Fearless, foolhardy or just plain stubborn, four-time champion Martin Buser cheerfully started the 1,770km Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday, a few days after the middle finger of his right hand was amputated above the second joint.
Buser, who was injured in a table saw accident Tuesday, loaded up on painkillers, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory pills. He wore bandages and a special splint on his mangled hand and stuffed it inside an oversized black mitten.
At the festive, ceremonial start of the 33rd Iditarod, he happily signed autographs -- he's left-handed -- and posed for photographs with fans on a crisp, sunny morning before setting off on a journey to Nome that is perilous even for mushers in the best of health.
The first day was easy, starting out on trucked-in snow downtown, then taking a slow run for 17.7km with reduced teams of 12 dogs hauling "Iditariders" who paid for the thrill. The race really gets going Sunday with a restart from Willow, 112.6km north of the city. From there it's a danger-filled trail through steep gorges, along frozen rivers and over menacing mountain passes in subzero temperatures with howling winds.
Buser, 46, born in Switzerland and living in Alaska since 1979, is not in the race merely to finish, as are some of the other 78 mushers. This is his 22nd Iditarod and he's out to claim the US$75,000 top prize.
"First place is the expectation, with the realization that if my health deteriorates I'm going to have to regroup," said Buser, who last won in 2002 and is seeking to tie Rick Swenson's record of five victories.
This Iditarod, which features six former champions, the youngest of rookies and grizzled veterans in their 60s, is filled with compelling personal dramas.
Rachael Scdoris, who sees her dogs and the trail only as blobs and blurs, became the first legally blind musher to start the Iditarod. She will be aided by a "visual interpreter" running with a team ahead of her.
Defending champion Mitch Seavey hit the trail along with two of his sons, Dallas, who turned 18 on Friday and is the youngest Iditarod starter in history, and Tyrell, 20, who finished 36th two years ago.
Other former champions include 2003 winner Robert Sorlie of Norway, who skipped last year, five-time winner Swenson of Two Rivers, Alaska, four-time winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Montana, and three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park, Alaska.