Today is the start of the first Iditarod of the new decade. I was hoping to go down to see the start, but random wrenches gummed up the works. That’s okay– I’ve seen a lot of Iditarod starts. I would have liked to see my friend Riley off on his rookie run… Especially because he has a teammate near and dear to my heart. Shortly after we chose to step back from racing for the season, Riley and I got talking and the idea of Emmy joining his Iditarod group came up. Riley has Emmy’s sister Hermione and her brother, Crunch. So for the last few weeks, our star girl has been enjoying a family reunion and lots of running, which I know she loves. I was proud to hear she made the “final cut” for Riley’s team, and she’ll be with him tomorrow as he leaves from Willow and heads out on a hell of an adventure. Wish him luck and see his whole team at his website, darkhorsesleddogs.com.
I’ve followed the Iditarod with fervor since we first moved to Alaska in 1993. Well– I suppose I started following in 1994. Still that’s a hearty 26 years (which, haha, is still not even as long as my mentor, Martin, has run the race consecutively– it’s somewhere in the 30’s right now)(incidentally Martin won that first year I was following). I remember my teacher posting the results on the wall each day as we got info from the Anchorage Daily News or the radio.
Now, maybe– finally– it is just one year til I am at that start line.
I have been doing a lot of thinking since my decision to step back from our race plan this season. While it was immediately clear that the choice was the correct one, it was deeply bittersweet, and to be honest, I fell into a pretty good funk.
I gave myself the last few weeks (months now, I suppose) to lick my wounds and gather up the parts and pieces left in the ring. I spent most of that time NOT on the runners. We free played, we did occasional runs. We socialized indoors. But I gave my sled and the harnesses two giant middle fingers, and the dogs and I found other ways to do our thing.
Now is the day though. Or, rather, tomorrow is. Tomorrow morning is a year until I could be hitting the trail.
With the incredible wrinkle that was this season, I am not one hundred percent sure about anything. Will 2021 still be the right year to run? Will the dogs be ready enough? Will I be? Can I get to a mental place where I am able to train the way I want to, as fully as I believe the dogs need? Is it smarter to try to re-do what we planned for this year– get those mid distance races on our belts? Can I even do that? I don’t know.
I decided to take this weekend, while the race starts, to really sit with these questions. I planned to do that and I knew I would be doing that and I guess my brain was more than ready to do that, because I dreamed last night entirely of the question. I dreamed I was at Iditarod sign ups. The first day of sign ups is a picnic in June. It’s an important event to me. It’s where I asked Martin if he’d teach me to mush– and it’s where I’d like to sign up for Iditarod. My brain brought me there, except instead of the Iditarod Trail HQ, sign ups were hosted in a library which also fixed vacuums– which I think is a genius twist on the part of my brain. (Note to self: invent vacuum-fixing library.) In the dream, time was crunched, and you had about an hour after you signed up to leave on the race. I pulled a late number (number 48, I guess I was thinking of Riley, who really has that number this year), so I knew I’d have almost two hours from the start time to get ready to go. When I finally got my paperwork sorted out, the first teams had already left. Shawn and I had the dogs and Todd the Truck but we were at the FRONT of the line of racers, and we needed to get to the back. We were told to go a winding and confusing way that involved taking a ferry. In the dream, I kept crashing into walls and also some members of a parade (don’t worry they were fine just insulted) with Todd. Finally I realized he wasn’t driving correctly so I got out and strapped him to my back like a backpack. Shawn helped me weave through crowds. We swam through a canal and were pointed through a restaurant (yes, in my dream, I still had a full-ass DOG TRUCK on my back), and we ended up in a filthy and cluttered apartment. And when we looked at the clock there, it was too late. My starting time had passed. We hadn’t made it to our slot, and we wouldn’t be running.
In my dream, I sat in the dusty, flower-patterned chair with Todd on my back, and I didn’t feel disappointed and I didn’t feel happy. It was what it was. I accepted the outcome of fate.
Then I woke up and tried to tell this whole dream to Shawn, who fell asleep while I was doing so.
Later in the morning, when I actually woke up, I turned the question over in my mind for a few hours, and suddenly, at some point, I realized that I already knew the answer. The answer is: it doesn’t matter.
I do want to run the Iditarod. There is absolutely no question about that. There’s no need to do heavy contemplating in that regard. I know that is true.
Can I do it? Not just the race? Can I do the whole part leading up to it, that I seem to keep stumbling on, on my own, so far? Maybe. I think so. With some very specific efforts and some specific focuses. Some work on my self in ways I haven’t done yet, even for all the mental health work I have done. If I want to make it to the start line, then I have to cross a new threshold with that work. There is no other path.
So since I do want to do Iditarod, and provided I can do it– maybe put that part of the question aside for now– the only remaining factor is, do I do Iditarod this coming year, or the one after?
And this is where the answer is, “it doesn’t matter.” Because if I want to do any racing, then I need to do that work on myself to get there. I need to make the kind of mental, physical, habitual adjustments that will pull the brake up on this slogging sled. I need to let myself let the team do their work.
And that work will be the same whether it’s Iditarod or a shorter race or races. And in that final case, first of all, I don’t need to decide about which I’ll do this coming year right this moment. I’ll decide before June 21st, because that’s Iditarod sign up, and if I’m doing it, I want to start it there.
The only remaining thing to decide now is– do I want to do any of it at all.
That’s the question we all get to face every single day. It’s the hardest and the worst question, sometimes. So often, “doing any of it all” is beyond insurmountable. These dog races we run– they’re just elaborate metaphors for the obstacles that people face every single day. Some mental mountains are much steeper and much more dire than any range a dog team would cross.
Sometimes wanting to do any of it at all is– the last thing. The thing you fold your arms and frown and say NO to. And even if you don’t scratch from the race, you may just sit down on the side of the trail and refuse to go anywhere for a while.
That was me, these past few weeks. Flipping off the world and folding my arms and digging my heels in. NO.
So now it’s a year. And now the question has bubbled up and won’t be ignored any more.
Do I want to do this at all?
The answer is yes. Even when it most seems like it isn’t.
I have to do this. Not because I am obligated or feel I “should.” But because I am compelled. This is the thing I feel called to. That’s strange, I guess, because I always thought folks were “called” to do things that were helpful to the world, more. But this is what I am called to because mushing haunts me, because dogs are part of me. Because I can’t not do this.
So the answer is onward. And lord I’m sick of that answer sometimes. I’m sick of it right now.
Except– Iditarod start always kind of has this effect on me– there’s the smallest niggling whisper of excitement. That could be you. That could be us. We could be finding our way across half of Alaska soon. That tug on my heart and my sense of adventure feels the same as whatever urges the dogs into joining a howl once it’s begun. It’s part of us; it’s something we must do.
One year. Maybe it won’t be Iditarod; maybe that year mark will be closing off our racing season. But we’ll be there. I hope you will too.
So okay, let’s do this.