"The Ceremonial Start"-Our Rookie Iditarod, Part Two
Saturday morning, March 3rd, was the true beginning of our Iditarod adventure. This day would be all for fun as spectators from around the world descended on Anchorage, Alaska to witness it's biggest sporting event. Trucks loaded with dogs lined the city streets for the circus. Each team would have twelve dogs and pull three people; the musher, a family member/friend/handler, and an "iditarider", someone who has bid at the chance to ride for eleven miles in a musher's sled all for the fun of it. My dad would ride the tag sled, or a second sled tied behind the main sled. Lesley, my iditarider, rode in the basket of my sled. I was more nervous about this day than the actual start. Almost the entire trail is lined with cheering fans (some of which I had to tell to get back because I thought we would run them over!). Teams run through tunnels and on overpasses above major highways. It takes pretty strong leaders to not get frightened by all of these obstacles. I was worried my leaders may be unsure or bulk under the pressure. I also had two boys, Earl and Julius, who at just a year and a half old, had barely any experience with people along the trail, what would they do? I decided to put Mocha and Paxson in lead, two of my more experienced, level-headed dogs. The hours leading up to the start went by in a blur. Lots of photographs with fans and a few media interviews. Family I hadn't seen in a few years and even a friend I hadn't seen in twelve years were there to give support and encouragement for chasing my dream. Two awesome friends, Jenni and Sandi, who would care for any dogs dropped, or taken out of my team during the race, were also there to help (as if they wouldn't be doing enough later on when nine of the dogs would camp out in their backyard in an Anchorage subdivision!). With 67 starting teams, there were a lot of wagging tails and ecstatic barks that lit up the skyscrapers and sidewalks of the city. A far cry from what we are all used to and what we were about to embark on.
Before we knew it, it was showtime. The dogs were wild to go. We had help from volunteers, family, and friends to get the team to the start. Running ahead of the team for several blocks, in soft sugar snow that had been trucked onto the streets, I was about exhausted by the time we got to the starting line. And due to some miscommunication, we barely made it to the line on time. As we took off, I could barely wrap my mind around the mind blowing fact that my twenty-year dream was happening. It was no longer a dream. It was reality. I threw my arm in the air, closed my eyes, and said, "thank You, Jesus!"
The dogs were incredible, as were the fans. For several miles we ran down the main streets of town, nevermind what the stoplights said...we were going forward! But I knew not too far ahead, we had a sharp turn that we had been warned about. As we came up to the Cordova 90-degree turn, I checked with Dad to make sure he was holding on tight and ready to go around. Well, I should've been more concerned with myself because we got about halfway around the turn and sure enough, over tips my sled. I could hear the whole crowd, and there were tons of people at this spot looking to catch all the action of an exciting turn, in union say, "awwwwwwww" as I, feeling much like a rookie, couldn't navigate the turn without incident. Lesley was great about it and it all happened really fast, but supposedly there were volunteers right there that helped get the sled righted and I don't think we even stopped. Later I found out there were many teams that tipped here, including four-time champ, Jeff King. I didn't feel QUITE so much like a rookie who couldn't steer the sled! I had to laugh, Dad made it around the corner just fine and it was me who took the first spill.
The team cruised over highway overpasses and through tunnels under the city streets. People threw food and water bottles and oddly enough, at the end of the ride, there was even a single, small, unwrapped cookie that had made it into the sled. It was very hot and I kept the team slow. Other teams were passing us which was funny...time doesn't count, this is all for fun, why feel the need to race? I guess maybe I was just soaking it all in!
After the ceremonial start was over the dogs and crew were loaded up for the ride north. Jeremy and I would stay the night with the dogs at a little motel in Wasilla where we could get a quiet night's rest. The rest of the support crew would stay at my original mushing mentor's and "second parent's", Ken and Lori Chezik's, home in Willow. Everyone tried to get some sleep before the real start, the big day, the following morning. From this night until the finish of the race, I don't think anyone deeply invested in the race would rest well again until man, woman, and canine athlete made it safely to the finish line, one thousand miles and nearly two weeks across the Alaskan wilderness later. *The start of our 2018 Iditarod rookie race is dedicated to our dear friends, Russ and Beth Smith, at Master Electric, Inc in Gladwin, Michigan who so generously donated so much to greatly help get the team to the starting line. Please support their business as Russ and Beth have shown how much they care for their community and empowering people to chase their dreams! Howling Ridge can't thank you enough, your kindness has meant more than you will ever know!