The Yukon Quest, an epic sled dog race, ended here in Fairbanks a couple of weeks ago. And the start of the Iditarod, The Last Great Race, began here instead of it's normal start in Willow. We signed up to be official dog handler volunteers, and assisted in ushering 4 of the 78 teams out the chutes yesterday morning. We'd received a little bit of training over the weekend, but that was with a team of 6 dogs, pulling a light sled around a hotel parking lot. The real deal was MUCH harder: 16 wildly, excited dogs per team, who cannot wait to get from their parking area to the starting gates: a distance of nearly half-a-mile. In case you're wondering, the basics of dog handling for canine athletes includes just a few basics:
1) do not step on the dogs feet;
2) if you're going to fall (which is likely due to the strain, the snow, the angle of your pull, etc.), roll away from the dogs so as not to injure them;
3) restrain, restrain, restrain!
4) bring ear plugs (78 teams with 16 dogs each, plus many spares equates to a LOT of enthusiastic barking)
5) do not piss off the musher.
We helped with the following four teams: Jim Lanier (age 74!), Ken Anderson, Monica Zappa and Heidi Sutter. The mushers have their own look, their own attitude, their individual motivations, sled types, everything. But, two things ring true for all of them: they LOVE their dogs and they are tough as nails.. The winner will complete this race in 8 days or so, and it's currently 30-20 below zero currently on the trail. Now THAT is a different kind of athlete.