Restart: the Real Deal

The Iditarod Restart is different.  Calmer and quieter than the ceremonial start. Even the dogs are quieter. Down to business.  Walking around the staging area, I definitely could sense a difference from the carnival atmosphere of the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage. The feel that I got was family and focus . 

The community center divides two realities.  On the lake side, the music is loud, and there are spots to buy pork chops on a stick and cheese curds.  Children scurry up snow banks and are retrieved by parents.  Revelers are reveling, and the party that began on Saturday continues.

In the staging area, there is no carnival (except at the Buser dog truck – more on that later).  There is a friendly and generous lunch area, with hot dogs and granola bars, but it feels more like a family picnic than a carnival.  The reality is that, at each of the dog trucks, families are sending their daughters, fathers, sisters, sons, and grandfathers off on a 1,000 mile journey, with only 14 dogs and a sled. 

As I walked through the staging area, I could feel that this day was more real, more substantial, more significant than Saturday.  I didn’t want to get too close to any of the teams at first, because there was a sense of intruding on the solemn business of seeing their loved ones off to the trail.  In general, there was a weightiness to their focus.

Of course, families come in all sorts of flavors, and one family seemed to deny my premise: the Busers.  They seemed to take the family picnic to new heights.  As I entered their section of the staging area, near the bottleneck between the two main areas of dog trucks, they were gathered together, taking a family photo.  Everyone was full of smiles, and the predominant sound was laughter.  Everyone seemed relaxed, especially Martin Buser. 

Of course, when you’ve run the Iditarod 35 times since 1980, have won it four times, have earned nearly every award possible, and are close to $1 million in total earnings, it may be easier to be relaxed.  But I also know that Martin Buser, for all his boyish charm, is still a keen competitor.  After Martin headed off down the trail, the family put chairs up on top of the truck and continued the party.

The Mitch Seavey team was across from Martin Buser’s family, on a diagonal.  I was assigned to help out as an ITC handler for the team, so had a little time to observe the Mitch and his family.  A lot like Martin, Mitch has run 25 times since 1982, has won the big prize 3 times, and has earned the top awards and close to $1 million.  To Mitch, “Iditarod is a family tradition,” His father and four sons all have run the Iditarod and/or Jr Iditarod. 

Seavey (son) was standing around the truck conversing with handlers, and Mitch’s wife Janine was quietly talking on and off with Mitch.  There was talking, but the sounds were hushed and “confidential.”  Faces were serious, almost stern.  Everyone moved calmly, with focus, focus, and more focus. Dogs were brought out quickly and cleanly, hooked in within minutes, and stood barking purposefully (not the raucous chaos of Saturday).  Even when one got loose, an ITC handler snagged him immediately, and the dog was slid calmly into his spot in the team. The whole team had the feel of a well-oiled machine, humming with power that was palpable but muffled, for the moment. The whole team, humans and canines, even smelled of oil—essential oils. Before unhooking, Mitch calmly walked along the line, making one last inspection. Then he and Janine rode together on the runners, king and queen, beaming on their way to the start line.

For a rookie family, the Iditarod restart is more than a little different from the Busers and Seaveys.  I was able to help out with Blair Braverman, and got to spend some time talking with her parents.  I had run into Blair’s mom, Jana Kay Slater, during the morning at the Lakefront Hotel.  The celebrations of Ceremonial Saturday had given way to the realization that her daughter was heading out for 1,000 miles with her dogs. She said that, after watching a Netflix video about Aliy Zirkle and her disastrous encounter with a drunk snowmachiner,  she wasn’t worried about Blair handling the forces of nature, but she was afraid of random human disasters. 

As a mom of 30-year-olds, I can empathize with Jana Kay, and with the other mothers and fathers watching their children head out on the trail.  We raise them to do that. To head out into the World and tackle whatever comes their way. But they still are our children.  Jana Kay held back suggestions and questions, not wanting to get in the way or interrupt Blair, and we stood to the side and let Blair and her partner, Quince, tend to the lines and dogs. 

Dad (Mark) asked if Blair needed help, and she said, “Yes, but it would take me too long to explain.”  She and Q (Quince) worked with a calm intensity.  Focused.  Rookies to the Iditarod, but with enough race experience to know how to “do this thing.” 

Watching other teams begin to head toward the start, and not seeing Blair’s dogs being hooked in, I wondered for a moment if they were going to be ready in time.  Teams 1-8 had gone, and they were 11.  But then it happened. Without a lot of fluster, they just kept to their focused and purposeful movements, each step, one step at a time, getting all of the dogs in.  Zen-like. Then we were on our way to the start, Blair beaming and expansive as she headed out on the trail.

Slipping back out of the chute, I found Blair’s parents, Jana Kay and Mark. We exchanged hugs.  This is where people often say, “She’ll be fine,”and “She can do this.”  Reassurances can’t and shouldn’t take away the reality that our loved ones are taking on risks.  At the restart, we come face to face with the real deal: we have to let go of our children, our parents, our partners so they can take on the world and tackle immense challenges.  I realize that every musher out there tonight is someone’s daughter, son, sibling, mother, father, or grandparent.  During the restart, in that window of time before the mushers hit the trail, it is a time of focus and family.

*Teachers: who are the people left behind?  Every musher has family that care about them.  Have students research the family of their favorite musher.  Help them consider what it is like to say goodbye to someone and send them off to a risky adventure.  Have they had experiences with something like this? Perhaps, a parent that has been deployed, a sibling that has had major challenges?  This could be a great opportunity to teach empathy.

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