The 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officially gets started Sunday afternoon in Willow, as 52 mushers depart for Nome, 1,100 grueling miles away. This is officially called the Iditarod "Restart" because there is a ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday, March 2. That day does not count in the standings - it's only for show in Alaska's largest city. But come Sunday, March 3 in Willow, the mushers are on the lock as they depart the restart.
The Iditarod is Alaska's marquee sporting event, as mushers from around the world travel here with their teams of dogs to compete for Iditarod glory. While winning would be spectacular, just finishing the race is a testament to every musher and their dogs - more people on Earth have reached the summit of Mount Everest than have finished an Iditarod.
The official start is on Willow Lake, and mushers begin departing the starting chute at 2 p.m. They'll leave in intervals, so it's a non-stop afternoon of watching mushers. Typically, "watch parties" pop up along the lake, giving spectators an up close and personal view of the start. There is limited parking at the Willow Community Center, so it's best to plan ahead.
This year, teams will start with 14 dogs, two less than in previous races. Mushers typically travel with a full team for the first stages of the race before dropping dogs at checkpoints, where they are evaluated by veterinarians and then flown home by volunteers of the Iditarod Air Force.
Once the race begins you can follow the progress of the mushers at the Iditarod's web site, which has real-time information on when mushers check into and out of checkpoints. That can be misleading, however, as mushers may sign in to a checkpoint, grab their supplies and then check out within minutes, only to camp a few miles outside of the checkpoint as a strategy to keep their competitors guessing. The Iditarod also offers "Insider" packages that take you deeper into race coverage, including live video and more.
The start in Anchorage and the restart in Willow are very different, and you should plan on experiencing them both. Just north of Willow is Talkeetna, and the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, along with bed and breakfasts and other inns, are open throughout the month of March. Watch the start in Anchorage on Saturday, then head north to the Susitna Valley for an entire Iditarod weekend.