S.F. Mush

Whom to root for at the 7th annual Urban Iditarod? Raiders of the Lost Bark, perhaps...

On Saturday morning in Anchorage, Alaska, the ceremonial starting leg of the 29th Alaskan Iditarod is cut from 20 to 11 miles due to icy trails that could potentially injure sled dogs before the grueling 1,100-mile race is formally underway. Undaunted by the moderate upheaval, the 68 teams ready themselves to leave from the official starting point in Willow, Alaska. From there, the teams will travel over 90 miles of snowy desolation to the decaying ghost town of Iditarod. After a brief rest, they will continue through windswept wilderness to the village of Shageluk, beginning the most isolated stretch of the race. Over the course of the next 10 to 20 days, mushers will face frigid temperatures, unyielding terrain, physical and mental fatigue, and the potential loss of dogs with which they have lived and trained for years.

In San Francisco, mushers competing in the 7th annual Urban Iditarodface a separate array of difficulties.

"Right now, I'm a little worried these erect tails are going to fall on us once we get moving," says Whack the Dawg, adjusting her dog-ears. The potential for crushing does seem imminent. The "tail," a tube covered in faux fur attached to the back of a Safeway shopping cart (the officially sanctioned "sled" of the Urban Iditarod), looms 10 feet overhead, swaying in the bright morning sky.

The Urban Iditarod began as a name before it was a concept. Stirred by the outlandish nature of the Alaskan Iditarod, Tundra Tommy(then going by the name Frontier Floyd) wondered what would make people race over 1,000 miles in the snow with a pack of dogs, and whether it would translate to an urban setting. The answers, he determined, were "fun" and "yes." He decided to dress people as canines, attach them to makeshift sleds, and mush them through town, making scheduled rest-stops -- fashioned after the check-points in the Alaska race -- at local watering holes. Rumor has it that, in 1994, at the time of the first Urban Iditarod, Tundra Tommy was a student at Stanford, and the first few contests were word-of-mouth affairs, comprised mostly of students. Today, the Urban Iditarod has a life of its own.

"People say I'm the organizer," explains Tommy from behind fuchsia sunglasses and hot-pink lipstick, "but that just means I bring the people together in one place. The event runs itself. I just watch. It's still word of mouth. Most of the carts and costumes are still put together the night before the race. It takes a particular type of person to dress up like a dog and run through the city barking. It doesn't matter where we're from or what we do... Today, we're all just crazy."

Among the crazy canines, I find five teams composed largely of graduate students from the molecular-cellular biology departments at surrounding universities, but among the other 30 teams, I find several software engineers, an erotic dancer, a couple of carpenters, a yoga instructor, a bike messenger, a carpenter, a number of dads, a hesitant grandmother, a psychoanalyst, and members of a world-wide running club called Hash House Harriers, whose motto is "A drinking club with a running problem." Most teams have costumes, themes, beer, and running shoes; most teams have at least four hapless beasts of burden, a musher, and some sort of wheeled cart that the dogs can pull. Most, but not all, teams have complied with the simple suggestions for the race; the Reservoir Dogs, a group of slick suit-and-shade touting roughs, is one of two teams to arrive sans cart. The excuse: "We must've left the cart in our other pants."

Just as for the Alaska race, the start of the Urban Iditarod can change in both time and location. For several blocks approaching the designated starting-line (in a parking lot behind a bank), I find teams gathered in other vacant lots mistaken for the point of departure; I stumble across a few stray pups wandering through alleys, dehydrated and lost, looking for companions and familiar landmarks; I encounter several mushers who have fearlessly volunteered to do reconnaissance; and I catch sight of a couple clever dachshunds trying to buy a shopping cart from an indigent fellow (no sale). Human howls and barking finally lead me to the new starting line; not ice, but crosstown traffic, is the cause of relocation.

Overexcited dog-men run up and down the alleyway, barking and sniffing lady-dogs. Better-trained teams test their new harnesses and limber up, while veterans coolly swill beer and wag their bushy tails. Alpha Dog, Tundra Tommy's cohort, weaves through the pack of florescent wigs, floppy ears, and piebald attire, checking registration and passing out nametags for the sleds. He grumbles about his team not showing up, and some musher comments on the horrible plane crash that killed all but two of William "Sonny" Nelson's dogs before the 1978 Alaskan Iditarod. But the mood is still high.

After brief suggestions on the bribing of judges (specifically, Tundra Tommy), the dogs are off, careening up 5th Street through the cable car turn-around at Powell. The tourists part before the onslaught of barking and rattling shopping carts. They point and take pictures; some shoot video.

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