In San Francisco, mushers competing in the 7th annual Urban Iditarod face 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.
"The real creative aspect of the race doesn't happen here," explains Tommy Tundra. "It happens in Cleveland, or Texas, or Florida, as people look through their camcorders or photos and find images of all these people dressed as dogs running through their vacation."
Sister Mary Elvis, a flashy show dog from Washington, D.C., stops to explain the meaning of the event (or lack thereof) to confused pedestrians. Her team, the Holy Terriers, a group of mostly veteran Urban Iditarod racers, is unconcerned that it has arrived nearly last at the first rest stop, outside the Irish Bank Bar. There, the racers take in sustenance, led by the Dalmatian Island Team, whose custom margarita-making sled is pulled by a pack of six curs wearing grass skirts and black and white ears. The team captain, a sword-toting, five-time Urban Iditarod veteran named Hangs Loose, drinks out of a large hollow horn that echoes the large horns mounted on the front of his sled.
"I'm 48 going on 13," says Hangs Loose, who is a computer engineer for Intel. "And I've been running for over 20 years. The only problem with this race is trying to maintain a sober attitude when I meet my wife later."
Five minutes later, the packs take off again, running up Bush Street into Chinatown, where looks of amusement turn to disquiet and concern. Mistress Angela, the formidable musher of Dogs Who Get Beat, cracks her whip in the air, spurring her slave Dobermans into greater exertion, and I am momentarily reminded that a former Alaskan Iditarod winner was banned from competition for hitting his dog with a snow hook. No such transgression will occur here; Mistress Angela's dogs are well-trained to like their whippings. The next stop is scheduled for Red's Place, but the dogs come to a halt outside the nearby Ma Tsu Temple. An elderly Chinese man emerges from the temple doors and smiles as the racers wave and bark greetings. I watch two sheep dogs in white robes and turbans rifling through a majestic, gold-encrusted ice chest that rests on two carrying poles like a biblical artifact; these dogs are, in fact, the Raiders of the Lost Bark. Someone offers the Chinese gentleman a beer; he declines with a broad smile, while an apprehensive crowd gathers at a safe distance across the street.
The next rest stop is Washington Square Park, where a Christian duo with amplified guitar sings to a near-empty square. The dogs come tumbling down Union Street, yapping and yowling, with giant balloons (supplied by the superhero Underdog team) flapping in the wind. Team Ugly Bitch, a group of feisty Dalmatians, arrives first -- not a good omen, given the longstanding Alaskan Iditarod "half-way jinx" -- and happily rolls around in the grass. One of the tartan-wearing Scotties from Team Great Scot limps into the park after being brutally gored by Dalmation Island's horns but, like great sled dogs before him, the Scot is fearless and determined to finish the race. The Christians sing "God is Love" through their microphones. Some newly arriving mutts respond, "Dog is Love," while others, like Team Snoop-y Dawg, try to remain respectful, pulling beers out of the roof of the little red dog house on their sled. A man wearing a seven-foot cardboard bone becomes the religious duo's lone audience member as the canines participate in six-legged dog races and games involving dog bowls filled with beer. Making further use of the musical accompaniment, the Holy Terriers start a limbo game using a whip. Photographs are taken, then it's back to the track.
By the time the sleds reach Caesar's on Bay and Powell, the dogs are hitting their stride. Many are seen detached from their sleds, chasing cars and woofing at bicyclists. When an electric bus stops for pictures, the dogs swarm over it, hanging off the poles and slavering at tourists like a fraternity prank gone awry. The unruly pooches sing canine drinking songs and smoke cigarettes; they make out with "bitches" and tell bawdy jokes. Come race-time, though, the mongrels are all business once again, running and howling in relatively tight formation to the Steelhead Brewery, where they take in vittles and two-dollar pints.
The final stretch of the Urban Iditarod, around Aquatic Park and up the hill into Fort Mason, is considered to be the most demanding leg of the four-hour trek, partly for the steep grade and partly because of alcoholic saturation. In the words of one Labrador retriever, "the hill rises like an impassible concrete iceberg, intimidating, demoralizing, and offering not one beer break."
On the grassy plateau that is the finish line, the incoming teams collapse in heaps. One of the teams cranks up its ghetto blaster and pulls blankets from its sled. The Great Scots claim the lone fire hydrant for their own, while mushers share wild tales and Wild Turkey. Soon enough, a uniformed park ranger appears on the scene to answer a complaint about "unlawful assembly." The McGruff Team of crime-fighting hounds flies into action, offering the official support and photographs. Reassured by the tan trench coats and detective hats, or by the general lack of malicious mischief, the ranger gently suggests the athletic event come to an end soon. But the winner has yet to be determined.
Finally, the Ice Pirates are spotted mounting the crest of the hill. Where once there were 12 dogs, only four remain, and those appear bruised and battered; the mighty cries of their musher --"aarrghh!" and "mush, damn ye," heard throughout the day -- are reduced to hoarse, faint croaks; and the joyous sound of firecrackers and snaps that previously followed in their wake is but a smoky recollection.
The Ice Pirates have won at last.
"It's a running joke," explains Alpha Dog. "If you come in first, you've lost. It's not about the fastest time; it's about who has the most fun."
Full coverage of the Urban Iditarod can be found at www.urbaniditarod.com. Coverage of the Alaskan Iditarod is at http://www.adn.com/iditarod/. When we last checked, Ryan Redington, the 18-year-old grandson of Iditarod founder Joe Redington, was in the lead.