A few hours before the annual Iditarod musher's banquet, people stood scattered around booths with Iditarod memorabilia for sale. Some took in the crisp mountain views from the Dena'ina center's third-floor balcony.  

Others waited eagerly for the Iditarod musher meet-and-greet Thursday afternoon. Stationed at the front of the line, Michael and Shirley Gring, were ready to root for a veteran musher they've come to know through television, and a rookie from their home state. 

"My wife wants to see Jessie Holmes," Michael said. "I want to see Shaynee Traska." 

Traska, he explains, is from a town in Michigan near home. 

"We want to support her and we're real proud of her," said Gring. 

He planned to tell her to "be strong," while his wife, Shirley, wants Holmes to know she'll be watching and following his progress all the way to Nome. 

"He's gonna make it," she said with a knowing smile. 

The two soon joined hundreds of fans as they filtered into the room hoping to meet a musher they felt like they already knew. The first mushers to arrive waited, sharpie in hand, to meet their fans. 

Opportunities for mushers and fans to mingle used to be more sparse, sprinkled in with other events during the annual musher's banquet. This was the second year in a row the race has hosted the meet-and-greet as its own event. 

Rookie musher Alison Lifka speaks with fans during a musher meet-and-greet event. (Daniella Rivera / KTVA)

Even rookie musher Alison Lifka, who is preparing to race in her first Iditarod, found herself with a following.

"I've always dreamed to come to the Iditarod," said Deirdre Conley, who lives in Miami, Florida. "And now that I have a classmate — Alison Lifka graduated in 2013 — I organized nine alumna to come!" 

Like Lifka, Conley graduated from Sweet Briar College, but more than four decades earlier. Conley sponsored one of Lifka's dogs, and Thursday, finally got to meet her favorite musher. 

"She is such a powerful role model for everyone," Conley gushed. 

"It’s really incredible," Lifka said of the group's trip to Alaska."I love all the support." 

For one fan who lives in Chicago, this race marks her 14th trip to Alaska. Sue Laugal's here to support Charley Benja. 

"Charley is my guy, because, you know, he’s the hometown musher! He’s from Illinois," said Laugal. 

While she describes herself as one of Benja's most dedicated fans, Laugal said she enjoyed meeting other mushers, too. 

"You know what, every single one of them has been so down-home and genuine," she said. "I just love them all. They’re just so sweet."

Laugal made her first trip to Alaska in 1999 after teaching her language arts class about the Iditarod.

"I had to come see it with my own eyes," she said. 

Even locals got caught up in the excitement of meeting the mushers. 

Rick and Lori Nusbaum pose for a photo with Iditarod veteran Matthew Failor. (Daniella Rivera / KTVA)

Eagle River residents Rick and Lori Nusbaum said that, aside from Christmas, the Iditarod represents their favorite time of the year. 

"We love, love, love it," Lori said of the event. "It’s like the best part of it, 'cause you get to really get up there with them and talk to them." 

The couple moved from California two years ago. They'll be cheering on Matthew Failor of Willow, Alaska. 

"We always root for Matt, the new up-and-comer," Lori said, "and we are so rooting for Lance [Mackey]." 

Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey signs his autograph during a musher meet-and-greet event. (Daniella Rivera / KTVA)

Among the mushers with the longest lines for autographs and photos was crowd favorite Aliy Zirkle. 

"Women do have the inner strength to carry on and do something that normally men would do," said Carla Bushmaker who traveled to Alaska from Wisconsin. 

She was looking for Zirkle and rookie Blair Braverman, hoping to tell them, "Have lots of endurance and be tough." 

"They're strong," she said, of women preparing to race in the Iditarod. 

Iditarod veteran Aliy Zirkle poses for a photo with fans. (Daniella Rivera / KTVA)

For mushers, even though several said they're anxious to hit the trail, the event is an opportunity to meet the people who support what they love to do. 

"Oh, I think it’s great," said musher Ed Hopkins, "It’s a good time, a good chance to meet all the fans and all the fans get to meet us. I think it’s a good way for everybody to get together." 

Once mushers and their dog teams take off from the restart in Willow on Sunday, the fans they spent time with on Thursday will be cheering them on from afar. 

Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.

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