Thoughts on sports: Everyone has their own Super Bowl
Last night my son and I watched as the Iditarod officially started on our computer screens. For us it was Super Bowl Sunday, the World Series and March Madness all rolled into one.
Each year at the beginning of March between 60-100 dog teams attempt to make the march from near Willow, Alaska to the west coast of the state where Nome is located. To do this they must ford rivers, cross over high mountain passes, and take long trips across flat areas, lakes and even parts of the Arctic Ocean to reach the town. They do this in what is sometimes too good of weather, where the temperature zooms to 40 degrees (to warm for dogs to run well and where snow melts) and on the other end through blizzards in which the ground and the sky merge, making it impossible to tell where a team is going. At one point in a race in the 1970's the temperature during a storm dropped to 100 below zero.
Sleddogging is not a sport for the faint hearted when traversing country such as the mushers who are now on the course as I write this are doing. In the case of the Iditarod, it is a sport of endurance.
The difference between Super Bowl Sunday for us and those that enjoy the NFL, is that we won't have a final score for at least nine days. The trip across Alaska that the mushers are taking this year is 1047 miles long. Year to year the distance varies some because race officials sometimes have to move the trail because of snow conditions and they also often have to move the start point for the same reason. We do however, have an official website that keeps us updated as to who is leading and this year, for the first time, many of the mushers have GPS units on their sleds that relates the speed they are going, where they are and the temperature of the location they are at.
Technology, in many ways, has invaded this once isolated sport as much as it has other sports. Equipment, genetic breeding and mushing techniques have all improved over the years to the point that the race has changed immensely. When the race was initiated in the early 1970's some sleds weighed 120 lbs. Today some weigh a fourth of that.
Where names like Joe Montana, Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth are legends and household names in other sports, names like Jeff King, Martin Buser and Rick Swensen are relatively unknown to the average person in the lower 48. The first two men have won the Iditarod four times and the last one won it five times. When one watches what mushers and their dogs go through in this race, all three of those men's feats are amazing.
And last year, from a mushers point of view, there was a huge first. Two weeks before that Iditarod a musher named Lance Mackey won the Yukon Quest dog sled race. Another 1000 mile race that travels between Canada and Alaska, it is also a grueling and sometimes tougher race than the Iditarod. A week later, with virtually the same dog team, he took off on the Iditarod and became the first person to win both races in the same year. It was tatamount to winning the grand slam of golf all in the same season.
While mushing is a sport out of sight and out of mind for most Americans, much like lacrosse or water polo, it is the biggest sport in Alaska. The reason? Mushers are a dime a dozen in the frozen northland; many, many people do it. Here everyone has a basketball hoop tacked up to their garage; there a lot of people have a dogsled and a kennel behind their house.
But the sport is growing in the lower 48. Years ago it was pretty much relegated to places like Maine, Minnesota and Montana. Now mushers come from many places, and many of them are dry land mushers, or people who use carts for the dogs to pull. Dryland racing has been going on in Australia for a long time, and in California and other states that don't receive snow, pulling is going on all the time.
Snow or not, the sport is about the dogs. And while racing mushers have to be in good shape, it is the dogs that are the true athletes in this sport. And to participate in this sport you have to love them, but at the same time keep their respect.
This past year my son entered his first race in Idaho and took fifth place in his class. Next year we plan for him to enter five mid-distance races and at least one long distance race in the lower 48. After 10 years of doing mushing recreationally, we are ready to make the step into real racing; he as the musher, me as the handler. I keep thinking of myself as too old to race, but then I saw a 62 year old rookie take off on the Iditarod last night and it put a seed in my mind about what may be possible.
So for the next week or so, my son and I will be glued to the streaming video that comes to our monitors, with dreams that some day we will be entered in that most ultimate of sleddogging races.