When does the Iditarod start, and who's competing? What to know ahead of the 2023 race

Feb. 25—The 51st running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks off the first weekend in March, marking a full return to its pre-pandemic format.

First, dozens of mushers and hundreds of hounds will embark on a casual tour of Anchorage during the ceremonial start on Saturday, March 4. Then the real racing gets underway at the Iditarod restart the next day on Sunday, March 5, in Willow, north of Anchorage.

Before teams hit the trail, here's a rundown of what to know heading into the 2023 Iditarod.

When does it start? And where?

The ceremonial start begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 4, in downtown Anchorage, at Fourth Avenue and D Street. Along the 11-mile route following Anchorage streets and trails, there are plenty of good viewing spots and semi-organized outdoor watch parties. Teams mush out of downtown, dropping down Cordova Street before following the wooded Chester Creek Trail all the way past Goose Lake and ending up at Campbell Airstrip, by the Bureau of Land Management offices on the east side of town.

The restart takes place on Willow Lake in Willow — about a 1.5-hour drive north of Anchorage — on Sunday, March 5, with the first musher leaving the chute at 2 p.m. Teams are expected to start arriving in Nome eight to 10 days later.

How long is the race?

A thousand miles. Well, roughly. In total, this year's route clocks 998 miles, although that includes the ceremonial 11-mile run through Anchorage. From Willow Lake to Nome in this year's routing, it is 987 miles total.

What's the route this year?

The Iditarod typically alternates between its "northern" route in even years, and its "southern" route in odd years like this one. But this will be the first time the Iditarod has followed its southern route since 2019.

The main difference between the two routes lies in the stretch of trail between the checkpoint of Ophir — about 340 miles into the race — and Kaltag, the last stop before a long overland portage to the Bering Sea coast. From Ophir, the southern route passes through the Yukon River communities of Shageluk, Anvik and Grayling, as well as the ghost town of Iditarod, from which the historic freight-hauling route from Nome to Seward took its name. (By contrast, the northern route takes mushers through checkpoints in Cripple, Ruby, Galena and Nulato.)

The 2020 Iditarod, which followed the northern route, coincided with the international lockdowns and travel restrictions brought about by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, upending the race midway through. In 2021, as a way of limiting viral transmission risks, organizers created the "Gold Trail Loop" for dog teams to follow instead of the southern route. The out-and-back Gold Trail Loop took mushers to the historic Iditarod mining district before they turned around to head back to the road system, avoiding most of the traditional race checkpoints in small rural communities.

Who's racing this year?

Just 33 mushers are signed up to compete. It's the smallest Iditarod field ever — smaller even than the field of 34 mushers who started the very first Iditarod half a century ago in 1973, although just 22 finished the inaugural run. This year's crop of competitors is a far cry from recent years when the starting roster has approached triple digits, hitting a high-water mark of 96 mushers in 2008 (though a more modest number, 78, crossed the finish line).

The shrinkage is driven by a number of factors: ever-rising prices for supplies, feed and fuel; diminishing interest in mushing as a sport and lifestyle; fewer corporate sponsors to fill the race purse; adverse environmental changes like declining salmon runs and variable winter weather conditions.

Many of the race's most well-known stalwarts and recent champions aren't competing this year, including Dallas and Mitch Seavey, Jeff King, Martin Buser or Joar Leifseth Ulsom. Four-time Iditarod champion and Alaska mushing icon Lance Mackey died in September, and will be commemorated as this year's Honorary Musher.

Two recent Iditarod winners, Pete Kaiser and Brent Sass, are both slated to run. Both are also coming off first-place finishes in challenging mid-distance races this season — Kaiser in the Kuskokwim 300 and Sass in the Yukon Quest 550. Alongside them in the chute will be a competitive cluster of first-rate mushers with plenty of top-10 finishes each, including Jessie Royer, Wade Marrs, Richie Diehl, Matt Hall, Mille Porsild and Jessie Holmes.

Nine of the competitors entered to run are rookies, marking the first time in Iditarod history that the number of newcomers has dipped into the single digits.

Are there any modifications to this year's race because of COVID-19?

This year's race will look almost exactly the same as it did before the pandemic. The 2022 race operated mostly along pre-COVID protocols, though the community of Takotna, a popular spot for mushers to take their mandatory 24-hour rests, opted not to host a checkpoint because of public health concerns, so mushers went directly from McGrath to Ophir. This year, Takotna is back open for business — and presumably, pie, one of its signature offerings.

Though the Iditarod Trail Committee implemented robust COVID-19 testing protocols and required competitors, volunteers, as well as staff to be vaccinated during the 2022 race, in October it announced it was scrapping that mandate and reevaluating testing requirements.

How long does the Iditarod last? When can we expect a winner?

Gone are the days when the "race" was essentially a three-week camping trip through the wilderness among friends. During the inaugural Iditarod in 1973, it took 20 days for the winner, Dick Wilmarth, to arrive in Nome. Now, the fastest mushers arrive under the burled arch on Front Street in a mere eight or nine days, which in recent years has meant in the wee hours between Monday night and Wednesday morning (Dallas Seavey's winning time in 2021 was 7 days and 14 hours, but this was on the modified Gold Loop Trail, which at 832 miles was significantly shorter than in a typical year).

The last time mushers raced the southern route, Pete Kaiser won in 9 days, 12 hours and 39 minutes, arriving at 3:39 a.m. Wednesday morning.

What does the top musher win?

The full race purse is divided up among the top 20 finishers, and isn't finalized until after the race concludes. Last year's winner, Brent Sass, received $51,798. There are additional cash prizes awarded from corporate sponsors for other achievements along the trail, like being the first competitor to reach the Yukon River. Beyond the top 20, every musher who reaches the finish line receives $1,049.