Armchair Musher: Why Run?

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Poised as we are on the cusp of the race start, it’s worth pausing a moment to examine the central question underlying the whole enterprise: why would anyone want to run 1,000 miles with their dogs through a daunting landscape in what is inarguably (sorry T.S. Eliot) the cruelest month in the north? It’s a question we’ve been asked countless times, & to be honest, the answer that we give tends to vary every single time. I suspect the answer for this field of mushers, too, is as widely variegated as the topography along the trail. I’m not sure that it will be any help or provide any insight into the motivations of these fifteen mushers, but I’ll offer up my thoughts in the event that they might resonate.

The easy version of the answer, before unpacking all of its nuances, is that there is some magnetic draw to the unthinkable challenge that this race proposes. It requires that you step outside of time, husband yourself to antiquity, fare forward against the better claims of reason & logic, take great pains to care consistently & well for other living creatures & experience a solitude made absolute by the scope & scale of its backdrop. John Ashbery wrote that “all time reduces to no special time,” which applies here in the sense that on the trail, as the days tack on to one another, that semblance of loose organization that provides the architecture of our everyday thins & fades until there is only the sunrise, the sunset, the swirl of stars, the dragon’s breath of the aurora or the snow in all of its iterations, beneficent or otherwise. & always the shush of the runners, always the breath of the dogs. The quiet of the camps but for the small crackle of the cooker or the song in your head while the dogs curl up to sleep. On the trail, it doesn’t matter if it’s two in the morning or two in the afternoon; what matters is how the dogs are looking, how you’re moving together through it all.

There is a lure in that liquefaction of time. There is an undeniable pull in merging with that timeless landscape. Why?

For some, there is the connection with the historicity of the trail. We’ve read every tale of someone just like us centuries ago forging through the new-fallen snow in search of something like meaning. The gold rush or the mail carriers or the flight from the village to head down river. Dogs have always been dogs, & the humans that have stepped on the runners have always felt the same thrumming energy, the same mix of fear & thrill & hope & care. The mountains describing the horizon have always been there, upended sharks’ teeth appareled in snow, & though the water courses under the ice, the river has taken millenia to carve its way, scrawling straight line or subtle curves, oxbows & boustrophedons in a child’s script across the tundra. The feeling of being subsumed in all of that has always been the same, & in that sense, when these fifteen mushers pull the hook, they join into a rarified dialogue stretching back to the first time a dog team ran the north.

& then there is the fear of it. The trembling awe standing in front of a looming task the shadow of which stretches & yawns across two countries & two weeks. Who you are at the start is not who you are at the end—every mile metabolized into the surety of the trail. These mushers will confront every fear along the way, every conceivable thing will go wrong, the weather will conspire against them, their bodies will fail them in myriad ways, the distances between checkpoints will seem plastic in their capacity to stretch beyond expectation, & they will in spite of it all continue to move forward. You confront yourself, there on the Fortymile, say, with no audience at all. Your revelations are yours alone, your choices yours alone, your every moment with your ruff-lined hood pulled tight over your head is your own to carry along. & in the vastness of that lonesome country, no one to bear witness, everything is necessarily tempered with humility & every breath laced with the cognition if its disappearance. We pass through. In every sense. All scale conflates, the granitic bluffs people our dreams, the sunlight slanting aureate across them a character with whom we interact. I think of that Denis Johnson line—“I knew every raindrop by its name.”

There is, of course, the sense of accomplishment when the yellow banner at the finish bears into view, for dog & musher alike. You have done something, completed a long goal you set out to achieve. But the objective overview of what you’ve just done is what matters the least to you, whether you’re in first or whether you earn the red lantern. Your experience is uniquely your own & a cherished thing that chafes forever against that re-imposition of the normal world. Your last run in brings the peopled world with all of its machinations & none of it really seems to stick & endure like what you just did. If I pause for one moment right now to consider some of the most meaningful & beautiful & instructive times in my life, I flash immediately to Eagle Summit, & I want suddenly nothing more than to be back at 101 with Rob & Deke & Jason & Curt sitting in a wind-ripped tent on cots uncertain of their footing in the snow, shaking our heads & wondering what the hell it was we just did together on that mountain. I love those men because we spoke that same language in the face of fear, staring into the dizzying white mountain-face through the dizzying white snow. I think of the shrill wind blasting through the Kandik valley, the nubby outcroppings of stone & blunted willow frozen thick across the riverbed, peppering the glare ice scratched with the frantic wake of everyone’s claw-brakes, & I think of my lead dog Solo tucking into it, navigating without my aid, finding in that swirling living darkness the way out, the way forward, & I am filled with love. I think of my wife’s smile in Dawson when she pulled her beautiful team of fourteen in after enduring the considerable setbacks that she had, & I am filled with love. How curious that such a solitary pursuit can teach so much about the heart’s affections, but there is a purifying element to it, a way of making crystalline & solid & true what matters most & what simply does not.

It is always the most humbling task that yokes you to the truest path forward. Like Brian Doyle writes, “This is what I know: that the small is huge, that the tiny is vast, that pain is part & parcel of the gift of joy, & that this is love, & then there is everything else. You either walk toward love or away from it with every breath you draw. Humility is the road to love. Humility, maybe, is love. That could be.” In an odd & ineffable way, the Quest seems to exhume in you a kind of love that you didn’t even realize breathed in there. Something threading from you to the dogs to the trail to the mountains & rivers, something gossamer-thin, windblown, hard-fought & tough, strung catenary from one moment to the next. Something that, though you can’t define it, leaves you with a thirst & a longing to return, if not to the trail, then to something that will slake you the same way.  Something timeless & pure, something entirely your own & something that stretches across whatever your expectations or inhibitions, whatever your fears, & writes in that sled’s wake on the snow a story of love & humility. Of the will to fare forward not against adversity but into it, through it, to regard it from the other side, knowing that you can.

The Official 2020 Yukon Quest Armchair Musher is Yukon Quest veteran Andy Pace, 2016 & 2019 finisher. You can follow Andy, along with YQ veteran Kristin Knight Pace and their family on Instagram at @heymoosekennel.

Andy Pace