Iditarod’s ‘Last Great Race’ fills the coronavirus sports void

Iditarod’s ‘Last Great Race’ fills the coronavirus sports void

Poor Nicolas Petit. He never had a chance, and he never knew it.

This was last week, as day by day, hour by hour, sports were vanishing from our landscape. Basketball? Gone. Baseball? Gone. Golf? Gone. For a time, it seemed like NASCAR might try to muddle on. But then NASCAR went away, too. The United States became a vast wasteland of sports. Nothing was left.

Only, that wasn’t quite right.

Up in Alaska, the dogs kept running in the snow. Up there, they call the Iditarod, without a trace of subtlety or modesty, “The Last Great Race.” And so it is. They have had to modify it a little bit. They have had to alter some checkpoints, abandon others. But starting on March 7, at the ceremonial First Checkpoint on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage, the Iditarod had mushed on gallantly and valiantly.

I didn’t suspect I could get either my boss or my wife to qualify this as “essential” travel in the middle of a global pandemic, so I did the next best thing: I dropped the $39 that allowed me to become an official “Iditarod Insider.” This, mostly, means having 24-hour access to GPS tracking, standings updates and a live stream that mostly shows empty snowy roads and teams of exhausted dogs snoring at checkpoints.

(This qualifies as family fun in a time of social distancing. A few days ago, half-snoozing on the couch, Desmond the Airedale and Fiona the Westy joined me and were enraptured at the site of Mitch Seavey’s huskies splayed out in some snowy grassland. After studying the pros, they quickly emulated them. They are both naturals.)

The most helpful feature is the chat room attached to the live stream. Now, I haven’t been much for chat rooms since 1997 or so, but this was a helpful place where my fellow Iditarod fanatics could get me up to speed on what I’d been missing in all the years since 1973, when the first race went off. I asked early on who I should root for.

“Nicolas Petit,” I was told by a helpful fellow insider named HuskyHank. “He’s finished in the top 10 five times, never won. He’s worth your time and your interest.”

OK, then. I’m a Petit man. I checked in on the live stream all day. I looked for updates. I subscribed to the Anchorage Daily News for a month. And then I saw this headline: “A HELLISH DAY AND THOUGHTS OF QUITTING.”

iditarod 2020 fabio berlusconi dog sledding coronavirus
Fabio Berlusconi drives his team from the starting line.Getty Images

Poor Nicolas Petit. What was the name of the guy in “A Bronx Tale,” who always lost every time he made a bet? It was “Mush.”

Damned if I hadn’t Mushed this poor musher, Petit.

The Iditarod wasn’t spared by COVID-19. The annual post-race festivities in Nome have been called off. Two of the race’s 26 checkpoints on the “Northern Route” (the path the race takes in even-numbered years) were moved outside their host villages, including Unalakleet, a city on the Bering Sea where crowds were prohibited from gathering.

Would-be spectators have been cautioned against flying in for the race’s finish, which will likely come sometime either Wednesday or Thursday when the leaders reach Nome, ending the 975-mile trek. Family members of some of the foreign-born mushers have already left for their homes in Norway and France and elsewhere.

The mushers themselves have spent most of the race dozens, sometimes hundreds, of miles away from each other. So it is expected that they will be all right.

“They do a very good job of social distancing,” Heidi Hedberg, Alaska’s public health director, quipped to the Washington Post.

Right now, the favorite must be considered Thomas Waerner, of Torpa, Norway, who is running his second Iditarod. In his first, back in 2015, he was named rookie of the year. Waerner was the first musher to reach the White Mountain checkpoint at 5:35 a.m. local time (9:35 in New York) Tuesday.

Waerner stepped off his sled, cloaked in an orange jacket, a miner’s helmet on top of his head. It was pitch black and 9 degrees Fahrenheit, and he accepted both congratulations and a $2,500 check from a representative of Northern Bank.

“This is a money-spending sport,” a grateful Waerner said before settling in for a mandatory eight-hour break. He looked fresh enough to carry on without one, and cover the final 77 miles in a jiffy, but his dogs would’ve whipped out picket signs if he’d tried, maybe place a call to Donald Fehr.

iditarod dogsled great race coronavirus
Tim Pappas drives his team during the restart of the 2020 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.Getty Images

(Back at the Iditarod’s New Jersey headquarters, Desmond and Fiona each rolled over in solidarity.)

Elsewhere in the race, mushers were laughing about conditions that ranged from unpredictable to slapstick. Paige Drobny, sitting in 10th place, paused during a checkpoint in Koyuk, was asked if she liked the conditions at this stage of the race, which traces the coastline of the Norton Sound of the Bering Sea.

“No! This year was just miserable! We got out there it was sloggy and gross and disgusting and I started thinking, ‘Where are the rabid seals?’ And at some point my dogs started barking and looking to the right and I looked out and saw a circle and thought, ‘Holy [cow], it’s a rabid seal! But it turned out just to be a circle …”

Meanwhile, poor Nicolas Petit …

Yep. Petit. My guy. So it turns out, early on in his race, before he reached the Nikolai checkpoint, he’d had something of an eventful day. All 12 or his dogs vomited. One dog bit another. During one crazy 2-mile interlude, the whole pack veered off course to chase a buffalo.

(And I get mad when the Airedale steals an English muffin off my plate.)

He worried about the dogs getting frostbite. One of his dogs, named Raven, had to be left behind at a checkpoint “and that breaks your heart,” Petit said. Turns out poor Raven was a little long in the tooth at age 8 for the task. “I should’ve brought a young up-and-comer,” he sighed.

The wild-buffalo chase doomed his chances. What was worse was the stray piece of meat left on the trail that one of his dogs, Rigal, spotted and happily scarfed up. That didn’t sit too well with Joee, her teammate. Joee bit Rigal in the face.

Back in New Jersey, upon hearing that, Desmond the male Airedale stood up and said, “Damn right!” at Fiona the female Westy.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This may not really have happened.)

“He’s a real talented athlete, but he’s a real butt,” Nicolas Petit said of Joee, providing the sports quote of the year even if the other sports ever do come back.

Petit pondered quitting the race but in the morning decided otherwise. He was in 14th place at last check, the musher officially Mushed. And not for the first time I say, “Wait till next year!”

Latest Category Posts

You May Also Read