Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ode to back-of-the-packers: run your race

At the time of this writing, there are still 28 mushers running the Iditarod race trail. There is much anticipation as to who will win Iditarod each year, and each year, there seems to be a fight to the finish among the top five teams. There are lots of stories of drama, challenges and adversity. This year's race certainly outdid itself in that category.

When the winners come in, it doesn't matter what time it is, the crowds gather. Cameras flash, and fans cheer far and wide.  Now that 3/4 of the racers have arrived in Nome, it seems things have died down. When those last 28 roll into Nome, do they find the crowds gone?

I personally tip my hat to the back-of-the-packers, for while many if not all mushers face adversity on the trail, often it is those who are last to come in who face the most adversity, who run their own race despite odds and often in solitude. They're the mushers who run their own race without worry about what the others' strategy is or how far they have in lead. They are the ones who, for them, it's not so much a race as it is an experience, a journey with many places to stop and marvel at the amazing life unfolding.

Really, I have no business writing this. I am small potatoes compared to any Iditarod musher, regardless of where they finish.

But this is an homage to much more than the Iditarod. It is an ode to the lifestyle, to those who live outside the lines, those who run their race without thought about whether or not they are good enough. It's a tribute to those who know that just showing up is enough.

It's about setting goals and sticking to them, despite the odds. Those in the back-of-the-pack are often the ones who face the most adversity, who run in solitude having been left behind by faster teams. They are the ones who can face the toughest set backs, like Minnesota's Nathan Schroeder whose father reported that not only was his team sick with a virus and stalled at the White Mountain checkpoint, but Nathan himself was sick and "coughing blood."

It takes a special breed of person to run dogs. As Robert Service said in his poem "The Men Who Don't Fit In":

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
 A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
 And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
 And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
 And they don't know how to rest.

If you're ever able to attend a dog sled race, stick around to welcome the back-of-the-packers. In doing so, you will welcome some of the toughest people with the most fortitude that you will ever meet. 

*Update: Nathan and Jodi Bailey came into Nome as I was writing this. Welcome in!