Today was the ceremonial start of the Iditarod. The mushers are obligated to mush from 4th Avenue in Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip, a distance of 11 miles. I was in Anchorage at the ceremonial start in 2012, the first time it snowed in the history of an Iditarod start. 10,000 plus people lined the race route. 50 times that, or more, tuned in via live Alaskan TV coverage and through the internet. Some might ask, why put the mushers through this Spectacle, but, I say its essential.
After Anchorage the racers now have to pack everything up and head to Willow for the restart, and, I heard the word bull crap more than once about them having to do this. Some say it puts stress on the mushers and the teams. I think the stress is more on the mushers than the dogs. I’m guessing (and only guessing) that the dogs are used to being loaded and unloaded into the truck for training and conditioning runs. This year in particular, the musher had to drive to where the snow was. Mike Santos (Cantwell, AK) said “It was easier to count the mushers who were not here (Cantwell) than those who were here.” Which meant they were driving to his nick of the woods to train because that’s where the snow was.
Nothing happens in a vacuum. As with any sport, it can’t thrive without fans. It would be great if the mushers could go to Willow and head out. I’ve been to Willow during the restart, it stinks. If you’re not with a race official (which I was) you’ve got some long walking to do after you park (sure you may have some walking to do in Anchorage, but your in Anchorage on sidewalks and can window shop), or you can take a shuttle bus from Wasilla. Even the visual is a let down. Instead of 10,000 intoxicated, cheering fans in Anchorage (trust me, they were), the race took off on a frozen lake and the mushers disappeared into the trees.
The Iditarod has done it right. They stage the Anchorage start at the end of the Fur Rondy, people are excited, interest is high and potential sponsors are paying attention. The Iditarod is purely Alaskan and without the Anchorage start even Alaskan interest and support would wane. The Anchorage restart is social media in a sense, it introduces the mushers and dog racing to new fans and enthusiasts. The obligation to the mushers does and should end there except for following the rules of the race and carrying the mandatory items to Nome.
Speaking of social media some mushers do an excellent job at it—Facebook fan page, Twitter, blog, etc. Few of these mushers run these venues themselves by the way, but, have others (fans, professional social media folks) post for them. So despite the so called intimacy, there is somewhat of a disconnect (hey I’m guessing Lady GaGa doesn’t man her social media 24/7 either, if at all).
Then there are mushers like Ramey Smyth, no Facebook fan page, Twitter, or Blog/web page that I could find. He’s done a good job of avoiding social media and self promotion in general. The announcers today said to stay away from him when he’s racing. He is focused and his head is in the race. I assume this is true for most racers and as a volunteer I avoided idle chit chat with the racers for that reason.
For the last two years I was a volunteer at the Koyuk Checkpoint. 800 miles into the race where mushers are punch drunk with sleep deprivation after crossing 50 miles of sea ice. Ramey Smyth was the only musher in the two years I was there (with the exception of Rick Swenson in 2012) that, as he was leaving the checkpoint, stopped, got off his sled and shook my hand to thank me for all the hard work I was doing as a volunteer. If what the announcers say is true, it means that much more to me that Ramey took those precious seconds (he finished 20th in 2013 and 3rd in 2012) to say thanks, not once but twice.
In summary I like the Anchorage ceremonial start and it should remain. At the same time its interesting to see how certain mushers embrace social media or try to avoid it. There are several kennels who will clog my Facebook newsfeed with updates in the next two weeks and then there are mushers like Ramey, the reason I’m an Iditarod Insider, who I will go out of my way to follow on their quest to Nome.