Today is the day. Sixty-six Iditarod mushers — 15 rookies and 51 veterans — will line up on Fourth Avenue to run their teams 11 miles through the heart of Anchorage.
Most mushers have planned for this for years. At last they’re ready to pull their snow hooks under the banner on Fourth Avenue, to start the adventure of a lifetime.
The air vibrates with anticipation — dogs lunge and bark while mushers attend to a million details and wonder about the journey ahead: the trail, the weather, the unforeseeable conditions and obstacles to be overcome by one and all before arriving as a winner, each in his own way, in Nome.
But before the real test begins, it’s showtime on Fourth Avenue: the ceremonial start.
Over the years, I came to love this event. But back in 2005, for my first run, I saw it as a necessary evil. It took me a few years to discover that a large part of running the Iditarod is a celebration of lifestyle. For many mushers that’s what the Iditarod is: a lifestyle, a new love and a shedding of former lives. Some mushers are lawyers, like Vern Halter, or doctors, like Randy Cummins. Both no longer race, but you’ll see them along Fourth Avenue because today offers the opportunity to reunite with friends, fans and volunteers — to simply be a part of the extended Iditarod family.
Veteran Ken Anderson says the start is a time to give back, not only to the community but also to racers’ families, the support for mushers who disappear on long days of training through the fall and early winter.
Anderson is an 11-time finisher, with five of those in the Top 10. In more than a decade of starts, he said, he used the start to wrap his family in the excitement. Both his mom and dad rode his tag sled at least once. And his wife, Gwen Holdman, is always there helping, having run both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod herself.
For someone like me, whose family is far away in Germany, I had the privilege of getting my dad to join me only once, and that was on my last Iditarod, in 2011. It took a lot of effort to talk him into the long trip abroad, in the middle of winter, to see what the Super Bowl of long-distance mushing is all about. He would rather have gone sailing. He certainly wasn’t sure he wanted to be in the middle of hundreds of barking dogs, strapped into a sled, at the mercy of a son navigating through the streets of Anchorage.
But that anxiety quickly turned to joy. Although he didn’t speak a word of English, he made friends. During the ride, he frantically waved to the crowds. He was amazed by the excitement, the celebrations along the trail. He eagerly filled his pockets with gifts of cookies and candy bars.
In the end, my dad wished he had come much sooner.
That seems to be true of many visitors who fulfill their dreams of taking part in this great event. Some return again and again, as volunteers, spectators or the Iditariders who pay to ride in a sled.
Two of the latter are Claudia Nowak and her husband, Lee, from Michigan. This is their ninth year as Iditariders. Repeat guests are happy guests, right? Seven of those years, Claudia rode with Michigan musher Ed Stielstra. The only two years she rode with someone else were when Ed didn’t run.
What attracted them to Iditariding? Lee said, “It is the most we can participate with not being a musher. We cannot get closer to the race without getting our own dogs.”
Both Lee and Claudia left Anchorage with tales to tell, like falling out of the sled, missing the trail and other misadventures. Claudia originally heard about the Iditarod by reading Gary Paulsen’s book “Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod”; she wanted to experience the Cordova hill for herself.
For people who don’t have the financial means to buy a seat in a sled, there is still plenty of opportunity to participate. The wheels of Iditarod would not turn without thousands of dedicated volunteers.
Therese Jordan from Minnesota and Robert Henrici from Massachusetts both work as security staff, making sure that only mushers, handlers and media are in the staging area, something much appreciated by mushers. While Therese is in her fourth year of volunteering, this year is a first for Robert. But Robert was here 25 years ago to help Norman Vaughan, who shared his hometown of Hamilton. The fire of the Iditarod had never stopped burning.
“This ceremonial start is the lighting of the fuse,” Robert said. “It gets people going.”
As a musher, I couldn’t agree more.
I often hear how personable the mushers are, how open and accommodating to fans, something not found in all sports. This allows friendships to form. I’m still in touch with six of my seven Iditariders.
People like Ed Ward from Alexandria, Va., who keeps coming back and calls himself a virtual groupie. This year he’s riding with 2011 Yukon Quest champion Dallas Seavey. He enjoys the rapport of mushers with their dogs.
“I have never been around people who like dogs (that) I didn´t like,” he said. “It is a sort of self-selecting group.”
The ceremonial start is about enjoying the company of others — dogs and humans. Let the festivities begin and show the world this wonderful event, Iditarod 40.
Happy trails to all.