Friday, 17 March 2000

Iditarod – Pre-Race, Start, and Restart

Thursday is the day that the festivities really begin. First off in the morning is the Musher’s Meeting. During the actual meeting, which goes almost all day, the room is cleared of everyone but mushers and race officials. Race rules, procedures, and trail conditions are just some of the topics covered. We also drew our starting positions, but we don’t get to see the numbers – they are in sealed envelopes that we wrote our names on after drawing. We wouldn’t know our actually Bib number until the Musher’s Banquet that evening. 

During the lunch break we got to meet our Iditariders. The riders come from all over North America and have paid to ride the first 11 miles of the ceremonial start with the teams. My rider was Carol LaRotonda from New Mexico. Carol’s husband was riding with my friend and fellow rookie musher, Rob Gregor. Her father in law was riding with Iditarod veteran, Harry Caldwell.  What a nice family!!
After the meeting we headed over to the hotel that Mark’s parents where staying at.  That gave us a chance to do some visiting and get cleaned up for the Musher’s Banquet.

The Banquet

You know, everyone asks me if I was nervous at the start of Iditarod. I can honestly say that the only time I was scared was when I got up to say my ‘thank you’s’ at the Banquet.  As I stepped up to the mike to address the 1800 folks in the room, I honestly thought that I was going to throw up. I mumbled through a speech that sounded nothing like the confident speech I had worked on all those hours out training (well, ya' gotta do SOMETHING to pass the hours during training. Note for next year – write speeches down.) As soon as I stepped off the stage, my nerves settled and I had a great time chatting with and signing autographs for the folks that lined up next to the stage. 

I was announced as Bib # 61-a good number. Most of the ‘serious’ mushers were ahead of me, but I was not right at the back of the pack – like poor Charlie Boulding!

Anchorage to Eagle River

Mark summed the Ceremonial Start up well in his diary entry – ‘WOW’.  The whole atmosphere of the day was festive and relaxed. Everyone knows this day doesn’t count and it gives us a chance to do some visiting. I got to meet all kinds of folks that I have chatted with on the Internet, but never met. A reporter from Canadian Press spent close to an hour interviewing and taking pictures.  I went over and got my picture taken with Jamie Nelson. Those of you who have been following our progress throughout the year know what a key role Jamie has played in helping us get ready for this Race.  In addition to Jamie being a good friend and mentor, I am a HUGE fan of hers and I will treasure the picture. 

Iditarod veteran, Wayne Curtis and his wife, Chris were there, helping to bootie the dogs. Carol Nash had a bunch of red/black hats for our handlers, that she whipped up on her sewing machine so our team would look spiffy going up to the start. Not quite as slick as the DeeDee Jonrowe/Eddie Bauer parade, but spiffy – none the less! 

Before I knew it the dogs where all bootied, harnessed, and lined out in front of the sleds. Our handlers were all in position with my brother, Jim up front with leaders Grover and Spud. Carol was settled in my sled for her ride. My Mom jumped onto Mark’s sled for a ride up to the start. Another Iditarod veteran and friend, Rob Carss stepped onto the runners with me for trip to the starting line. We were standing waiting for the signal to start moving and I looked at Rob and commented that I thought this should feel more exciting – after all, this was the start of Iditarod. At that moment, they called to start moving up. The team started forward and my sled swung out from behind Ramey Smith’s truck and into the middle of 4th Ave.  That moment – as the crowd and the Iditarod start banner came into view is a memory I will ALWAYS carry with me. My heart leap up into my throat and I could feel a tears threatening in my eyes – THIS was Iditarod. 

The team slowly worked it’s way up to the line. The teams actually start moving up around 15 minutes before the start, so everyone is in line and ready to roll at the right times, so the march up to the start has many stops. Jamie Nelson ran out as we passed her truck and gave me a hug. About 1 block away Joe Runyan came over and introduced himself. No serious Iditarod fan, of which I am one – needs to be introduced to Joe – he won in 1989! He commented that I looked relaxed for a rookie – very relaxed and, you know - I felt it. I was excited, for sure – but I had worked long and hard for this day and it felt really right to be there. 

We got into the chute, I went through and thanked all the handlers, gave Jim a hug, patted all the dogs, gave Mark a hug, did a quick TV interview and we were off! 

The trail through Anchorage is one that you could never train for. Through crowds, culverts, over bridges….I was so proud that the dogs took it all in stride. 

Eleven miles in was the drop off point for the Iditarider. Carol was a lot of fun to have along – she assured me she had had a great time too. 

The rest of the trip was also filled with smiles, waves, and good wishes. 

We got into Eagle River, watered the dogs and headed back to Willow for the night.

The Restart

The restart has a totally different feel then the Ceremonial start. Everyone is a little more tense and there are no fans allowed around the trucks – so it is a much more ‘down to business’ attitude.   Even the dogs seem to know that this is the ‘real deal’.

I spotted Libby Riddles walking around the dog trucks. Libby, who was the first woman to win the Race, is my hero. It was her book on her 1985 win, ‘Race Across Alaska’ that got me hooked on dog sledding. I’ve seen Libby around before, but always been too nervous to go say ‘Hi’. ‘If I can drive a dog team across Alaska,’ I said to myself, ‘I can say ‘hi’ to Libby Riddles’. So I did. I introduced myself and told her that she had been my inspiration to try dog sled racing. Not only did she recognize me and know who I was, she told me that she had given my leader, Spud, some good comments during the Race Start TV coverage. Well, if that wasn’t enough to make my day! 

As with the start in Anchorage, the course is lined with fans and well-wishers. The highlight was coming across Wayne and Chris Curtis’s  Iditaparty where the trail passes their house. Among the guests were my Mom and in laws.  As I had promised my Mom, we stopped the dogs and I quickly jumped off the sled to give her a hug and a kiss. Another big hug to Mark’s Mom and we were back underway. 

Just before the Knik checkpoint there was a memorial to Joe Redington Sr. Joe is the father of the Iditarod and his passing in June saddened the entire mushing community. Prior to the restart each musher had been given a flower to lay for him at the memorial. A lovely and fitting tribute to a great man. 

At the Knik checkpoint the second sled is disconnected, you turn you Race Bib over to race officials, and you are really on your way.  Mark and I exchanged a few last minute hugs and words, the dogs were impatient to get going and tried to head out of the checkpoint without me. I jumped on the runners and we were off. 

The feeling leaving the Knik checkpoint and actually heading out on the Iditarod Trail was indescribable. I actually let out an excited holler as we rounded the first corner and off into the wilds!

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