A Magical Day!

The Ceremonial Start of the 2014 Iditarod has been completed.  Mushers and teams are doing their last minute chores and hopefully getting a good night’s rest before tomorrow’s restart.  Tomorrow it starts for real, but today was all about the atmosphere, the fans, the celebration and the fun – for mushers, friends, family, fans, and dogs!

It was a beautiful day in Anchorage!  The fog rolled in for a little bit, but rolled out again almost as quickly.  I headed down to the start line around 8 am and the streets were already filled with dog trucks and the fans were starting to gather. One of the things that continues to amaze me about the Iditarod is how approachable the mushers are.  The fans are able to be on the streets until about an hour before race time to greet the mushers, take photos, and pet the dogs.  I can’t think of any other sporting event that gives such amazing access to its superstars!

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I wandered around for a bit, but I really wanted to check in with Nathan Schroeder and Monica Zappa.  I came to Nathan’s truck first… since he is bib #25 he was pretty far down the street. They park the lower numbers farther away from the starting line so that they can get their trucks out first.  Remember, the trucks need to leave as soon as possible so they can get to Campbell Airstrip to meet the mushers at the finishing line for today.  Nathan had a great spot – right on Fourth Avenue. His dogs were amazing. They were so calm, cool, and collected… much like Nathan himself.  It was almost as if they were saying, “No need to waste our energy… we got this!”

Monica was parked on one of the side streets.  She was so bubbly and full of energy!  My son described her as a “brightly colored blur!”  Her Posh House sponsor has given her some super bright gear for the trail – she will be easy to spot for sure!  She even brought five month old Dweezil along for the ride.  What a sweet puppy he is!  He was taking it all in… maybe he’ll get his chance to run the Iditarod some day!  She even put the banner my class made for her on the front of her truck!  I know the boys are sending her all their best wishes….  she has been so amazing to work with this year…  and we are thankful to have played a small role in her journey.

I made my way back to Nathan’s area.  It was kind of cool to see the whole thing unfold. Usually I’m so busy walking around trying to see every musher and every dog. It was a different perspective to see the whole process take place with one musher.  When I got back, the dogs had been put back in the truck and they were all chilling out inside. Laying on their straw and taking one last snooze before the the first leg of their first run.  I don’t know much about these things, but the entire hook up and start seemed flawless from start to finish… well almost.

When the other teams started moving toward the start, Nathan was still calm and collected.  He remarked that it seemed early, and it was… only 9:30 really.  Things were getting crazy around him and he kept his cool.  Eventually he got the dogs out of the truck and put their harnesses and booties on. The dogs were still so calm. Team after team passed them and they watched them go by.  They weren’t phased at all.  As teams 22 and 23 passed, and the volunteers gave him a two or three minute warning, Nathan said it was time to hook them them up.  He literally hooked the last one and it was time to walk to the starting line.  This is were we had a little snafu.  Nathan won the new red collars all of the dogs were wearing at the Denali Doubles race. They are really sharp looking.  He even wrote each dog’s name on the collars so that if one of them has to be dropped, the vets and volunteers will be able to call the dogs by name.  Well, as we were making our way to the starting line, one of the dog’s collars slipped off his neck!  The dog was still pulling with his tug line, but there was a red collar dangling on it’s own from the gangline.  Dusty, who was riding the tag sled behind Nathan, got off and had to fix it while we kept walking to the starting line!

Once we got to the line for our two minute countdown, Nathan got off the sled and gave each dog some love and encouragement. The wheel dogs started slamming in their harnesses.  I know announcements were being made. I wanted to look for Kathy Cappa and see her signing the starting announcements.  I wanted to look for my fellow teachers I knew were in the crowd… but I couldn’t.  All I could do was watch Nathan and try to imagine what he was feeling.  The Iditarod has been his dream for so long.. and it was happening!   The countdown was on….. 10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…. and we were off!

It was amazing!  Fans lined the streets, calling Nathan by name and wishing him good luck!  He was having a blast!  At one point he even took a video with his phone to send to his wife back home!  He was impressed with how many people there were all along the trail.

Once we got past the crowds downtown, it was truly magical. We got to go through so many different settings – over bridges, through tunnels, through the woods, through wide open spaces.  It didn’t take too much imagination to pretend I was out there on my own with my own dog team…  a small taste of the power of the team and the beauty of the trail.

But it was also so fun to be there with Nathan! He was having a blast!  Collecting hotdogs, muffins, and cookies from the crowds.  Talking about how great his team looked.  Thanking the crowd for their well-wishes.  The pride for his team showed through so much. He talked about Achilles, who has been with him for his three John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon wins.  Nathan was impressed with how Achilles just knew where to move on the trail to avoid obstacles.  He talked about how the team just knew how to follow the trail. How they responded when he whistled to them and the picked up the power up a hill.

And when the finish was in sight, his comment echoed my own, “We’re there already?”

Nathan’s dad met us at the end to lead the team to the truck.  Nathan visited with each dog and checked them out.  “They look great. They ran great.  I hope they do this great tomorrow,” he said.

As much fun as the Ceremonial Start was… both Nathan and Monica said the same thing.  They are ready to be away from the crowds, out on the trail, and off on their adventure with their sixteen best friends.  As for me, I can’t wait to soak up every single minute of it.  It’s going to be awesome!