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Fans heading to Anchorage for Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's ceremonial start

Thousands of people were expected at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage. It's an event designed for fans, allowing them to interact with the mushers, take photos and pet the dogs.

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In this March 18, 2015, file photo, Dallas Seavey poses with his lead dogs Reef, left, and Hero in Nome, Alaska, after winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. An absence of snow, a swan song for two-time champion Robert Sorlie or Norway and Dallas Seavey's bid for a fourth championship in the last five years highlight this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The world's most famous sled dog race starts Saturday in downtown Anchorage with a fan-friendly parade of mushers and their furry teams.

Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News/AP/File

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Wagging tails and smiling faces will be plentiful in downtown Anchorage on Saturday as fans get to interact with the real stars of the Iditarod - the sled dogs.

Thousands of people were expected at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It's an event designed for fans, allowing them to interact with the mushers, take photos and pet the dogs.

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The Iditarod is going forward despite a lack of snow in Anchorage this winter. Snow even had to be shipped this week to Anchorage from Fairbanks for the event. After all that, it snowed about an inch Friday.

The ceremonial start usually covers an 11-mile (17.7-kilometer) route, going along city streets and trails from downtown Anchorage to the east side of the city.

But the lack of snow forced organizers to shorten the race to a 3-mile (4.83-kilometer) route.

The competitive race, which spans nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers), starts Sunday in Willow, about 50 miles (80.46 kilometers) north of Anchorage. Organizers say trail conditions largely improve after Willow.

There are 85 mushers signed up for the race, which crosses long stretches of unforgiving terrain, including two mountain ranges and the wind-lashed Bering Sea coast.

There are seven former champions in the field, including Dallas Seavey. He has won three out of the last four races, and his only loss in that span was to his father, Mitch Seavey, in 2013.

Among the other former winners is two-time champ Robert Sorlie, 58, a firefighter in Oslo, Norway. In 2003, he became only the second man born outside the United States to win the race, a feat he repeated in 2005. He says this is likely his last Iditarod, citing age and costs associated with the race.