Runner's Moon - Cover

Runner's Moon

©1995, ©2007, ©2010 by Wes Boyd

Chapter 17

From as far back as Kaltag, days before, Josh had made clear plans what he was going to do as soon as he got across the finish line -- he was going to picket the dogs, crawl into the sleeping bag in the sled basket, and sleep around the clock. He hadn't had more than a couple of hours of sleep at a time since McGrath, where both he and Tiffany had taken their mandatory 24-hour layover. But, the excitment of the finish, and just knowing that he'd finished, had left his adreniline pumped up so high that sleep was the furthest thing from his mind.

There were interviews and hugs, and all of the inevitable confusion of the finish line. It all took a while to die out. The organizers of the race had provided a dog lot not far from the finish line to picket the dogs, and it was short enough that Josh and Tiffany just let the handlers take the lead dogs by necklines and lead them over to it. Picketing the dogs, feeding them, providing for them took a while, but the six from Spearfish Lake, along with volunteers from Nome, made short work of it. Some of the dogs were more interested in sleeping than eating, and had to be roused to their hot food. The race had taken a lot out of the dogs, but there would be months before they'd race again; though they'd still get exercised there would be plenty of time to build them back up.

With Josh and Tiffany a little groggy from the letdown, the six headed into the Board of Trade Saloon, a landmark along Front Street. They gathered around a table, and ordered steaks. The unremitting cold of the race had made Josh and Tiffany's bodies cry out for food, more than they could eat; each of them had taken to eating butter, straight from the stick, to provide the warmth-bringing fats that their bodies needed so badly. It would take them a while to build their bodies back up from the stress of the last two weeks, too.

Despite finishing twenty-second and twenty-third, it was a victory dinner, a most special one. Not quite nine years before, five of the six people at the table, all except Josh, had seen a television show on Susan Butcher, the woman who'd won the Iditarod four times. It had gotten Mike and Mark interested in dogsledding, and the six of them had been responsible for the revival of dogsledding around Spearfish Lake. Now, there were perhaps twenty dog teams in the county, some more serious than others, but Josh and Tiffany had the best and the fastest.

The TV show on Susan Butcher had gotten Tiffany more than interested; she'd discovered that she'd been put on the earth to run a dog team, preferably in the Iditarod, and she'd announced right then and there that she was going to run it some day. No one took her quite seriously then, and it had been several years before anyone had realized that she really meant it. For the last three years, it had been clear that Tiffany was going to be starting the race in Anchorage and going to Nome as soon as she was old enough -- this year. Josh had caught the virus from her; for three years, they'd been preparing together for the race, training, building up their teams, raising the awesome amount of money involved. They had pretty much run together across interior Alaska, although they had lost contact with each other crossing Norton Sound from Shaktoolik in the night.

"We though about flying to Elim to catch you two there," Mark said, wrapping his fingers around a can of beer. "But we got caught in that ground blizzard in Unalakleet that blew in during the night after you left, and by the time we could leave, the ham radio guys said you'd already left Elim."

"Let me tell you," Josh said, "Crossing Norton Sound in the night in that blizzard was the toughest thing I've ever done. We ran together most of the way, and then we got separated when the blizzard let up a little, when the batteries on both our headlamps froze up. I thought Tiffany was behind me, so I took a break to snack the dogs and grab some rest."

"I thought Josh was behind me," Tiffany said, "So I just headed off on a compass course for Elim. The blizzard let up a little, and I could see the lights miles ahead of me, so I just kept pressing on."

"I slept longer than I thought I was going to," Josh said. "I never saw Tiffany again till we got to White Mountain. She had a couple hours on me, then. When I left White Mountain, I pushed it pretty good, trying to catch up."

"Well, now you've run the Iditarod," Kirsten said. "What next?"

"Go home," Josh said. "The pits will be open by the time I get there, and Bud'll have me running the SD-38s."

"I don't mean that," Kirsten replied. "Are you going to try it again?"

"I don't know," Josh said. "I figure that by the time I get home, I'll have spent fifteen thousand dollars to finish out of the money. I'd have had to finish at least twelvth to break even. On the other hand, I accomplished everything I set out to do. I told everybody that my goal was to run the race, to finish respectably for a rookie. Tiffany and I've done that. What do you think, Tiffany?"

"I don't know," she said. "If we could run the same race over again, knowing what we know now, we ought to finish in the money. We let ourselves get too far out of contact with the leaders in the first half of the race, and getting lost a couple of times didn't help. We're only about four hours out of the money, and if we hadn't gotten lost near Nikolai, that would have put us in the money right there. I think we could do better next year, but ... I don't know. I mean, I wanted to run the race, and finish respectably, and the top third of the field counts as that, I think. I've been so focused on running this race for years, and now that it's over, I guess I don't know what comes next. I mean, it's going to seem so strange to get home and go back to school like nothing had ever happened."

"You're sort of a hero at home," Mike reported. "We've called back with progress reports several times, and they tell us that you're the main topic of discussion back there."

Tiffany hadn't been in school for a month. Even that had been a part of her planning. Right from her freshman year, she'd taken a full load of classes every year, to limit what she'd have to miss when she took weeks off for the Iditarod in her senior year. Her teachers had cooperated; they'd helped her work ahead, and a month before, just before she'd flown to Alaska to join Josh, who'd gone ahead with the dogs, she'd passed her midterms. "It's going to seem strange to be back," she repeated. "Spearfish Lake seems so long ago and so far away, after the last two weeks."

Spearfish Lake High School may have been the only school in the lower forty-eight to have a row of doghouses next to the student parking lot all winter. Tiffany had first driven a dog team to school in the fifth grade; from the seventh grade on, she drove one to school every day there was snow on the ground, no matter what the weather. It gave her a chance to give her dogs and herself more training.

"It is pretty far away," Mark said. "And, we're going to have to be getting back. The weather's supposed to be good tomorrow, so I guess we'd better take the chance while we have it." He and the other three of the race followers faced a good solid day's flight in the 185 to Anchorage, with a stop to fuel at McGrath. The four had spent several thousand dollars themselves to follow the race.

It had been a tough race to follow. There was scheduled air service at only four places along the route of the race, at Anchorage, McGrath, Unalakleet, and Nome, and it turned out that the flights during the race had been booked months in advance. The alternative to not going had been the rental of the 185, which hadn't been easy to arrange, and had cost a ton. It wouldn't have been possible at all if one of the pilots for the air service hadn't been Jack Daniels, the pilot that had run Jackie through to her pilot's license back in Colorado a quarter century before, and knew both Mark and Jackie to be accomplished cold-country pilots.

Following the race in the Cessna had been an adventure of its own, especially for Mike and Mark. They'd long harbored a dream of running the Iditarod themselves, although their wives had put up a fair amount of protest back in the beginning, and they'd both promised that the Alaskan race was a bit too much. Following the race, stopping at the little bush villages along the way, had been the next best thing.

"We can't leave just yet," Tiffany said. "We have to stick around for the musher's banquet, and that's still three days off. Then, I'll have to stay with the dogs back to Anchorage, and help Josh get loaded up for the trip home."

"That was a given," Mike said. "Give us a call, and let us know when you'll be flying in to Camden."

Just then, the steaks arrived. They were normal-sized portions for Mark and Jackie and Mike and Kirsten, but the bar's proprietor had dealt with Iditarod racers for many years -- Josh and Tiffany each had a huge platter with two steaks, double-sized. "On the house to the mushers," the proprietor said, helping the waitress with the steaks.

Tiffany had never seen so much food in front of her at one time in her life. It wasn't as much as she wanted, but she wondered if she could pack it all in.

The adrenalin that had been keeping both Josh and Tiffany going had pretty well died out by the time they finished dinner, and neither could hardly keep their heads up. They were just getting set to go check on the dogs and go to the hotel when the siren sounded at the edge of town, announcing the arrival of another Iditarod finisher, so they decided to at least stop at the finish line to see who it was that was finishing. A couple of hours before, they had been the center of attention of the crowd as they raced down Front Street; now, they were nearly anonymous as they stood along the snow fence, watching a single musher and eleven dogs finish at an easy lope.

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