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Iditarod kicks off with festive ceremonial start

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RACHEL D'ORO | March 2, 2013 08:56 PM EST | AP

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Mushers and their dogs took a leisurely jaunt through Anchorage on Saturday in the ceremonial start of Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The 1,000-mile race kicked off in a festive mood as 66 teams posed with fans and sailed their sleds 11 miles on streets covered with trucked-in snow. Each sled carried an Iditarider, a fan who won the short ride at auction.

"Today is fun, with a capital F," said smiling veteran musher Aliy Zirkle, the runner-up in last year's race. "If you don't have a good time on Saturday with your dogs and all these fans, you're not in the right sport."

The event comes ahead of the real, competitive start of the race Sunday in Willow, 50 miles to the north. This is when teams leave the big crowds behind for remote terrain shared mostly with their dogs.

"Today we have fun. Tomorrow we're serious," defending champion Dallas Seavey, of Willow, said Saturday between chatting with spectators and signing autographs for fans, including Bunky Nistler of Beach, N.D.

Nistler said the Iditarod was on her bucket list following her husband's death of cancer a year ago.

"I've been in love with the Iditarod for over eight years," she said. "This was my dream of a lifetime."

From Willow, where the race clock starts ticking, mushers and their dog teams will begin making their way through unforgiving wilderness toward the finish line in the old frontier town of Nome on Alaska's western coast. Before reaching their destination, the teams will cross mountains, frozen rivers and forests before hitting the wind-pummeled coast. They'll sign in at village checkpoints, sometimes stopping for mandatory layovers.

The winner will get a new truck and $50,400. The rest of the $600,000 purse will be split between the next 29 mushers to cross the finish line.

Participants in the 41st running of the race include six past Iditarod winners, including Seavey and his father, Mitch Seavey. Dallas Seavey also is among six past winners of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, held just weeks before the Iditarod.

Lance Mackey of Fairbanks – the only musher to ever win both races the same year – just scratched from the Quest in February because of a team of ailing dogs. He is going for a fifth win in the Iditarod, this time taking mostly young dogs and only four veterans from the Quest.

At Saturday's ceremonial start, fans regularly stopped by to wish him luck.

"This is like a pregame warm-up," Mackey said of the party-like atmosphere.

Sunday will bring a more highly charged approach among contenders.

"It's game time, and you get your game face on," Mackey said. "Put some blinders on – and go race."

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Associated Press writer Mark Thiessen in Anchorage contributed to this report.

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Follow Rachel D'Oro on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rdoro