After rookies left the starting line Sunday it should have hit them that they were finally racing in the Iditarod – leaving the starting line is a surreal experience when you’ve spent at least a couple years preparing for this moment. Once you leave the start line, you get to high five people through the trail system in Willow, and there will be groups of fans along the trail all the way to Finger Lake – tons of bonfires and parties out there that cheer mushers on all night long, like no other race they’ve ever experienced.
After Finger Lake, you reach what feels like the real Iditarod trail – the Happy River Steps are on that section of trail. Last year I forgot where the steps were, so as I was going down them I had no idea that’s where I was – until I reached the camera crew at the bottom! What most people don’t tell you is that once you reach the bottom of the steps you’re on the Happy River for a short distance, then you have to climb back up the riverbank – and it’s no easy climb either. And you continue climbing all the way to Rainy Pass checkpoint, and you climb a bit further once leaving the checkpoint until you actually reach Rainy Pass, then you drop into the Dalzell Gorge. The gorge is hyped as being the most dangerous part of the trail, and they’re not kidding. I consider myself a fairly good sled driver – I’d been running dogs for 18 years by the time I ran Iditarod, and have a fairly good record of not dumping my sled over very often. Going down the gorge I felt like a pinball – I was dumping my sled over what felt like every 10 feet, and was basically out of control the whole way down. But man, what a ride! Now they know they’re really racing the Iditarod.
Coming into their 24-hour rest, wherever they’ve decided to take it, they’ll realize what they’ve gotten themselves into. McGrath and Takotna are about 300 miles into the race, which is probably the longest race most of the rookies have run (Ed Hopkins is the odd man out, as he’s completed many Yukon Quest 1000-mile races). After their 24 hour rest they still have another week, or more, of racing to go, almost 700 miles of trail.
As I sit here in Takotna I’m certainly missing being on the trail, but I’m enjoying the camaraderie between the volunteers. Stay tuned for some interviews with rookies as they reach us here!