Iditarod: A Look at 6 Dog Sled Racers Vying for the Title

VIDEO: Scott Janssen says he would sacrifice himself to a moose to save his animals.
ABCNEWS.com

Man's best friend and mushers take on Mother Nature and some of the most dangerous and treacherous land in America over the next two weeks.

The Iditarod began in Anchorage, Alaska Saturday as 66 teams embarked on the 1,049-mile journey that will end when the first team arrives in the western Bering Sea town of Nome.

The race, which has been aptly dubbed Last Great Race on Earth, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Sled dogs have a long and historic culture in Alaska.

First used for moving mail, supplies and gold throughout the 49th state, their greatest accomplishment was seen in 1925 when mushers followed the Iditarod trail to bring Diphtheria serum to Nome from Anchorage, following a deadly outbreak.

The start in Anchorage Saturday is considered the ceremonial start of the race and the teams only travel 15 miles. Today, the mush teams will officially begin the grueling journey from the small town of Willow.

The teams, which are made of 12 to 15 dogs, are expected to face temperatures far below zero, limited to no visibility, treacherous mountains, frozen rivers, wild animals, and much more.

Here's a look at some of the racers competing in this year's event.

PHOTO: Iitarod 2012
Serena Marshall/ABC
Martin Buser, Bib No. 41

Martin Buser is a four-time winner competing in his 29th Iditarod race, making him the musher with the most consecutive Iditarod finishes.

"This is the annual exam, if we have done the preparations and the homework," Buser said. "The Iditarod is not a two-week sporting event; It's a 52-week commitment to, with and for our dogs."

As the winner of the coveted Leonhard Seppala Award for the most humanitarian care of his dogs, Buser pointed out that his team works with their dogs year round, not just for the Super Bowl of dog mushing, but because it is their lifestyle and passion.

"They are athletes, they are our companions, they are our soul mates and we do something with and for them on a daily basis," he said. His favorite part of the race is working with his team and "making them a cohesive unit."

What does it take to win? "You have a good ride, start to finish," Buser said. "Dogs got to stay healthy and everything has to fall your way. We worked hard at the preparation, now we just have to have the little bit of luck it takes to win."

PHOTO: Iditarod 2012
Serena Marshall/ABC
Kristy Berington, Bib No. 31

Kristy Berington, 28, is running her third Iditarod race this year.

Berington started racing in 2010. She came to love the sport after growing up next to a neighbor in Wisconsin who allowed her and her twin sister, Anna, to go out and run the dogs.

"I kind of came to the conclusion, why do 10-20 miles when you can do a hundred, even a thousand miles," Berington said.

The more than 1,049 miles of the Iditarod consists of three parts. The first part is mountain and requires heavy technical driving. The middle part, the Yukon River, is known for the severe cold. The last part, which is the coast, has rough weather, with wind and snow.

Her primary concern running the race is the cold weather.

"It doesn't only affect me, it affects my dogs, and if I can't take care of myself, I can't take care of my dogs," Berington said.

And doing a thousand frigid miles with her 16 "best friends" excites the young rider the most, especially this year with one extra best friend running the race.

"It's pretty special to have my twin sister, Anna, out there as well," she said. "I think we'll be able to run together for the most part and have a good time."

She has no plans to quit anytime soon.

"As long as its fun I want to keep doing it, so we will see," she said.

PHOTO: Iditarod 2012
Serena Marshall/ABC
Anna Berington, Bib No. 33

Anna Berington, twin sister to veteran rider Kristy, is running her first Iditarod this year.

"It's my rookie run to Nome," said the 28-year-old, who also got her start by running her neighbor's dogs growing up.

One of 15 rookies in the race this year, she said being nervous is the "obvious answer" to how she is feeling at the start of the race.

"If you're not nervous you don't have enough invested and everything I've done up to this point has brought me here," Berington said. "I'm really eager to get out on the trail and get into routine."

She said her only goal is to "finish with a happy healthy dog team," adding that "the unknown" is her greatest fear starting out.

And, regardless of whether she wins the race's Rookie of the Year, which race enthusiasts have said is a possibility for the young racer, she wouldn't see it as a failure.

"I love these dogs. We are going to have a great time no matter what," she said. "It's an adventure race and the dogs love it, Alaska loves it. It's such a big part of history and it's great that it's still alive."

PHOTO: Iditarod 2012
Serena Marshall/ABC
Scott Janssen, Bib No. 37

Scott Janssen, or the "Mushing Mortician," has been a mortician and funeral home owner for the last 27 years.

Although he fell in love with dog mushing 12 years ago, he has only been a musher for two years.

"I just decided that I want to be able to do that -- I want to test myself," Janssen said. "I think that we as a people get weaker every generation (and) I want to be as tough as the people of old."

For him, the Iditarod is the ultimate challenge.

"I believe that we should push ourselves to the limit, that's the way to live a little bit more on this earth," Janssen said. "Not many people in God's green earth get an opportunity to be able to be out in isolation and to test themselves the way we test ourselves in the Iditarod."

When asked about his favorite part of running the race last year, the Mushing Mortician said it was not only hearing from people he served at the funeral home, but also being in "god's country."

He said the scariest part of the event is knowing harm could come to his dogs.

"I don't want anything to happen to my dogs," he said, naming moose as a major concern. "I would do anything, even to the point of sacrificing myself, to make sure that moose don't get to my dogs."

Although Janssen came in 42nd last year, this year he hopes to be running in the front of the pack.

PHOTO: Iditarod 2012
Serena Marshall/ABC
Mitch Seavey, Bib No. 35

Three generations of Seaveys are running this year's 40th anniversary Iditarod.

Mitch is running his 19th race, while his father Dan is the only musher competing this year who also rode in the very first race.

Mitch's son Dallas is also competing.

As a kid, Mitch was a handler for his father in the first race in 1973, leading him to his desire to race and a 2004 win.

"My favorite part of running is the lifestyle that it affords," Seavey said. "Working through this contest with my buddies, the dogs."

Seavey added that although the race has a lot of challenges, he doesn't dwell on them.

"It just takes away from your performance," he said. "This really has to be a no-fear kind of event."

PHOTO: Iditarod 2012
Serena Marshall/ABC
John Baker, Bib No. 11

Last year's champ, John Baker (not pictured), enters his 16th race this year.

"It's a good feeling, really a good feeling," Baker said. "We have a good wonderful dog team coming back."

The best part for him is getting back out on the trail this year, but his favorite is the finish.

"When I see Nome," he said.

Baker said he likes "to see the dogs when they are training like this and watching them when they have accomplished something good, like finishing a race."

The one thing this veteran musher would want folks to know about this race is how much the dogs "absolutely love what they are doing."

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