Top contenders, race start details and more to know heading into the 2024 Iditarod

Feb. 25—The 52nd Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks off the first weekend in March, running from Willow to Nome over nearly 1,000 miles.

Defending champion Ryan Redington, whose grandfather was instrumental in pulling together the first Iditarod, leads a field of 39 mushers heading into the ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday, March 2, before the race begins in earnest in Willow on Sunday, March 3.

Here's an overview of key information in the lead-up to the 2024 Iditarod.

When does the race start? And where?

The ceremonial start begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 2 in downtown Anchorage, at Fourth Avenue and D Street. The first team to leave the starting line features the Iditarod's honorary musher. After that, teams will depart every two minutes, following the start order set at the Iditarod mushers banquet. The 11-mile ceremonial start route takes teams out of downtown via Cordova Street down to the Chester Creek Trail. From that point, mushers travel east to Goose Lake and south to the Campbell Airstrip, near the Bureau of Land Management offices on the east side of town.

The official restart is Sunday, March 3 starting at 2 p.m. on Willow Lake, about 75 miles north of Anchorage. That's where teams will launch their nearly 1,000-mile journey to Nome, taking off one-by-one in two-minute intervals.

What route will mushers take to reach Nome?

Generally, the Iditarod runs its northern route in even years and its southern route in odd years, so the 2024 race will follow the northern route. The last time the northern route was used in 2022, checkpoints in some communities were modified due to COVID-19, or in the case of Takotna, not used at all. This year, checkpoints have largely returned to normal.

The northern route, at 975 miles, is slightly shorter than the southern route, 998 miles.

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Who's racing this year?

Last year, with just 33 mushers starting and 29 completing the race, the field was among the smallest in Iditarod history. For the 2024 Iditarod, the field has grown to 39 mushers, bolstered by a large group of rookies.

In total, 15 mushers are making their first Iditarod start in 2024. A 16th, Gabe Dunham of Willow, scratched in her first attempt in 2020, which means she's still considered a rookie.

Despite a younger field, this year's roster still contains plenty of quality. Four of the top five mushers from last year's Iditarod are returning to the trail.

Dallas Seavey of Talkeetna and Pete Kaiser of Bethel join Redington as past champions in the 2024 field.

There are four international mushers competing in the 52nd edition of the race. Veterans Mille Porsild from Denmark and Mats Pettersson of Sweden are joined by a pair of rookies: Connor McMahon of Yukon Territory and Swiss musher Severin Cathry.

Alaska mushers took the top eight positions in the 2023 race and make up almost three-quarters of the 2024 field. But there are a number of notable mushers from the Lower 48.

Amanda Otto of Victor, Idaho, has only run one Iditarod — in 2022 — but finished second in the Yukon Quest 550 in 2023. And Jessie Royer of Seeley Lake, Montana, is the most accomplished out-of-state musher this year, having completed 20 Iditarods, including eight top 10 finishes.

Nenana's Wally Robinson is returning after he raced his first and only Iditarod in 2001, placing 40th. He's running the team of Fairbanks musher Josh McNeal, who withdrew from this year's race due to injury. Robinson is also the father of mushing sensation Emily Robinson, who has won three consecutive Junior Iditarod races — including in 2024 — and claimed victory in the Knik 200 earlier this year against a competitive field that included two Iditarod champions.

In addition to McNeal, three other mushers have withdrawn from the 2024 Iditarod: veterans Riley Dyche and Rob Cooke, plus rookie Jacob Witkop.

What's happening with Iditarod disqualifications?

A potential contender was disqualified Thursday from this year's race for what the Iditarod described as a violation of the race's personal conduct policy. Eureka musher Brent Sass, the race's 2022 champion, was disqualified in a unanimous decision by the Iditarod Trail Committee Board amid allegations of sexual assault that have roiled the mushing community. Sass, who hasn't been charged with a crime, has denied the accusations.

[Iditarod disqualifies former champion Brent Sass after sexual assault allegations]

Another Iditarod disqualification tied to the personal conduct policy has been reversed: Anchorage musher Eddie Burke Jr., who placed seventh in 2023 to earn Rookie of the Year honors, was disqualified from this year's race as he faced assault charges stemming from a 2022 incident. Those charges were dismissed by the state on Thursday, and on Friday, the Iditarod reinstated Burke.

For now, Sass' disqualification remains in place.

How many dogs are on each team?

This depends on musher strategy and which stage of the race we're in. The 2024 Iditarod rules state that mushers must have a minimum of 12 dogs on the line, but no more than 16, to begin the race. That's a change from last year, when maximum team size was 14 — a limit that was originally implemented ahead of the 2019 Iditarod.

Generally, competitors have preferred to begin the race with the maximum or near-maximum number of dogs allowed. Along the trail, for health or other reasons, they might choose to return a dog at a checkpoint, and the dog will be cared for and flown to a location where the musher or their representative can retrieve the animal.

Teams must have a minimum of five dogs on the towline at the finish in Nome.

How long does the Iditarod last? When can we expect a winner?

The last three races have seen the winner finish in under nine days. Last year, following the southern route, Redington took around eight days, 21 hours to compete the course. In 2022, a northern-route year, Sass won in about eight days, 14 hours. Seavey's win in 2021 took only about seven days, 14 hours, but that year's race followed a highly modified, shorter route — roughly 832 miles, out and back on the "Gold Trail Loop" — due to the pandemic.

If the winning pace this year tracks with the 2022 race, then a winner would cross the finish line in Nome early the morning of Tuesday, March 12.

While the winners can be on the trail for not much more than a week, back-of-the-pack mushers can often take much longer. In last year's race, the final two mushers to complete the course took more than 12 days.

The Iditarod doesn't officially end until the last musher crosses the finish line.

What does the top musher win?

Essentially, the biggest share of the prize purse. That can represent a significant amount of money: Last year, Redington earned $51,800 for his victory, and each of the other mushers in the top five banked upwards of $30,000.

In 2024, the total prize purse has increased by $50,000 to $574,000 after six years without an increase, the Iditarod said over the summer.

Typically, prize money is allocated to the top 20 mushers corresponding to the place they finished in, and payouts aren't finalized until after the race concludes. Beyond the top 20, every musher who reaches the finish line receives a flat amount, which this year is $2,000, according to the 2024 race rules — an increase from the $1,049 awarded in 2023.

Some of the Iditarod's special awards come with cash or other distinct prizes, such as 25 pounds of Bristol Bay salmon, handmade crafts, a gourmet meal or $3,000 in gold nuggets.