The grueling Alaskan Iditarod begins with a ceremonial start

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Brent Sass was just miles away from fulfilling his dream of winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska when fierce 60-mph (96-kph) winds from the Bering Sea lashed, knocking him down. Visibility fell to about 10 feet (3 m) and forced him down his sled while his dogs rambled through the snow.

“I didn’t stop that voluntarily,” laughed Sass, who was approaching his first Iditarod victory. Last year but behind him was the five-time champion Dallas City just a few miles away. “We were blown off the road and it took an hour to get all my stuff back together and figure out where I was.”

Sass regrouped and led his team of 11 dogs off the ice of the Bering Sea and down Nome Main Street to the iconic slotted arc finish line, winning the Iditarod, the world’s most famous dog race, on his seventh attempt.

Sass is back to defend his title in the race, which kicked off Saturday with a fan-friendly 11-mile (18-kilometer) jaunt through the streets of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Thousands of people braved temperatures near 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.78 degrees Celsius) to line up to cheer on the riders, who loaded the lucky auction winning “Iditariders” on their sleds at the start of the celebration.

Things get serious on Sunday with the competitive start to the nearly 1,000-mile (1,609-kilometer) race across Alaska. It begins in Willow, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of Anchorage.

Sass was excited to hit the trail on Saturday, with 11 of the 14 dogs from last year’s championship team returning. “I think the Replacements … are stronger dogs, so I’m really excited,” he said.

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He expects mild temperatures until fungus hits the West Coast, where there’s been more volatility and predicting fairway conditions is almost meaningless since they change so quickly.

“They’ve gone from icy trails to snow trails, back and forth all season,” he said. “I think we’ll get what we get.”

This is the Iditarod’s 51st race, but the 33 lanes are the smallest field ever to start the race. Racers and race organizers note that some veteran racers have retired; others are taking a break to recoup financially after the pandemic; Inflation, and the loss of wealthy pastoralists amid constant pressure from the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

PETA has released full-page newspaper ads in Alaska’s two largest cities denouncing what it describes as cruel abuse of dogs forced to haul their carts and gear across thousands of miles of racing. The group also staged a protest outside the Field Marshal’s annual banquet Thursday.

Gordon and Beth Bokhart of Fort Wayne, Indiana, made their first-ever trip to Anchorage specifically to see the Iditarod after getting a taste of the sport by participating in a dog sledding tour of Canada. Since then, they’ve spent a lot of time reading about the Iditarod and the history of the race.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. Buchart said the people he spoke to in Alaska about the race feel it will rebound.

“Being here,” he said, “I can tell you it’s an exciting thing to come and see, and if everyone had the same experience as me, they would understand and want to come back.”

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Six riders representing 18 Iditarod Championships will not be racing this year. Last year, the sport lost another four-time winner when Lance McKee died of cancer. McKee was named Honorary Pilot of this year’s race.

Only 823 riders have reached the finish line in the first half-century of the Iditarod, and only 24 have won the grueling event. Mushers and their dog teams face some of the harshest conditions in untamed Alaska, traversing both the Alaskan and Kuskokwim mountain ranges, rafting the frozen Yukon River, trekking through flat, monotonous tundra and navigating the treacherous Bering Sea ice.

Along the way, they stop at several Alaskan Native communities that serve as checkpoints.

“It’s a celebration of spring for villages across the state,” said Aaron Burmeister, an Iditarod member who grew up watching race finishes in his hometown of Nome and who has finished in the top ten times over the past decade.

Climate change It has been and will likely continue to play a role in how the race is run.

Rising temperatures forced organizers to move the starting line 290 miles (467 kilometers) north from Willow to Fairbanks in 2003, 2015, and 2017 due to a lack of snow in the Alaskan Range. This will become more common as the weather warms and Bering Sea ice becomes present Getting to Nome can get trickier and more dangerous, said Rick Thomann, a climate specialist at the International Center for Arctic Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Challenges to the world’s largest bobsleigh race are mounting, said Bob Dorfman, sports branding expert at Pinnacle Advertising in San Francisco.

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“With expenses rising, payments falling, care support dwindling, PETA pressure, and the danger of all of this, it feels more like a trend than an anomaly,” he said. Sass earned about $50,000 for winning a race last year.

The race is financially sound, says Rob Auerbach, CEO of Iditarod, and he expects Iditarod to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2073.

Dorfman didn’t disagree, but said the 2073 race may not look much different from this year’s race.

“I don’t see fortunes changing very often,” said Dorfman. “I don’t know it will be more than 30 participants.”

Sass, 43, is the favorite to win the 2023 race. Pete Kaiser, the first Yup’ik and fifth Alaskan native to win the race, is the only former champion in the field.

The winner is expected to be in Nome about nine or 10 days after the start of Saturday.

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