ANCHORAGE, Alaska, March 4 (UPI) -- The 2012 Iditarod began Sunday, pitting 66 mushers against one another in the grueling 975-mile race from Willow to Nome, Alaska.
The mushers and their teams of dogs raced out of Willow in the afternoon, commencing the 10-day trial.
Ray Redington Jr. of Knik led the competitors out of the chute, which included 15 rookies, two mushers from Europe and Scandinavia and a mom from Seattle, in a broad range of experience.
Defending champion John Baker of Kotzebue, who set the Iditarod speed record last year at just under eight days and 19 hours, and his dogs drew plenty of attention from the thousands of people who showed up for Saturday's pre-race "trailgating" festivities in Anchorage, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
"I don't feel any pressure that I need to win," Baker said. "I've trained hard this year, and I want to go out and do the best that the dogs can do."
Among his challengers is Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, who is gunning for a fifth title.
"People think that I'm on a downhill spiral because past champions have done similar things. Had great rides and then fell off the face of the Earth, basically," Mackey said. "I didn't come here to go camping."
The Iditarod Trail Committee announced unexpectedly Saturday the race route will include the Happy River Steps, a series of switchbacks that have proven hazardous in past years. The committee had said last month the race would follow a winter trail that avoided the Steps while tacking on a little over a mile to the distance between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass.
"While teams were still leaving 4th Avenue today, we heard from our trail-breakers that the winter trail was no longer the better option based upon the amount of snow and wind in that particular section of trail over the last day," Race Director Mark Nordman said in a release.
The Daily News reported Willow alone had 10-12 feet of snow on the ground Sunday, making for more challenging conditions on the trail.