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Alaska’s Iditarod sled dog race is on, with COVID-19-altered course

FILE PHOTO: Leifseth Ulsom of Norway heads up the first hill out of the start chute during the official restart of the Iditarod dog sled race in Willow, Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – The word “Iditarod” derives from an indigenous Alaskan name for a “far distant place.” Due to precautions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts on Sunday, will be an especially distanced event.

The trail for the world’s most famous sled dog race has been drastically rerouted to avoid almost all the communities that normally serve as checkpoints, and the traditional ceremonial start in Anchorage has been eliminated.

Only 47 mushers and their dogs have entered, a much smaller field than usual, as many mushers were unable to clear coronavirus-related travel obstacles. And there will be almost no spectators cheering teams on in person, as trail access will be strictly limited.

Once mushers and their dogs take off, however, a lot will be back to normal for them, said 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom, one of this year’s favorites.

“It’s not like we are very social people. We spend most of our time out with the dogs,” Leifseth Ulsom, a Norwegian who lives full-time in Alaska, told Reuters.

COVID-19 planning for this year’s race started at the end of last year’s contest, when participants came home “to a different world,” said Rod Urbach, the Iditarod’s chief executive.

Canceling was not an option, Urbach said. Instead, the Iditarod created a “robust” COVID plan that, as of this week, had been updated 21 times, he said.

The biggest change for this year’s 49th edition of the race is the course. Instead of running to Nome, the Bering Sea town that is normally the finish line, the 2021 route will be an out-and-back loop taking teams to an uninhabited checkpoint called Iditarod and the abandoned mining settlement of Flat, then back to the starting point in Willow, about 75 miles (121 km) north of Anchorage. The total distance is about 860 miles, roughly 100 miles shorter than the traditional course.

All participants must test for COVID repeatedly and remain in an Iditarod “bubble,” Urbach said. That’s especially important for race officials, veterinarians and volunteers who far outnumber the competitors, he said.

“The mushers are fairly easy to socially distance,” he said.

Coronavirus aside, this year’s field is highly competitive, Leifseth Ulsom said. He is one of four returning champions, a group that includes four-time winners Dallas Seavey and Martin Buser, and 2019 champion Pete Kaiser.

Also expected to compete are the Iditarod’s top women – Aliy Zirkle, planning to retire after this year’s race, and Jessie Royer, who finished third the past two years.

Plentiful snow this season has allowed for ample advance training, Leifseth Ulsom said. “We’ve had a really good winter, the best we’ve had in a long time,” he said.

The Iditarod, as it has every year, faces criticism from animal-rights activists condemning the event as cruel to dogs, putting pressure on race sponsors. In January, Exxon Mobil announced it was ending its longtime sponsorship after this year’s race.

Urbach said the Iditarod has, nevertheless, gained some new sponsors and is drawing revenue from a subscription service that sends video directly to fans.

Plans are already underway for next year’s 50th anniversary Iditarod, which is expected to be conducted in a post-COVID world, Urbach said.

  “Next year, we’re going to have the biggest bash in Anchorage imaginable,” he said.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage, Alaska; Editing by Steve Gorman and Stephen Coates)

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