Monday, March 23, 2009

Lessons from the Iditarod

There's a saying in Alaska that once you leave The Last Frontier a part of it never leaves you.

It's true.

As anxious as I am to get home I am also anxious to get back and experience what makes Alaska quirky, interesting and fun.

One of the things I long to experience someday is the Iditarod -- the annual 1,150 mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome that commemorates a much more serious endeavor in 1925 when relays of mushers and their dogs risked their own safety to bring life saving medicine to quell a diphtheria outbreak among Nome's children.

The Iditarod is many things today: a competitive race, an endurance challenge, a tourism booster and even an educational outlet as the story of the mushers and the tiny natiive villages along the trail is told to the outside world. Even more rewarding is that this story is as modern as it is old, broadcast around the world by high school students in towns where the entire K-12 school population may be 50 students.

It's now old news that Lance Mackey smoked the competition, arriving under the burled arch in Nome at 2:38 p.m. Kenosha time last Monday to score his third consecutive first-place finish, this year more than seven hours ahead of runner-up Sebastian Schnuelle.

The fire siren in Nome blared and villagers and tourists flocked to the finish line to welcome and cheer Mackey. They did the same for Schnuelle seven hours later and for each musher, coming out in the dark at 4:09 a.m. Kenosha time to cheer legally blind musher Rachael Scdoris and Tim Osmar, her fellow musher and visual interpreter who finished, respectively, 45th and 46th. So far 50 mushers have crossed the finish line in Nome, each with a hero's welcome and each being honored at a community banquet.

For a few mushers, such as Mackey, it's the chase for first place but that's not all the Iditarod is about. Ask 13th place finisher DeeDee Jonrowe, a cancer survivor and Alaska favorite. And then there's the memory of legendary musher Susan Butcher whose battle with cancer was not as successful as her Iditarod career. Then there's the inspiration of Rachael Scdoris, the legally blind young musher from Oregon who disabuses the notion that she's disabled: "To me, disabled means unable and I am by no means unable."

So far 50 mushers made it to Nome but 14 scratched, such as veteran Ed Iten who dropped out for the health of his dogs. There's honor in putting their welfare ahead of your own interests.

It's dark in Nome as I write this -- and dark here, too. But in Nome a red lantern burns at the burled arch, a traditional sign that the race isn't over. Two mushers -- Heather Siirtola and rookie Timothy Hunt -- are still on the trail. The fire siren will sound and people will cheer for them, too, and the last place finisher, probably Hunt, will extinguish the red lantern and collect his prize for finishing last.

A prize for finishing last? Yes, the Red Lantern Award is a recognition that's it's also important to stay in the running even when the odds are against you.

Maybe that's one reason why they say that you may leave Alaska but a part of it never leaves you. Hopefully it's the best part.

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