Iditarod mushers on sled-dog race through Alaska wilderness

JUNEAU, Alaska (REUTERS) - Mushers from around the world set off on Alaska's famed Iditarod sled-dog race to Nome on Monday in sub zero temperatures on an alternative never-before-used route from Fairbanks that could lend a new level of unpredictability to the contest.

The nearly 1,600km Iditarod race, which typically takes nine days or longer to complete, commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that delivered diphtheria serum by sled-dog relay to the Bering Sea coastal community of Nome.

But for the first time since 2003, the mushers will not compete along one of two traditional trails after race officials deemed sections of the established route unsafe. Instead, they created an alternate trail, and moved the start to Fairbanks from Willow.

Defending champion Dallas Seavey said the change in a race that may level the playing field, noting the trail is new to veteran mushers and rookies alike.

"You're not really sure how fast the race is going to be, considering the change," Seavey said. "It's going to require mushers to have a lot of confidence in themselves and their dog teams."

The race kicked off with 78 mushers, each with up to a dozen dogs, set off in staggered starts, about 2 to 4 minutes apart, with Canadian rookie Rob Cooke starting off the race at 10am.

Most competitors live in Alaska, but formidable opponents come from Norway, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, France and Australia.

The race features lonely stretches from 29 to 192km along a series of 16 checkpoints between Fairbanks and the finish line in Nome, the first one 95.5km away in Nenana.

Competitors can be expected to face unpredictable wind gusts along the Bering Sea coast and temperatures forecast to reach as low as minus 29 deg C.

The winner will receive US$70,000 (S$97,100) and a pick-up truck. Other top finishers will receive cash prizes from a purse totaling more than US$725,000.

Seavey, who has won twice in the last three years, said four-time winner Jeff King, three-time runner up Aliy Zirkle, and Seavey's own father, two-time winner Mitch Seavey, are favorites. So too is Alaskan Pete Kaiser and Norwegians Thomas Waerner and Joar Ulsom, he said.

The race also features the return of Lance Mackey, who posted four victories from 2007 to 2010 while overcoming cancer. Mackey said he is "ready to get out there with my dogs and leave all this behind."