Alaska's famed sled-dog race is set to get underway on Saturday when dozens of mushers and dog teams from around the world begin their near 1,000-mile (1,600-km) journey through the U.S. state's frigid wilderness.
The ceremonial start in Anchorage sets the stage for the official timed start on Sunday of a race that commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum to Nome by sled-dog relay.
The trail cutting through Alaska's tundra to the Bering Sea coastline is marked by darkness, steep climbs, temperatures expected to dip as low as 60 F below zero (-51 C), and fierce winds powerful enough to throw teams off the trails.
"Last year is done and gone," said two-time defending champion and course record holder Dallas Seavey, 29, who is seeking to become the sixth racer to record four victories. Each of the last four races has been won by either Seavey or his father, Mitch.
"I would assume most of my competitors are coming back with better teams than they brought in the past. I know I am."
Saturday's events are known for drawing hordes of fans armed with cameras and banners who gather to cheer on the 85 mushers, a number of them from as far away as the United Kingdom and Sweden, as they ride through the streets of downtown Anchorage.
A lack of snow in the state's largest city, however, forced race organizers to shorten the race's ceremonial start to three miles (4.8 km) from 11 miles (17.7 km), despite efforts to bring in fresh snow by train from Fairbanks, Hooley said.
Mushers will hit 21 checkpoints with distances between stops ranging from 18 to 85 miles (29 to 137 km) before reaching the finish line in the coastal community of Nome, after traveling some 975 miles (1,569 km).
Winners usually cross the finish line between the eighth and 10th days. The winner will receive $50,400 and a new truck.
"I'm more nervous about the ceremonial start than the timed start," said Miriam Osredkar, 38, one the 17 rookie mushers. She grew up in Ohio and has completed races in Idaho, Wyoming, Russia, and Alaska. "For me, the (timed) re-start, it's just --get me out on the trail and let me be with my dogs."
(Reporting by Steve Quinn in Jueanu, Alaska; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Sandra Maler)