WILLOW - Sixty-six mushers are officially on their way to Nome after heading out of the starting gate in Willow Sunday afternoon.
For the 40th Iditarod, the competition is pretty stiff. There are six returning champions with 19 wins between them. Last year’s winner and course record holder, John Baker, is back again, hoping for another victory.
"Of course I want to repeat. But this team is so much fun. They make it a pure joy and I enjoy watching them do what they're trained to do,” said Baker.
After four consecutive wins, Lance Mackey came in 16th last year. He says he’s still racing for first place but is glad to have some of the pressure off.
"I'm not counting anyone out. They all want it real bad. I'm going to run my dog team first and race my competition second and see how it turns out,” said Mackey.
Four-time champion Jeff King returns to the race after taking a year off and hopes he’s got the winning strategy.
"I want to get over the mountains safe and sound. I don't want to be too far behind but I also don't want to be in a big hurry. I'd really love to leave Nikolai a good-looking team of dogs. That’s often a sign of what’s to come,” said King.
Frenetic fans filled the starting line, eager to see the dogs and mushers begin the thousand mile trek.
“It's like having a chance to go to the Olympics!” said a fan from South Carolina.
Competitors say they’re looking forward to getting out of the chute and into the Alaskan wilderness.
"The combo of everything we call the last great race coupled into an eight or nine day window, that makes for an intense experience. That's what it's all about,” said four-time champion Martin Buser.
Some spectators came from around the globe to be a part of this world-class race and mushers are happy to have them there.
"You can feel the energy through the crowd, especially the people who have favorite mushers and root for them. You also get the excitement from the dogs and feel like you can get in and do it,” said Janet Zoellick of Chicago.
"Thanks to everyone for being a part of this and giving me a race to be champion of. If it wasn't for the fans, I'd be champion of nothing,” said John Baker.
Nothing would suit the mushers more than being the first to cross the finish line, earning bragging rights for the next year and the title of Iditarod champion.