ANCHORAGE, Alaska - No one who races sled dogs is going to get filthy rich any time soon, even if they win Alaska's 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The prize for winning the sport's premier race is only $50,400 and a new 2013 Dodge Ram pickup truck. That doesn't even cover the annual dog food bill for many competitive mushers, who keep dozens of dogs in professional kennels geared to breed the sturdiest, fastest runners.
Many mushers rely on sponsors, part-time work and prizes from smaller races. Others work in seasonal jobs in tourism, construction and commercial fishing. They skimp on luxuries - one couple even hunts moose to keep food on the table.
It's all to maintain a passion that is being played out this week in the Iditarod, which kicked off with a ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday. The competitive portion of the race started Sunday in Willow 50 miles to the north.
"I've got a hundred sled dogs. Each dog eats well over $1,000 worth of food every year," said defending champion Dallas Seavey, of Willow, who was in 11th place Wednesday. "The $50,000 cash prize covers half my food bill for the year, and that's when you win the biggest race in the sport."
Mushers can pick up a little cash along the way to the finish line in the frontier town of Nome on Alaska's wind-scoured western coast.
They are rewarded for being the first to reach certain villages dotting the trail - including $3,000 in gold nuggets for being the first to arrive at the halfway checkpoint at the ghost town of Iditarod. Earlier in the race, a $500 air travel credit goes to the first musher to arrive at McGrath. That honor went to veteran musher Aaron Burmeister, who pulled into McGrath at 6:29 p.m. and left three minutes later.
Burmeister, of Nome, was in sixth place Wednesday as he took his mandatory 24-hour rest at the next checkpoint in the village of Takotna. In the lead was four-time champion Lance Mackey, who blew out of Ophir 23 miles past Takotna at 5:45 a.m. Wednesday to begin the 80-mile run to the next checkpoint at the ghost town of Iditarod. Mackey has not yet taken his 24-hour layover.
Every year, the Iditarod is criticized by animal advocates as being an event that is cruel to the dogs, even lethal, and an event that they are forced to run. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says at least 142 dogs have died since the Iditarod began in 1973.
In 2011, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration cancelled plans to recruit potential employees in Alaska with a publicity campaign during the Iditarod. The Washington Post reported at the time that the recruitment plans were abandoned under pressure from PETA, but an agency official said the TSA wanted to ensure taxpayer money was being used wisely.
Mushers and race supporters say the race celebrates world-class canine athletes that have been conditioned through diet and training to perform at the highest levels of health after decades of research and advancements in animal care. There have been no dog deaths in the race since 2009, when six dogs died, according to Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson.
Dogs are not forced to perform as critics contend, Nelson said.
"If a dog doesn't want to run, it's not going to run," he said. "If a dog doesn't want to run, there is no advantage to have it on a team."
Before the race, Mackey said he has two major sponsors, one for dog food and another for clothing. The Fairbanks musher gets kibble and clothing from them. But he has to scrape by for the money he needs to maintain his 80-dog kennel and pay his dog handlers.
To do it right takes him at least $5,000 a month, he said. He hasn't won the Iditarod since 2010, and has seen the number of sponsors drop off. His dogs used to command high prices when he sold them. Now he can't give them away, he said.
Mackey, who also has won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race four times, is doing what he loves, but doesn't expect to ever acquire great wealth from it. No one does.
"There's people like myself that try to make a living off of racing dogs," Mackey said. "I've been as successful as anybody, and I'm still as broke as ever."
Veteran musher Aliy Zirkle, who placed second in the Iditarod last year, shares adult racing dogs with her husband, Allen Moore, who won the Yukon Quest in February. Both are running in the Iditarod. Zirkle, who was in seventh place Wednesday, chose the top 16 dogs for her team while Moore is running a second team, more for the training of the dogs than to compete.
Their dogs get robust support from corporate and individual sponsors. Zirkle and Moore also strive to live debt-free. They built their own home in the interior Alaska community of Two Rivers. To keep food on the table, they hunt for moose each fall and have a garden in the summer.
"We are not broke," Zirkle said. "But we don't live high on the hog."