Running to Nome; part 1

Before I ever raced the Iditarod, I took in the sights as a dog handler, wandering up and down Front Street while waiting and watching teams cross under the fabled Burled Arch.

I took in the potlucks where I first tasted muktuk (whale blubber-- and my favorite coastal Alaska food), and visited a craft fair filled with furs and beaded jewelry. Countless hours were spent in the “Mini” (convention center) checking race stats and speculating outcomes with families of mushers like the Kings and Seaveys. I can still feel the Berber carpet where I made my sleeping bag-bed while waiting for the wail of a siren to signal a team approaching town; brisk air filling my lungs as I’d race to the finish chute to see a musher’s face washed clean with elation, and often, tears.

But for all that time spent in Nome, nothing would ever prepare me for my own Iditarod finish.

In 2006, I pulled into the Safety checkpoint to race officials presenting me with my #3 race bib for my team’s “graduation ceremony” in Nome. Within three minutes of wrestling with the bib in the midday sun, my team of 10 lunged into their harnesses for a 22-mile trek that was far from easy. The trail largely traversed the beach minus one jaunt to the crest of Cape Nome, and ironically, it was here where I experienced the most difficult challenge of the entire race.

To put things into perspective, I’d crashed my sled on the Happy River Steps, completely wrapping both runners around an aspen tree and knocking the wind-- and maybe the senses-- out of me. But, the challenge on the cape was simply moving forward. I’d stopped to snack my team one last time, and from that vantage point, I could see the city of Nome clearly, and where the finish line would be waiting. I could also see the end of an 11-day journey shared with my canine teammates in a most remote and beautiful land.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider turning around and heading back toward Safety, White Mountain and the rest of the memories I’d left behind on the trail. This race is so much more than the destination for most mushers; it is about the journey, the moments shared and the memories created.

With the encouragement of a team of dogs who failed to see what lay ahead-- other than more trail to explore-- I pulled the hook and descended to sea level where the team crossedNome Council Road and dropped to the chunky sea ice. Along the way, cars that were nonexistent for most of the trail suddenly appeared with an unsettling frequency as spectators relayed the position of teams back to town. From the smooth, well-used trail on the ice, I could see the Nome National Forest (discarded Christmas trees) and buildings of town just as an eerie wail of the local fire department siren announced our arrival.

Before long, buildings replaced forest and the trail swooped up a ramp of snow, depositing my team and me onto Front Street behind the red and blue flashing lights of a police escort.

If the emotions weren’t triggered yet, the next 150 yards provided plenty of opportunity. I remember my chest filling up with so much pride in my team I didn’t think my ribs could contain my swelling lungs.

Then it happens, this foreign-yet-familiar sound. So soft at first, like a gentle wave rolling ashore, but then it grows to a crescendo, a semblance of words, my name and my dogs’ names shouted over a PA system and echoes between the facades lining the street with my personal accolades.

Read Part 2 here.

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