RAINY PASS, Alaska -- In a polar opposite climate to his old stomping grounds in Miami, Hall of Fame running back Larry Csonka stood bundled up on a frozen lake marveling at the hubbub surrounding the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
"It's like Mardis Gras and Groundhog Day combined," said Csonka, who lives in Alaska most of the year now, does hunting and fishing shows for Outdoor Life Network and was visiting his first Iditarod checkpoint Monday, about 150 miles from Sunday's start of the 1,100-mile race to Nome.
In first to Rainy Pass, a noisy checkpoint with dozens of small airplanes shuttling fans in and out while the dogs and mushers tried to snooze, was DeeDee Jonrowe, running her 22nd Iditarod. She was slowed, though, after breaking her sled an hour earlier in a collision with a snowmobile stopped on trail.
"The guys were working on the trail," she said. "Bless their hearts, they're trying to make it better for us. But it was stopped
at a spot where the dogs couldn't get around it very well. So when
the dogs did get around them, or jumped over them, I hit the front
of my sled and sheared the bolt that connects the runner to the
bottom of the sled in the front. The guys felt really bad but that
doesn't make my sled run better."
She contrived a quick fix with plastic ties and tape, borrowed a bolt at Rainy Pass to fix it better after getting some sleep, then
planned to switch sleds two checkpoints later in Nikolai.
Jonrowe, who fell to 26th by late evening, also dropped one dog with a sore shoulder. Mushers can replace sleds twice but not dogs.
"He is a young leader, Thoreau, one of my poets," she said. "This was his first Iditarod. He had brown urine, which is an
indication it's more than a small muscle injury. It's a major
muscle deal that needs to go home. He'll be fine but it's not
appropriate to try to keep him in the competition."
By late evening Monday, Norwegian Robert Sorlie reached the Rohn checkpoint first to take the lead. Sorlie, the 2003 winner, looked mighty weary, saying he hadn't slept in two days. Then again, he couldn't sleep the first few days two years ago and still won.
Four-time champion Martin Buser, who lost half of the middle finger on his right hand in a table saw accident last week, didn't let that slow him down. He was second into Rohn, 72 minutes after Sorlie.
Ramy Brooks then regained the lead late Monday night when he was in and out of Rohn in seven minutes. Aliy Zirkle followed shortly to move into second, followed by Mitch Seavey and four-time champion Doug Swingley as Sorlie and Buser rested their teams in Rohn. By sunrise Tuesday morning, 26 of the 79 mushers had gone through Rohn. Rachael Scdoris, the legally blind musher, was making slow progress in 75th position after leaving Finger Lake with visual interpreter Paul Ellering.
"It's a great celebration up here. There's a lot of teamwork involved," Csonka said. "The mushers help each other out, but what really impresses me is that when they come in here they check the time, then seven veterinarians descend on the teams. They check hearts, tongues, temperatures, everything about the dogs. I've seen at least four dogs pulled out of the race today."
Csonka said he understands the concerns of animal rights
advocates who oppose the race because it's a grueling event.
"But they also have to realize these dogs are bred and trained
for this and they live for it," Csonka said. "They want to do
what they're doing. And the mushers are glad the vets check the
dogs so carefully. They want the dogs to be healthy over the long
haul and they don't want to shorten one's life because it's not up
to snuff for a couple of days."
While Csonka spoke, defending champion Seavey worked nonstop for an hour taking care of his dogs: checking them over with the vets, hauling bundles of straw to spread around them,
carrying buckets of water for them, feeding them, making sure they
were completely taken care of and settled down before he had a bite
to eat himself.
Then, too, the mushers work out every detail of the race during months of preparation and are able to cope with almost anything that happens on the trail.
"A great portion of this race is mental and having a good game
plan," Csonka said. "It's like an NFL football game. You don't
just go in there thinking, 'We're good.' You've got to have
alternatives. Whatever hits you in the face, you've got to deal
with and take it on the run."
The mushers are much smaller than NFL players, but every bit as
rugged and committed. Three-time champion Jeff King came into this
checkpoint shortly after flipping over on his back when his sled
brake hooked on a tree stump in the trail.
"That sounds like something that happens to an NFL running
back," Csonka said. "Jeff said, 'I'm fitted for what I do and you
were fitted for what you did."'
Csonka, 58, still wears his Super Bowl ring from the Miami Dolphins' undefeated season in 1972 and still vividly remembers
sweltering in the heat of summer camps back then. Alaskan weather
and the variety of outdoor sports in the state, which he chronicles
in 26 shows a year, suit him much more.
"I came to Alaska for the first time in 1969 or '70," he said.
"Every few years I would come back for a while. Then 15 or 20
years ago I started coming back more regularly. Now I've moved up
here and we're here eight or nine months a year and really like it.
We have a place in Anchorage we call base camp.
"When I was playing and practicing in that heat in July and
August in Miami with shoulder pads on, it just vaporized me. (Head
coach Don) Shula would always come over and look at me and say,
'Where are you? I know you're not here. You're just on automatic
pilot.' I was up here in my mind, fishing in a stream."