Heartbeat to the Start

When my students and I analyze narrative writing, we often draw a graph to show how the energy and excitement of plot change over time.  It’s a little like a roller coaster, as the action ratchets up and up.   It’s not a smooth up. Suspense grows, excitement peaks, then things ease before something new makes the excitement grows again.  

It’s also a little like a heartbeat. Lub dubs in crescendo. That’s what these days leading up to the start have felt like to me.

On Wednesday, as teams finished their vet checks and got paperwork in order, I thought I could sense something like a communal exhale. Yet another step, another hurdle had been crossed.  Breathe. Lub. Valves shut, blood keeps moving forward. Dub. Valves open and shut, and blood keeps moving forward.

Thursday: banquet day. A different kind of excitement. Time to celebrate with friends on the eve of the eve of the race.  Meeting, greeting, singing (or listening to Hobo Jim sing), toasting, bib-drawing, sponsor thanking. Lub.

Friday: breathe, gather, focus. Dub.

Friday night, we headed out to 4th avenue to see the transformation of the Iditarod start chute. The heartbeat was quickening.  Dump truck loads of snow, 200 hundred dump trucks full of snow, bang dump, bang dump, lub dub. Graders shift and sculpt, backup signals beep beep, beep beep, lub dub lub dub.

Saturday morning. Ceremonial start. Dog trucks and fans swarm the downtown streets.  Mushers drop dogs to eat and pee, then hoist them back into their boxes to rest. Lub dub. Volunteers gather around crew chiefs, getting assignments and badges, then they disperse until needed.

For us, it was handler badges.  Fully badged, we dispersed to have photos taken and to take photos of the growing excitement.  Lub dub.

Quickening,  dogs are dropped again from trucks to the street. Mushers and their handlers pick up the pace, laying out gang lines and booties.  We walk through the street greeting mushers, dogs, and friends, until we are dispatched to join teams. Lub dub.

Rae, the handler coordinator, begins giving out jobs as the volunteers gather and crowd around her.  Eager to join in, we move up in the crowd.  Then Rae and her assistant spotted us. “The teachers! Are you ready to go?  Let’s see, team 7. Do you think you can handle it?”

“Don’t go with one of the first 15 teams,” everyone had said.  “It’s a long run for the first teams,” they said.  “You need to be really fit to go out with the first teams,” they said.  The three of us shot quick glances at each other.  Uh oh.  Lub dub.  “Yes, we can do that,” we said.  Squelching away doubts, we headed out. Lub dub lub dub.

Number 7. Shaynee Traska was our musher, and we quickly found her.  There was a growing cacophony (it’s an overused word when describing situations like this, but it’s the right word) of dogs singing, yipping, howling, barking.  At first, we gawked, lingered, basked in the playful air of dogs and snow and growing sun.  Then, dogs were being trotted two-wheel-style to the gang lines, and clipping in.  Lub dub.

Handlers started aligning, aiming leash clips at gaps, while dogs started banging, jumping, yelping. Lub dub.

The teams ahead started to move, and there was a brief hush of anticipation that was quickly drowned out by the clamor of our own  movement.

Shaynee needed to maneuver a left turn, so she asked all of us handlers to clip in on the outside of the arc.  The plan was to stop once we made the turn, then have half of us jump to the other side.  The team swooshed forward, heading into the turn.  A clipboard and body suddenly moved out from the side of the road, and one of us went down.  I started running and jumped past, jogging with the team. Lub dub.  Lub dub. Lub dub.

Smoothing out, gaining stride.  A momentary flash hit me, “we are doing this!” Lub dub lub dub.

By now my actual heart was speeding up.  LUB DUB LUB DUB!  And we had a long way to go.  We slowed, and I caught my breath.  Lub dub.   We did not shift positions as planned, but kept going.  With two of us clipped to the same spot, it was a little difficult to both run, but we were making it. Until we weren’t.  I stumbled, almost held it, then went down.  “Tuck and roll,” I heard inside my head, and I did. Lub dub.

I heard someone in the crowd yell, “Nice roll!”  I gathered my feet back under me and got up.  The team was moving ahead.  I needed to speed up if I was going to catch them, so I doubled my jog. LUB DUB LUB DUB LUB DUB.  My lungs began to hurt and I didn’t seem to be catching up, so I slowed to a survivable pace.  Finally, they slowed and stopped, and I was able to catch up for the last blocks to the finish.  LUB DUB LUB DUB. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

The three of us (The Teachers) unclipped our leashes as the announcers introduced Shaynee to the crowd. Then three… two…. one…. GO! Shaynee was off, and we retreated to the side of the chute to catch our breath. Lub dub lub dub lub dub.

Walking back to find Rae (the “bumblebee” handler chief,  wearing a yellow and black parka), we greeted new and old friends along the way.  There still were volunteers who hadn’t had a chance to take a team to the line, so we waited on the periphery while assignments were being made.  Lub dub lub dub lub dub.

Our heartbeats had settled and the brilliant sun was warming our backs when Rae’s helper looked up and said, “The teachers are back! Do you want another assignment?”

“Yes,” we nodded, hoping against hope that these end-of-the-line teams would be easier to handle to the start.  Our new musher was Michi Kono, and eight of us were dispatched to help them.  I was calmed by Michi’s smile and warmth.  People gently guided a grateful and graceful Iditarider to her throne. Dogs were banging and barking as before, but the crowds had thinned, and the sounds seemed, if possible, more rhythmic than chaotic.  Michi gave each of us a quick bow of appreciation, headed to the sled, and donned a husky mask.  When 42 pulled ahead, we watched back and forth for the signal, then we were moving out into the parade. Lub dub.

Luckily, this was an entirely new kind of movement.  We jogged a bit, then the whole parade stopped. A slower rhythm, thank goodness. Lub.  Dub.  Lub.  Dub. A doable lub dub.  Michi in his mask seemed to smile with his whole body.  His fur-lined Iditarider glowed. We all breathed at an easy pace, moving, stopping, moving. Lub dub.  Lub dub. To the start. Lub dub.  Again, it was 30 seconds, then 3… 2… 1…. we unclipped our leashes, stepped back, and Michi was off!

If I were in my classroom making a plot line for the narrative of the  Ceremonial Start, I’d say we had reached the climax of the roller coaster ride, and were gliding back down.  For today.  Clearing the chute, we tucked back toward the fencing and watched the last 10 mushers take off.  When all were gone, we headed back to find an Iditarider bus that would take us out to Campbell Air Base, to see the teams pull in from the first 11 miles.  We arrived just in time to watch Michi’s team arrive, then we took a leisurely walk up the trail to watch the last 10 teams pull in, and to catch some high fives. Lub dub. Lub dub….

My eyes and body were melting closed while riding on the hot bus  back to town.  All I could think was: Water. Food.  Sleep. Now, we are poised for the next cranking of the roller coaster gears: the restart in Willow. We are a little apprehensive about it, having heard about a particular hill that may cause problems. We have vowed to each other NOT to volunteer for ANY team before, say, 20.  But first, food and rest. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub.


*Teachers: have your students apply the plot line approach to non-literary events in their lives.  Perhaps they can plot their musher’s progress with a stair-step showing different phases of helpful and difficult times.  Plotting a day in class, or a week, could help them pay attention to the “energy level” around them.



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