-17 below at the start of the Beargrease - and you learn what tough is all about
For the first time in over five years, KUMD listeners didn't hear the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon broadcast live as it happens.
My weather app said it was -17 below in Arnold when I arrived at Billy's Sunday morning, but I was ready. I'm no Beargrease newbie. Two pairs of socks, long johns, jeans, two shirts, bib-alls, and my puffy down Colombia coat. Foot-warmers AND toe-warmers tucked into my Sorels. Hand-warmers in my pockets for the extra camera battery and the cell phone; hand-warmers in each of my gloves. I was bundled in so many layers I could hardly lift my leg to get into the car, but I persisted. It's hard to be self-important when you make "whap-woop whap-woop" sounds when you walk (like you did in your snow pants days), but I found a way. Hey, I'm an intrepid reporter/photographer covering the Beargrease!
When I got to Billy's, my friend Diane took one look at me and demanded I take her huge parka. You look cold, she said. Diane (and the parka) are veterans of a lot of sled dog races and cold weather adventures so I thought, sure, ok. If nothing else, now I will REALLY look like an insider!
I wander around, enjoying the dogs and the sunshine and snapping photographs of the Meet the Mushers event. The bright sunshine and calm conditions gave the illusion that it was warmer than it was, but everyone was dressed for the cold and enjoying the morning - it was a beautiful day for the 35th running of the Beargrease.
My first inkling of trouble came when I was supposed to call in the first report at 10:30am. I KNEW my phone had a full charge; I'd made sure of it. But I called the station and suddenly - nothing. Blank screen. I toddled over to my car as quickly as I could, started the engine, plugged in the phone and voila - there's the apple icon and the thing is showing a full charge. I chatted happily with Maija about the scene at Billy's and signed off with a promise to listeners to be back at noon with the race start.
11:45am: I've staked out my spot on the "media" side of the barricades, just a few yards up the trail from the starting line. All along West Tischer Road, from Billy's stretching west, hundreds of spectators are lined up waiting for the race to begin. My phone, which was once again showing disconcerting signs of flakiness, was warmly wrapped in a spare glove with a hand-warmer tucked in next to it. But I'm beginning to register a deep sense of ... misery.
No matter which hand-warmer I fish out of my pockets or gloves, they only feel ... warmish. They're supposed to be good for five hours and this is only hour three! While I listen to Ken Buehler, longtime race announcer, relate the story of John Beargrease, I'm shuffling hand-warmer packets around, trying to get some heat on my fingers and heat on my phone. I call Chris Harwood at the station to get ready to go live.
Every year, I'm crouched in the starting chute, narrating live and holding back tears as Ken explains that the spirit of John Beargrease always starts the race, wearing bib #1. The crowd falls silent for a few moments and you can hear the shuush of invisible runners as John and his phantom team runs past.
Every year, I'm narrating the scene in the chute and snapping photos as Ken leads the crowd in counting down each musher, as the snow hook comes up, the handlers let go, and each team hits the Beargrease trail.
Not this year. I realize (perhaps later than I should have) that Chris isn't on the line and that my phone has, once again, given up the ghost, this time for good. OK, there's nothing I can do about the phone but -- I can take the photos.
So I start taking pictures, and with every snap of the shutter, I realize that it is horribly, abominably, crushingly cold. I'm deeply ashamed of myself: look at the mushers and handlers out here -- look at the spectators! They're not whining about the temperature! I mean, maybe the spectators spend a little more time in the convivial atmosphere of Billy's, and maybe the mushers and handlers who do this for a living have better clothes (and gloves, and boots), but I've been a fangirl of the Beargrease for a long time now and I'm not a quitter!
But my phone was. And my hand-and boot-warmers are. And as I'm struggling to get my increasingly numb fingers to push the shutter button on my camera and as the rapid-fire click-click-click is getting slower and slower ... I realize the weather is winning this one. I photograph each of the 12 marathon entrants and then I do something I've never done before. I bail on the Beargrease.
I waddle back to my car, my face too frozen to register my disappointment and shame. I struggle to get myself and my camera equipment back into the car and to feel my feet so I can drive. I stop at my neighborhood grocery store for cheese and tomato soup, and fantasize again about going to the Native American Hoop Dance Championships in Phoenix they keep talking about on National Native News.
Then I come home to go through more photos and write more stories about the Beargrease.
So here we are at the end of Day One. I'll add the photos to this piece and get ready to talk with John Stetson, our Beargrease trail reporter, tomorrow morning at 8am. (John Stetson has been on Arctic excursions with Will Steger. John Stetson doesn't whine about the cold.) And tomorrow, I will pack up my camera gear and bundle into my little-kid snowpants and my borrowed parka and stuff my boots and gloves and pockets with fresh hand- and foot-warmers and head north again on the trail of the Beargrease, because I can't help myself. I want to show - and tell - the story.
Jason Rice is running his first full marathon this year. Jason got hooked on mushing when he was a TV reporter years ago, covering the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. We broke the story over the summer that he was leasing a team of dogs from last year's Beargrease winner, Ryan Redington, and running the full marathon this year.
I've decided I'm going to take a page from Jason's book next year. I, too, am going to lease some sled dogs. And when race time comes again, I'm going to be crouched right there in the starting chute, my cell phone hooked up to a gas-powered generator if I have to, shouting about the scene over the roar of the gennie and firing away with my camera as Ken counts 'em down. And then I am going to go home and sit down under a pile of leased sled dogs and read a book. Because sometimes, you have to get out of your comfort zone to do something worthwhile ... and sometimes, you have to play to your strengths.