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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Last Great Race on Earth begins today in Anchorage, Alaska. Sixty-seven sled dog teams will start the thousand-mile Iditarod across the barren, frigid and unforgiving land. There are just a handful of first-time racers in this year's competition, but those aren't the only rookies. One is a veterinarian - Greg Reppas, whose job is to help keep dogs healthy throughout the race. NPR's Russell Lewis has the story.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: In the days leading up to the race, Greg Reppas was standing in a snowdrift in Wasilla, Alaska. His dark black boots, crunched down the snow as he squatted on his knees, checking out Leo.

GREG REPPAS: Good boy. Good boy, Leo.

LEWIS: Leo is one of the 16 dogs on this team that will start the Iditarod. He's a mix of husky and several other breeds and looks like a mutt. He's born to run and raring to go. He's small, like most sled dogs, just about 50 pounds. Reppas is giving Leo a complete medical exam.

REPPAS: He feels fine. (Unintelligible) sacral area. Feels fine.

LEWIS: Reppas uses a stethoscope to listen to Leo's heart. He then runs his hands across the dog's back, feeling his joints and muscles.

REPPAS: Now the back side. Good boy, Leo.

LEWIS: A few days before these exams, Leo and the 1,000 other dogs running in the Iditarod had blood work done and EKGs to check for cardiac issues. Any animal with problems is scratched and replaced before the start. These tests are just the beginning. Reppas and 50 other volunteer vets will fan out across the Iditarod's 24 checkpoints. At each one, the vets will scan the animals - sometimes taking just 30 seconds.

REPPAS: When I see the dog come across the line, the first question I ask is what are the problems so that I can emphasize my efforts on those problem dogs.

LEWIS: On the trail, it's a different kind of medicine - no fancy diagnostics or elaborate tests, just a vet's expertise. The biggest problems they see are exhaustion, dehydration and ulcers. If a dog is deemed unfit to continue, it's flown back to Anchorage for additional care. The team will keep racing but down a dog. This is Reppas's first time out on the trail. He says he's ready for the challenge, partly because of his day job. He's a major in the Army. Reppas says the Iditarod is more than just a race.

REPPAS: Some say these dogs are a good model for humans as far as, you know, human sports medicine. And we're learning things on an annual basis on these dogs that normally this is the ideal laboratory to learn in.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ANGIE TAGGART: I always make a joke that, you know, they don't really care about the mushers because they just have the vets out there.

LEWIS: That's Angie Taggart from Ketchikan, Alaska. She's a musher and today starts her second Iditarod.

TAGGART: They don't have any regular doctors. So, I just am like see who's important in this race? It's not the musher. It's the dog.

LEWIS: And for veterinarians like Greg Reppas, the dogs are their main mission for the next two weeks. But he's also looking forward to seeing wild Alaska.

REPPAS: You get that sense of perspective and how some of the locals have lived here for thousands of years. And you get a brief but, you know, clear look into, you know, how some folks live in this type of environment.

LEWIS: Bush pilots will shuttle him to the remote checkpoints where he'll sleep in a tent sometimes in minus-20 degree temperatures. Like the dogs, he won't get much rest either. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Anchorage.

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