Dog-sled teams set off on Alaska's 1,000-mile Iditarod race

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Mushers Begin Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska

JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) -- Mushers and dog sled teams from around the world embark on the first leg of Alaska's grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, starting a nearly 1,000-mile (1,609 km) journey through the state's unforgiving wilderness.

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Now in its 44th year, the race commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that delivered diphtheria serum by sled-dog relay to the western coastal community of Nome on the Bering Sea.

This year's Iditarod features 85 mushers and teams each made up of 16 dogs. They will set off on staggered starts from the town of Willow, an hour's drive northwest of Anchorage, where a ceremonial start was staged on Saturday. The winner is likely to cross the finish line eight to 10 days later.

See more from this year's preparation:

15 PHOTOS
Iditarod 2016
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Dog-sled teams set off on Alaska's 1,000-mile Iditarod race
Dallas Seavey poses with his lead dogs Reef, left, and Tide after finishing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Nome, Alaska. Seavey won his third straight Iditarod, for his fourth overall title in the last five years. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Dallas Seavey approaches the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Nome, Alaska. Seavey won his third straight Iditarod, for his fourth overall title in the last five years. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Defending Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Dallas Seavey (16) waves to the crowd as she begins the ceremonial start of the 1,000-mile race in Anchorage, Alaska, Saturday, March 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Kelly Maixner begins his race to Nome amongst a crowd of spectators Sunday, March 6, 2016 in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race dog handler Mark Hibma unloads an Ally Zirkle team dog prior to the start of the race Sunday, March 6, 2016 in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Ketil Reitan begins his race to Nome amongst a crowd of spectators Sunday, March 6, 2016 in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Mitch Seavey begins his race to Nome amongst a crowd of spectators Sunday, March 6, 2016 in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race veteran Matts Pettersson, of Sweden, holds his 16-month-old daughter Frega as he prepares to begin the ceremonial start of the 1,000-mile race in Anchorage, Alaska Saturday, March 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race veteran Ally Zirkle waves to the crowd as she begins the ceremonial start of the 1,000-mile race in Anchorage, Alaska Saturday, March 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
An Alaska Railroad train carries tons of snow in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday, March 3, 2016, after traveling 360 miles south from Fairbanks. The snow will be used to help provide a picturesque ground cover on the streets for the ceremonial start of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, where persistent above-freezing temperatures have melted much of the local snow. The competitive part of the race kicks off Sunday 50 miles to the north in Willow. (AP Photo/Rachel D'Oro)
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race rookie Larry Daugherty looks to the crowd as he prepares to begin the ceremonial start of the 1,000-mile race in Anchorage, Alaska, Saturday, March 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Volunteer Shannan Hunter of Seattle, left,and Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race vet tech coordinator Tabitha Jones hold a dog during a pre-race blood screening and heart check at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska, on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. Low snow in the Anchorage area may cause havoc for the race's ceremonial start on March 5, 2016, and the race's board of directors will decide Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, whether the race will have to move its official start scheduled the next day in Willow, Alaska, further north to Fairbanks. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
With kids and goods in tow, spectators arrive early for the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race judge prior to the race Sunday, March 6, 2016 in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Norwegian musher Dag Torulf Olsen, right, has his sled bag checked by Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race judge Karen Ramstead prior to the race Sunday, March 6, 2016 in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
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The race, which covers 975 miles (1,569 km) this year, is the test of extreme endurance. It features desolate stretches of up to 85 miles between checkpoints and unpredictable wind gusts as the trail hits the Bering coast. Last year temperatures along the route plunged to 60 degrees Fahrenheit below zero (-51 Celsius).

Still, veteran musher Jeff King, 60, would not have it any other way. He has won four Iditarods, posted 19 top 10 finishes and 14 top five conclusions.

"I've finished with pneumonia, I've finished with the flu, I sprained an ankle and a knee to the point of where I didn't think I could go on," he said. "But I finished."

King last won the race in 2006. Since then, two-time defending champion Dallas Seavey has posted three victories in four years, including a record performance in 2014, when he clocked in at eight days, 13 hours, four minutes and 19 seconds.

"The challenge to the Iditarod," Seavey said, "is not only doing 1,000 miles across terrain that's ever changing. It's the adjustment of the weather at a time when we're always pushing to the limits."

Aliy Zirkle, 46, remains a perennial contender, having posted four straight top five finishes, including three runner-up finishes.

Each year, Zirkle says she looks forward to hitting that vast expanse en route to the Bering Sea coastline.

"When you get 500 miles from nowhere, you stop. You get off, look at your dogs and they are wagging their tails at you and you think I just made it from Anchorage to the Bering Sea - just me," she said.

The winner will take home a cash prize of $50,400 and a new pickup truck. Other top finishers will share in a total cash purse of $750,000.

Each team starts with 16 dogs, ranging from 3 to 8 years old, and is required to take a 24-hour rest, plus two separate eight-hour stops during the race.

RELATED: See more from the Iditarod

42 PHOTOS
Iditarod in recent years -- 2009-2015
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Dog-sled teams set off on Alaska's 1,000-mile Iditarod race
Willow Alaska musher Dee Dee Jonrowe at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Lev Shvarts and his team of Siberian Huskies at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Norwegian rookie Thomas Waemer's at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Crowd favorite Tok Alaska musher Hugh Neff at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
French rookie Isabelle Travadon at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Chatanika, Alaska musher Jodi Bailey at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Kasilof Alaska musher Anna Berington at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Musher Wade Marrs of Wasillal, Alaska, leads his team Saturday, March 7, 2015, during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska. The official start is Monday in Fairbanks, where the race was moved because of a lack of snow to the south. (AP Photo/Rachel D'Oro)
Veteran musher Rick Casillo at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Katherine Keith, from Kotzebue, Alaska, at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Norweigian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Willow Alaska musher Lisbet Norris and her Siberian Huskies at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Yukon Quest and four time Iditarod champion Jeff King of Denali Park Alaska at the start of the 2015 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, 09 March, 2015. Photo: Scott Chesney/dpa
Musher Monica Zappa of Kasilof, Alaska, leads her team past spectators Saturday, March 7, 2015, during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska. The official start is Monday in Fairbanks, where the race was moved because of a lack of snow to the south. (AP Photo/Rachel D'Oro)
Excited dogs in the team for musher Cindy Abbott, of Irvine, Calif.,, jump and bark as they await their turn to move to the starting gate during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska, on Saturday, March 7, 2015. The competitive start will be held March 9, 2015, in Fairbanks, Alaska. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Musher Laura Allaway of Fairbanks, Alaska, leads her team past a crowd Saturday, March 7, 2015, during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage. The official start is Monday in Fairbanks, where the race was moved because of a lack of snow to the south. (AP Photo/Rachel D'Oro)
FILE - In this March 13, 2013 file photo, Musher Michelle Phillips of Tagish, Yukon Territory, Canada, makes the final push in the Iditarod, on the Bering Sea for the finish line outside Nome, Alaska. Warm weather during much of the winter across Alaska nearly prompted officials at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to move the start to Fairbanks for the first time in a decade. But temperatures have dropped, and the 42nd running of the race across Alaska will start just as normal this weekend in Anchorage. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)
Dogs wait to run in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Sunday, March 3, 2013, in Willow, Alaska. 65 teams will be making their way through punishing wilderness toward the finish line in Nome on Alaska's western coast 1,000 miles away. (AP Photo/Rachel D'Oro)
Ice hangs off the mustache of Robert Sorlie, from Hurdal, Norway, after he finished the nearly 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, Alaska, on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. Sorlie, a two-time champion, finished 21st in this year's race. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
FILE - In this Dec. 2, 2014, file photo, Iditarod Race Director Mark Nordman gestures during a news conference in Anchorage, Alaska. The Iditarod announced a 20-mile stretch of treacherous trail from last year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in which several mushers were hurt, had been improved between the checkpoints in Rohn and Farewell, Alaska. A lack of snow in south central Alaska and uncertain weather in the next month is again pushing organizers of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to ponder moving the start of the race from Willow to Fairbanks. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)
Defending champion Dallas Seavey takes off Saturday, March 2, 2013, in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, for the ceremonial start of the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The race, which will take mushers and dog teams about a thousand miles across the Alaska wilderness, starts Sunday, March 3, 2013, in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Lead dogs on the team of Louie Ambrose run during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. The competitive portion of the 1,000-mile race is scheduled to begin Sunday in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)
Dogs on the team of Anna Berrington run in the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. The competitive portion of the 1,000-mile race is scheduled to begin Sunday in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)
Cim Smith greets fans during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. The competitive portion of the 1,000-mile race is scheduled to begin Sunday in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)
Curt Perano of New Zealand drives his team during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. The competitive portion of the 1,000-mile race is scheduled to begin Sunday in Willow, Alaska. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)
Happy lead dogs for Iditarod musher Robert Bundtzen lead the way during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday March 5, 2011 in Anchorage, Alaska. The actual start takes place Sunday in Willow, north of Anchorage. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen)
Musher Quin Iten, son of Iditarod sled dog race veteran Ed Iten, kisses lead sled dog Inga as they prepare to run a trail in the remote Inupiat Eskimo village Noorvik, Alaska, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010. Mushers are practicing for the arrival of the U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves to formally launch the nation's 2010 count in Noorvik, Alaska, where residents are planning a huge reception of traditional dancing and a feast of caribou, moose and other foods. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
The team of musher Peter Kaiser dashes along Fourth Avenue on Saturday, March 5, 2011, in Anchorage, Alaska, during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The actual start takes place Sunday in Willow, north of Anchorage. (AP Photo/Rachel D'Oro)
In this photo taken Feb. 17, 2011, in Anchorage, Alaska, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race rookie Scott Janssen of Anchorage, Alaska, poses for a photo with one of his pet dogs. Scott Janssen _ "The Mushing Mortician" _ is foregoing ice cream and cake this year to celebrate his 50th birthday on the Iditarod Trail, but some of his best friends are still going to sing him a birthday song. Janssen is taking a hiatus from his funeral service business to run the 1,150-mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome. The dog is not part of his racing team. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
In this photo taken Feb. 17, 2011, in Anchorage, Alaska, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race rookie Scott Janssen of Anchorage, Alaska, poses for a photo. Scott Janssen _ "The Mushing Mortician" _ is foregoing ice cream and cake this year to celebrate his 50th birthday on the Iditarod Trail, but some of his best friends are still going to sing him a birthday song. "It is going to be me and 16 dogs and they are going to be howling at the moon," said Janssen, an undertaker competing in his first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Janssen is taking a hiatus from his funeral service business to run the 1,150-mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Lance Mackey drives his team up the finish chute of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 18, 2009, in Nome, Alaska, to win his third Iditarod in a row. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)
The 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey, right, and Aaron Burmeister drive their teams across Norton Bay through the blowing snow Monday, March 16, 2009, near the Shaktoolik, Alaska, checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)
Cim Smyth arrives off of the Yukon River an into the Kaltag, Alaska, checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, March 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)
Canadian musher Sebastian Schnuelle followed closely by Aaron Burmeister drives his team off of the Yukon River and into the Anvik, Alaska checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race trail Friday, March 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)
FILE - Mac, one of Jeff Holt's sled dogs, peeks out of its box as he waits to join the team and begin the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Willow, Alaska, March 8, 2009. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)
Mushers take care of their dog teams as they rest at the Rainy Pass, Alaska, checkpoint of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Monday, March 9, 2009. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)
Norwegian musher Bjornar Anderson drives his team past an old cabin as he leaves the Rainy Pass, Alaska checkpoint of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Monday, March 9, 2009. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)
Canadan musher Sebastian Schnuelle, the 2009 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race Champion, drives his team down Fourth Avenue with Gisela Houseman, of Orange TX. in the sled during ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday, March 7, 2009, in Anchorage, Alaska. Sixty-seven mushers are racing to Nome in the 1,100 mile sled dog race. (AP Photo/Al Grillo)
FILE - This March 7, 2009, file photo shows Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Hugh Neff's lead dogs jumping in their harness as they get ready for the ceremonial start of the race in Anchorage, Alaska. Sled dogs, such as those booting up for Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, are carefully outfitted with booties at every step. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, FILE)
Musher Wade Marrs of Wasillal, Alaska, leads his team Saturday, March 7, 2015, during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska. The official start is Monday in Fairbanks, where the race was moved because of a lack of snow to the south. (AP Photo/Rachel D'Oro)
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