Three years ago, doctors told Chicago native Pat Moon he had cancer.
Two years ago, Moon found himself more than 3,000 miles from home, lying unconscious along the Iditarod Trail. He'd smashed into a tree in the Dalzell Gorge, an injury that forced an early end to the rookie musher's bucket-list ambition to run a dog team to Nome.
On Saturday, Moon was back.
He's still sick. In addition to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he was diagnosed long ago with Ulcerative colitis, a disease that targets the intestines and kidneys. And after a winter training in the Western Alaska village of Unalakleet, he's still a rookie looking to finish the Iditarod.
"I've never felt better," said Moon, who as been living in a storage room of the village post office, running dogs raised on seal and salmon. "Alaska has been good to me."
The next 10 days will test that goodwill, as Moon and 65 other racers begin the 975-mile marathon across the state on Sunday afternoon from Willow.
The field gathered Saturday in downtown Anchorage for the Iditarod ceremonial start, a kind of off-the-clock "trailgate" party for fans and mushers alike.
This year's competitors are as varied as ever. Along with a pair of 70-somethings and a mortician, a rapper and the first twins to ever run the race are a slew of former champions.
John Baker of Kotzebue will return to defend his title after breaking the Iditarod speed record, finishing just under eight days and 19 hours in 2011. He plans to travel with much of the same team, his big huskies Snickers and Velvet once again running lead.
"I don't feel any pressure that I need to win," Baker said, his dogs waiting silently beside his truck as thousands of onlookers pressed the Fourth Avenue fences. "I've trained hard this year, and I want to go out and do the best that the dogs can do."
Baker faces another of Iditarod's favorite sons, throat-cancer survivor Lance Mackey. The wiry tactician remains as unpredictable as ever.
In an interview, Mackey alternately said he doesn't care if he ever wins another dog race -- he's enjoying watching apprentices like his stepson Cain launch their own mushing careers, he said -- followed by claims that he's as hungry for a championship as ever.
"People think that I'm on a downhill spiral because past champions have done similar things. Had great rides and then fell off the face of the earth, basically," Mackey said.
Be assured, the musher said. He wants a fifth win.
"I didn't come here to go camping."
Among the 2012 wild cards are Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff, a prolific racer once known for starting fast before fading away in the sport's premiere distance races. Now he's the winner of what many consider to be the toughest of all mushing marathons.
"I'm thinking this is one of the few years when I'm not hoping to be competitive, I'm expecting to be competitive," Neff said. "I see people are starting to look at me with a twinkle in their eyes. So maybe I'm doing something right."
The other x-factor is former champion Jeff King, a keen competitor and Mackey rival who sat out last year's race.
King once talked of taking it easy if he ever returned. Don't count on it.
The 56-year-old won the Sheep Mountain 150 in December and said he feels as fit, mentally and physically, as he ever has before an Iditarod.
King has won the race four times, most recently in 2006. Recognizing and exploiting advantages is the key, he said. "You can't make the magic happen. You've got to be ready to see it, and then ride the carpet."
MOOSE ON THE MIND
King, who lives in Denali, was happy to draw the ninth starting position in the race, meaning he'll leave Willow ahead of much of the field.
"The deep snow is going to be difficult for teams way in the back, because it's going to be tough to pass," King said. "They're all saying, 'Well he gets to run into the moose up in front.' "
The staggered start begins at 2 p.m. Sunday and those moose are top of mind for many mushers. In mid-February, a cow attacked Alberta musher Karen Ramstead's team in Willow, injuring her wheel dog, Irving.
Even Alaska's largest city, where mushers converged to train and run the ceremonial start along the urban trails, wasn't safe. Heavy Anchorage snows have tempted the animals to linger along cleared trails and roads.
Demon, a lead dog for musher Zoya DeNure of Gakona, was kicked in the head during a run Friday at Tozier Track, DeNure said. (Demon was featured in our "Meet the Sled Dogs" earlier in the week.)
"It just kind of makes me aware that I'm going to have to be really careful out there and hope that nothing else happens," she said.
RETURN OF THE STEPS
As of late last week, Iditarod officials said mushers could expect to encounter 10 to 12 feet of snow in Willow.
Changing wind and heavy snow prompted organizers to rewrite the route between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass, Iditarod officials revealed in a last-minute announcement Saturday.
The Happy River Steps, an often dangerous series of switchbacks known for breaking sleds and bones, are back on the map.
Iditarod Race Director Mark Nordman had previously said the race would bypass the steps in hopes of making a safer trail. The new route was to take advantage of efforts to build a winter mining road in 2011.
Some mushers had praised the move as a way to avoid injuries to dogs. Others said the Steps were an important part of Iditarod lore and belonged in the race.
The history-minded crowd will get their wish. The decision to return to the original route was made even as teams were still beginning their ceremonial runs on Fourth Avenue on Saturday, Nordman said.
Away from the downtown crowds, fans collected along the ceremonial route through the city and cheered dog teams as they whisked past. Some handed the mushers and their passengers burritos, hot dogs, muffins and beer. The first teams to take the trail encountered a moose on a bridge in Midtown, but no one reported any attacks.
Moon said he let other teams pass his so he could stop and give rides on the urban trails. He picked up six or seven kids and ferried them about a quarter-mile each, he said.
Moon trained in Unalakleet at the invitation of the village's former mayor -- and Iditarod veteran -- Middy Johnson. Johnson shares a kennel with his brother, Paul, a 2011 Iditarod finisher who died of cancer in October.
Using hockey sticks, Paul Johnson built the faded red sled Moon will attempt to drive to Nome. One of the dogs that pulled Johnson's sled in last year's Iditarod, Sprocket, will race with Baker this year, the defending champion said.
Several more Johnson dogs are racing with Moon.
The musher said he has lived long past the expectation of doctors. He doesn't know if he'll attempt the Iditarod again if he doesn't finish this year, he said.
One thing's for certain. The 2013 race is out of the question.
Moon says he's already signed up to run a charity race early in the year driving motorized rickshaws -- three-wheeled, 1.5 horsepower carts -- across India.