The start of the Last Great Race on Earth!
We've had things going on every year during the Iditarod start, but this year we committed to going despite basketball regionals going on in Homer. We left Douglas and Aurora to the basketball games and headed up to Anchorage Friday. I opted to stay in the Sheraton in downtown Anchorage since it was only two blocks away from 4th Avenue that the Iditarod racers would be heading down for the ceremonial start on Saturday.
I didn't see many signs of the upcoming race until nearly 10:00 p.m. Friday night when I looked out the 14th floor window and noticed dump trucks full of snow rolling in, dumping their loads on 4th Avenue, and taking off. I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve, with the excitement building for the upcoming race. I pondered how the mushers must feel, knowing the big moment had nearly arrived to hit the trail.
Saturday morning when I looked out the window the course was set, a swatch of snow a foot or so deep with extra ridges on the outside to keep the dogs and sleds on track. The intersection a block from the Sheraton was covered with snow and monitored by police and snow shovelers, allowing traffic through.
We got down to 4th Avenue at almost 10 am, where the course makes a 90 degree turn onto C Street. Before we knew it, a dogsled and team came sliding by. I thought perhaps it was just a forerunner, but come to find out that was the first racer. Soon a steady stream of racers came by; they were set to start every two minutes. There were 60+ racers, so that was a few hours of starts.
We made our way through the ever-thicker crowds closer to the starting line, passing a parking garage lined with fans. We arrived at the starting line but could hardly see anything with the crowds four deep, but some people left and we got a front-row view just as Lance Mackey, the winner of the past four Iditarods, came up to the line, got his dogs ready and took off. He looked much more human (!!) than the videos I'd seen of him out on the race course in previous years, but after 2 weeks on the trail, sleep deprived and weathered, I'm sure he'll be roughed up! That was the highlight of the day for me.
After seeing a few starts we continued up 4th Aveune in an attempt to stay warm and to check out the staging area. Temperatures were at 3 degrees and calm at 10 am, and had warmed up to 9 degrees an hour later as the sun rose above the buildings. I had on my balaclava, hat, neckwarmer, hood, two pairs of gloves, two pairs of socks and numerous layers on my torso so I was mostly comfortable, though Elisa wore only holey jeans and a couple pairs of tights so she was a bit chillier.
I found the staging area neater than the starting line and race itself. Here we were closer to the dogs and the handlers, though there was still a fence dividing the fans from the racing volunteers, dog trucks and handlers. All the side streets were covered with snow and dogs were in various stages of getting ready for the race: chained to the bumpers of trucks, drinking, sitting inside their hay-lined nooks or being harnessed up.
It was really exciting to be at the starting of the Iditarod. I've watched so many movies, read about, talked about and seen the dogs and racers around the state that it seemed like it was the place to be. The ceremonial start was just a 15 mile jog up to Eagle River; many people headed up there to see the dogs and mushers come in, and then on to the re-start on Sunday at Willow. We were on a tight schedule and so didn't make it up to either of those. Next time I think I will become a race volunteer so I get on the inside track of pre-race gatherings, parties and whatnot. Even though we just saw a tiny slice of the Iditarod, it still was thoroughly exciting to be there and be part of it and for the first time I am following the racers with their GPS trackers through the official Iditarod website, http://www.iditarod.com/.