ANCHORAGE, Alaska, March 2 (Reuters) - A New England transplant who finished a close second last year is considered a strong contender to win going into Saturday's launch of the 41st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, seeking to become the first female champion in more than two decades.
Aliy Zirkle, 43, of Two Rivers, Alaska, faces a competitive field of rival mushers in the storied 1,000-mile (1,600 km) race from Anchorage to Nome, including her husband, Allen Moore, who won the less-famous Yukon Quest International sled-dog race two weeks ago.
She said she feels no particular pressure as a female contender in one of the few notable American sporting events in which men and women compete on equal footing and that last had a woman winner 23 years ago.
"I kind of like to do what I do for myself, not because of my gender, and (for) my dogs," Zirkle said in an interview on Thursday.
Zirkle said she understands that to some women and girls she has become a role model. That realization, she said, dawned on her after she won the 2001 Yukon Quest - becoming the only woman to win that grueling 1,000-mile race.
"When I got to the finish line, and all these women were there with their daughters, and I got all these letters saying, `You're an inspiration,' then it kind of hit home. Maybe I do have an influence," she said.
Zirkle was the runner-up in last year's race, won by Dallas Seavey, who is entered this year as well.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the race was dominated by a rivalry between four-time champion Susan Butcher and five-time champion Rick Swenson, and the idea of a male-female mushing feud was promoted.
"Alaska: Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod," was a slogan carried on one popular T-shirt at the time.
Butcher won her last championship in 1990. No woman has won since, although DeeDee Jonrowe came close, finishing second in 1993 and 1998.
Zirkle is a vivacious New Hampshire native who came to Alaska to work as a tent-dwelling federal biologist on the remote Alaska Peninsula.
"Aliy is a very well-liked musher and, of course, a very likely candidate to be the next woman to win," said Libby Riddles, who in 1985 dashed into a storm to become the first woman Iditarod champion.
Zirkle will have plenty of competition among the 66 mushers and dog teams running the race, and there is no clear favorite, Riddles said. "Top 10 teams from last year are still looking pretty good this year," Riddles added.
They include Seavey, the third-generation Iditarod musher who last year, at 25, became the youngest champion in the race's 40-year history. His father, 2004 champion Mitch Seavey, who finished seventh last year, is another contender, as is Jonrowe, a consistent competitor who finished 10th in 2012.
Another contender is John Baker, an Inupiat Eskimo who became the Iditarod's first Alaska Native winner in 2011, setting a speed record of eight days, 18 hours and 46 minutes.
One fan favorite is an Anchorage funeral director, Scott Janssen, who calls himself "The Mushin' Mortician."
Some mushers who had disappointing showings last year are considered contenders. Joe Runyan, the 1989 champion, said four-time winner Jeff King has bounced back after dropping out of last year's race, having impressive results in preliminary races.
"Jeff King has kind of reinvented himself, and everybody's taking him really seriously," Runyan said.
Not every Iditarod musher is gunning for victory. Among the 66 in the race are mushers from Jamaica, New Zealand, Norway, Brazil and Russia's Chukotka Peninsula, which lies across the Bering Strait from Alaska. Those participants have said they want to experience the Alaska wilderness, challenge themselves and spread cultural and educational messages.
The race kicks off with an untimed, 11-mile (17 km) ceremonial run through the trails of Alaska's largest city, Anchorage. Timed competition starts on Sunday in Willow, a small community about 80 miles (130 km) north of Anchorage.
The total race purse is $600,000, to be divided among the top 30 finishers. The champion will also receive a new pickup truck worth $39,000. (Editing by Steve Gorman and Will Dunham)