgeboren will listen to music along the trail to keep his mind from wandering. Just like Magnus Kaltenborn, Naaktgeboren will listen to music from the late Chris LeDoux, whose love of country music and rodeo competitions fuel Naaktgeboren’s ambition along the trail.
“I listen to those songs and I change the lyrics from being a cowboy to being a musher because it fits so well, so that’s what I do to keep my brain occupied and if I get tired of that I just play Miley Cyrus because that wrecking ball song really gets my team charging to a checkpoint,” said Naaktgeboren.
Rookie Quince Mountain is competing in his first Iditarod and like many mushers, has had his race schedule upended by the deep snow that continues to fall along the Iditarod trail.
“I just think checkpoint by checkpoint. I think I’m on my way to Yentna and then I’ll be on my way to Skwentna then. Maybe I’ll take my 24 because it might take 97 hours in this s***, we'll see,” said Mountain.
Newly minted Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach wore a custom Iditarod knitted cap and exuberantly spoke into a microphone during the procession of all 57 mushers as they took off down the trail.
“We hope to expand that to provide more in the world of this amazing event, the greatest endurance event in the world,” said Urbach.
Failor is one of many in Martin Buser’s tree of inspired mushers, having picked up the sport in Southeast Alaska before learning from the legendary Iditarod champion. Before Failor and his dog team even made it to the ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday, the snow already began causing problems.
“We forgot one little simple thing to put it in four wheel drive and it was snowing hard and we we’re going 10 mph and I tapped the breaks and the trailer just pushed us right into the ditch and we were about six feet into plowed snow and stuck worse than you can believe,” said Failor. “6:30 a.m. and we needed to go all the way to Anchorage and so the first available truck that drove by. Thankfully I stopped them and I went up to them, I said hey do you mind helping us out, are you guys in a hurry? And he goes yeah we’re kind of in a hurry we’re going to Anchorage. I said oh, so am I. He goes oh really? And I said yeah we’re racing and he’s like Oh! You’re a musher? He said I’ll help you okay and then the next available truck had this huge winch on the front and he towed us out and so I’m going to be giving those guys free sled dog rides when I get home and I’m probably going to buy them dinner.”