By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, March 7 (Reuters) - With snow falling lightly and crowds of spectators packed along the sidewalks of downtown Anchorage, 57 mushers and their dog teams started the 48th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday.
The 11-mile trot through Alaska's biggest city was merely ceremonial, intended as a low-stress event where mushers could mingle with Iditarod fans. Timed competition for the 1,000-mile race is set to begin Sunday afternoon from a frozen lake in Willow, a community north of Anchorage, and the winner is expected at the finish line in Nome about nine days after that.
For racer Sean Underwood, Saturday’s pageantry was anything but routine.
Underwood, a 28-year-old from Atlanta, is a dog handler working for four-time champion Jeff King. At the start line on Saturday, he found himself in his boss’s snowboots. King was knocked out of competition Monday night by emergency surgery for a perforated intestine; Underwood, who had been planning to race his first Iditarod next year, got special permission to run King’s team to Nome.
"It's been a pretty wild week," said Underwood, whose Saturday morning preparations were interrupted several times by reporters seeking interviews.
He said the deep snow on the trail this year is likely to slow the pace and give lots of opportunities for rest, but he has few expectations beyond that.
"I'll figure that out in about 10 days," he said. "I feel like I’m about as prepared as you can be with five days' notice."
Another unexpected feature of this year's race is a special focus on preventing the spread of disease, which the race managers are undertaking as the novel coronavirus epidemic spreads. Although no cases have been reported yet in Alaska, race officials have received special briefings from state officials.
In at least one Native village along the race trail, Koyuk, residents were worried about Iditarod crowds bringing in the coronavirus, said four-time champion Martin Buser.
"Once we get there, hopefully, their fears of spreading the virus have ebbed a little bit," he said.
Running water and wastewater-treatment services are not always available in some parts of rural Alaska, but Buser said he tries to demonstrate good hygiene as much as possible along the Iditarod Trail.
"You will see me doing dishes anyway, anywhere there is running water," he said. "I will continue doing that, not just for myself but for the people watching."
Concerns about communicable diseases are part of the history of the Iditarod Trail. The race, which has been run since 1973, commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that sent life-saving diphtheria medicine by sled-dog relay to Nome.
Among this year's field are mushers from Norway, including 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Italy, Canada and Denmark.
The winner will receive a prize of about $55,000 and a new pickup truck. The monetary prize is smaller than in past years; the Iditarod has lost several corporate sponsors, a trend for which animal-rights activists take credit. Groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have condemned the Iditarod as cruel.
There was a group of local PETA activists holding protest signs at the race start line on Saturday. There was also a counter-protest. Anchorage mural painter Richard "Ziggy" Zeigler, wearing a big fur hat, stood in front of the PETA group and repeatedly called out: "Support the Iditarod! Ask PETA to go home!" (Reporting by Yereth Rosen; Editing by Daniel Wallis)