Some people have asked me why I’m so obsessed with the Iditarod. I’ve asked myself the same question. It would be so much easier to follow a sport that was more accessible, more popular. If I liked football, I could discuss the latest stats with the person ahead of me in the grocery store line. If I was interested in baseball, I might have a chance to meet a famous baseball player someday, or at least to attend a game. But I have to be addicted to a sport that no one knows anything about. I have only a handful of friends I can talk to about it, and I usually must content myself with on-line conversations with strangers. And because I don’t travel well, I probably will never have an opportunity to watch the race or meet a musher personally.
It’s not like anything else in the world. It’s about the relationship between a musher and a dog team. It requires perseverance, making the right decisions, balancing rest and running, and sometimes a bit of trickery. It takes place in one of the most desolate parts of the world, through beautiful, yet terrifying country. It’s joyful, peaceful, chaotic and horrible all on the same journey.
I believe that more than any other athlete, superstar or adventurer (with the possible exception of mountaineers who conquer Everest), mushers deserve our admiration. Sometimes I think they achieve the impossible. Each March, while I’m going through my life, shuttling the kids here and there, chatting on the phone, trying to make my writing deadlines, I often stop to think about what nearly a hundred people and 16 times as many dogs are doing more than three thousand miles away, and I can’t even imagine it. Are people really racing dog teams over a thousand miles through sub-zero weather?
This “Last Great Race on Earth” is about so much more than who crosses the finish line first. For any other sport there is a winner and there are losers. But there are no losers in the Iditarod. Simply finishing is an achievement beyond what I can imagine. And there are so many races within the race: making it in the top ten, the rookie of the year, the great mushers who are racing at all levels, down to the backwards “race” for the coveted Red Lantern award given to the last finisher, an honor which two mushers flipped a coin for one year. It’s about the personalities, the stories. Families carry on the tradition from generation to generation. Mushers overcome health problems, injuries and tragedy to complete their goal. It’s about history, nature, community and life itself. There are times when I laugh out loud and times when I cry, just reading and imagining what these people are going through.
And, although only a few local friends even know anything about the race, there is a camaraderie in the on-line forum. (See http://mushing.bssd.org/forum/index - my screen name is emwcee) Once the race is finished, I feel an incredible sense of loss, not only because the race is over, but because I will say good-bye to my on-line friends from all over the world who share this bizarre obsession.
If you want to follow the race next year, see www.iditarod.com