Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Anchorage Ceremonial Start

Across this great country of ours there seems to be a tremendous amount of confusion regarding the phrase, “March Madness.”  In forty-nine of the fifty states, many people believe that March Madness has something to do with college basketball.  Here in Alaska everyone knows that March Madness means only one thing, IDITAROD!!!

If you are one of the confused, I would like to invite you to reconsider.  The Iditarod kicks off on the first Saturday in March.  Sixty to eighty dog teams converge on Anchorage prepared for the challenge known as the Last Great Race.  Thousands of fans from around the state who by March have succumbed to varying degrees of cabin fever, looking for any excuse to get outdoors and have a little fun, come out to wish their favorite mushers well, enjoy the almost spring like weather, and to celebrate the historical role that huskies and mushers have played in Alaska’s history.   Add to the mix the enlightened few from every corner of the globe who show up to see what this Iditarod thing is all about, and you’ve got a world class championship sporting event mixed with what only can be described as an Alaskan version of Mardi Gras.

Some say that the downtown Anchorage start is merely ceremonial, others think of it as a spectacle, some mushers even think of it as one of the challenges to running the Iditarod, few folks if any think of it as the official start of the Iditarod.  For me, the Iditarod officially started on that preceding Thursday, when I arrived at the Millennium Hotel to attend the driver’s meeting.  The crystal water glasses placed at each seat made it obvious that this was a little different than let’s say the Copper Basin or the Knik race.  The meeting itself wasn’t much different, just longer.

The first half of the meeting was spent taking care of business.  We were informed about how the GPS tracking device worked and who would be installing them and when.  I received my vet book, which I must sign and have signed by a vet at every checkpoint.  I signed for receiving the symbolic mail cache, which I also must have at every checkpoint.  I then got an hour or so of practicing my autograph.  I signed posters, hats, and five bottles of wine with my mug on the label.   

Just before lunch, they had the Iditariders come in, these are folks who won online bidding wars in order to ride in the sled of one of the mushers on Saturday’s ceremonial start.  As each stepped up to the podium, their respective musher was announced and stood up, so the Iditariders could get a chance to put a face to the name they were obviously anxious to meet.

We were then escorted out into the foyer for the annual champagne toast and photo shoot.  We were short a couple of seats, and I got sandwiched between Zoya Denure, and Brendan Norden.  Any guesses as to whose chair I opted to share?  A comment was made as to how silly this was.  I responded by saying that I thought it was really cool.  I couldn’t help but think of all the old grainy black and white photos of all the great dog mushers, the explorers, trappers and miners of that era that I relished as a kid.  These images have a lot to do with who I’ve become.  I can’t help but think that in a hundred years people will look back on our current mega pixel digital images as archaic relics, just like we do those old black and white photos of yester year.  Perhaps, in the future some kid somewhere will relish these now current photos, and emulate all of us as I did my predecessors, and just maybe they will inspire that person to challenge themselves in their own personal way.

After the photo shoot there was a pizza lunch for Iditaroders and Iditariders.  I didn’t have an Iditarider just yet, so I got a little break.  My sled was randomly pulled from the bidding.  Iditarod does this just in case an Iditaroder were to pull out before the event placing the Iditarod in the sticky situation of having more Iditariders than Idtaroders.  In the event that no one pulls out, the Iditarod puts the remaining sleds up for bid at a live auction held on Friday night during their presenting sponsors diner party, which was the case this year. 

The remainder of the meeting was dedicated to the trail and conditions.  Very frustrating for a rookie, “In and out of Rainy just like last year,” “Hot water available at the same spots as last year,” And my personal favorite and the line that every race marshal needs to memorize before accepting the position, “The trail is in the best shape it’s ever been in.”  Guess I’ll just have to figure it out as we go along.

That evening we headed over to the banquet, which was held at the Dena’ina center downtown.   I drew bib number twenty-seven and got a chance to thank my sponsors.  Caitlin thought that twenty-seven was a really cool number because it was a cubic number and she thought it was a really, really cool number because it’s cubic root was three.  Yikes!

Until all of the personal pre-race parties start, Friday is sort of an off day, unless you’re still putting your sled together or something like that.  Kidding, my sled was good to go despite what you all might have heard.  It had five miles on it going into Saturdays run. 

Now I’m not the kind of guy who believes in rituals, or superstitions, I even have a hard time believing in luck.  However, I do have one particular quirk, which I myself find difficult to explain, and that is, I must stay at the Inlet Towers on Good Friday, (that’s what I call the day before Iditarod.)  It’s where I’ve stayed on Good Friday every year since 2006, or since I’ve been in Alaska.  Just good vibes I guess, (vibes, that’s not superstitious is it?)

My pre-race party was held in the lounge of the Mixx Grill, at the Inlet Towers.  A few of my neighbors from Cantwell came down, as well as a few of my mushing buddies, Mark, (Prez, as in president of the ITC,) and Debbie Moderow made an appearance, Lindsay’s, (one of our handlers,) mom and grand-mom flew up from Oregon to attend, a few of my sponsors and plenty of folks that were staying at the hotel for the Iditarod joined us.  My friend Scott Smith presented me with a bundle of shaved spruce bows and pipe clamps wrapped together neatly with pink duct tape, (didn’t even know they made pink duct tape,) as a repair kit for the sled I’d built which he was confident was never going to make it.  I christened it the Spruce Bow Award.  I’m thrilled to report that everyone had a great time.  The manager excitedly reported that it was his second biggest night of the year.  Can’t imagine what the biggest night of the year was, but I’m confident we will rise to the challenge next year.  I will be very disappointed with myself if I haven’t already convinced you that Anchorage is the only place on the planet to be on Good Friday, so I’m just going to assume that all of you will be in town next year.  So here it is, in writing, a personal invite to our pre-race party. 
When:  Good Friday, 2012. 
Where:  The Inlet Towers 1200 L Street. 
Time:  6:00 P.M. 
Why:  Help us be number one!    

I mentioned earlier that the Iditarod was planning to auction off my sled on Friday night, and I thought that I was obligated to be there for the auction.  Well, I was really disappointed when they told me that they didn’t need me there.  So I asked if I could come if I wanted to.  They said sure, but they didn’t sound so sure.  I just couldn’t believe that they would raise as much money for the ceremonial ride as they could if I was present.  I mean who would go crazy bidding on a no name rookie musher like me without knowing a darn thing about me.  Lets face it I’m not exactly Martin Buser.  So, despite the hesitation I perceived, I showed up anyway.

I entered the banquet room, and to my surprise there was Lance, as in Sir, strutting around the room in a full-length fur coat that the crowd was very actively bidding on.  Apparently, admittance to such events is one of the perks of being ordained, “Sir.”  The auctioneer saw me standing there and jumped over the remaining items to put my ride up for bid.  I didn’t get as much, “Mike time,” as I would’ve liked but I managed to get one joke in and, yes, even Lance laughed. 

The bidding started at what I thought was a ridiculously low dollar amount, but it quickly increased which made me feel a whole lot better.  A live auction is something I’ve never participated in, and after having been involved in one, I now have all the admiration in the world for auctioneers.  I thought I could talk a lot, but wow, the dialogue was so fast it was impossible to follow.  I didn’t understand a word the guy said.  I never saw a hand go up, nothing.  All I can remember was that occasionally a higher dollar amount was announced.  That’s got to be good, right?  I hope so, because every time I heard the figure go up I stuck my thumb up like I knew what the hell was going on.  Before I could determine if attending was a good idea or not, a gavel struck the podium and I had been sold to Meg Smith.  I practically jumped from the stage and gave her a big hug.  Although I was ecstatic to be the first musher in Iditarod’s history to attend the auctioning of their Iditaride, I was at the moment very relieved to have had the whole ordeal behind me.  As it turns out Meg had been an Iditarider in 2009, and was bidding on behalf of her husband Mike.  I retreated form the event thrilled to finally know who my Iditarider would be, and more than happy to hand the remainder of the evenings festivities back over to Lance.

I haven’t had the opportunity to watch much TV since the glory days of serial television, when Dallas was the must see on TV. And I would like to remind readers that the reason they didn’t tell you, “who shot Jr,” in the first episode of the season was because the network wanted you all to stay glued to your sets for the remainder of the season. So if you really want to know how the 2011 iditarod unfolded from my perspective, you’ll just have to drag your laptop along with you all summer. I’ve got a lot of miles to cover, and I’m just not as fast as I once was.

Our trip down the Avenue, as in 4th, and the re-start coming soon.


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