Iditarod's Top Dogs Will Brave New Twists In the already challenging sled dog race, there has been a change in the normal route due to warm weather. The strongest veteran mushers size up their strengths that have prepared them to compete.

Iditarod's Top Dogs Will Brave New Twists

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Iditarod sled dog race starts tomorrow. The normal route takes mushers over mountain ranges, across frozen tundra and sea ice for a thousand miles. This year, unseasonable warm weather in Alaska has forced a change in the route. But as Emily Schwing reports from Fairbanks, that doesn't mean the level of competition has lightened.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: The Iditarod normally starts in Anchorage, but the race committee was forced to relocate the start line to Fairbanks due to poor trail conditions. This year's re-route includes a section of trail that doesn't get much winter traffic. Some places have little to no snow coverage, and in at least one spot, there is open water where there should be solid ice. But the race will go on.

BRENT SASS: In Iditarod, it's just full of all the top competitors. And so it's real fun to, you know, line your team up against all those really great dog teams.

SCHWING: Musher Brent Sass is coming to the Iditarod after his recent win in Alaska's other 1,000 mile sled dog race - the Yukon Quest. This year, he'll compete in his third Iditarod.

SASS: It goes to these really remote villages that don't get a lot of traffic from outsiders all year long, so it's really fun to pull into the villages and see the excitement from all the people and the history that the race holds.

SCHWING: The race was founded to commemorate an historic route mushers used to deliver serum to Nome during a diphtheria outbreak in 1925. It's the dramatic folkloric stories about traveling across the state and out to the sea ice on Alaska's west coast that draw rookies like Canadian Brian Wilmshurst. He says he's nervous.

BRIAN WILMSHURST: Well, you know, just about these big windstorms and just the vast, white nothingness kind of deal. I totally don't know what to expect to tell you the truth, you know?

ALIY ZIRKLE: In my craziest dreams, I never would've expected to be mushing in that.

SCHWING: Aliy Zirkle says the Iditarod last year was the most challenging of her career.

(SOUNDBITE OF 41ST IDITAROD)

CROWD: Aliy. Aliy. Aliy.

SCHWING: A fan favorite, Zirkle placed second for the third consecutive time as a crowd chanted her name at the finish line. After nearly a week traveling on snowless, rough trail, a fierce windstorm stirred up a ground blizzard roughly 30 miles from the finish line. By the time the race was over, a third of the field had dropped out. Some teams were rescued, but Zirkle says last year's experience strengthened her relationship with her dogs.

ZIRKLE: I think that I was successful last year because of the way that I work with my dogs, that my dogs trust me and that the time and effort that I put into whelping puppies in my home and raising them by hand and knowing each one of them intimately actually paid it forward.

SCHWING: In 2000, Zirkle became the first woman to win the Yukon Quest. She's only the third woman in the world to win a 1,000 mile sled dog race. This year, she'll compete in her 15th Iditarod. She knows a win won't come easy, but she'll draw on past experience to get there.

ZIRKLE: It's so fun to be able to travel with dogs who want to go and run more than you do. When you get on the sled, they're moving, so you better hang on. And that's the coolest thing in the whole world.

SCHWING: Zirkle is among nearly 80 mushers who will try to overcome an endless number of challenges over the next several weeks as they travel by dog team from Fairbanks to Nome. For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Fairbanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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