Online connections lead us to strange places

Posted on 06 March 2019

It’s a bit strange to root for and care for people you’ve never met, and most likely never will. Or, at least never come to know in a way that warrants you caring about them as you do a friend. Sports is the obvious thing that comes to mind for me when I think about this type of one-way relationship. Anyone who has been a sports fan has an athlete or two they feel like they know, even just a little bit. We see them performing something that isn’t easy at a very high level. We hear them talk about their families in interviews. We see the pain on their faces when they fail or lose go down with an injury. It touches us.

I have some of those feelings for people whose work I read on a regular basis. One of my favorite sports writers recently tweeted that his mother-in-law died. The tweet was very simple, concise, and heartfelt. I couldn’t help but feel heartbroken for him and his family. I know him only because I love his writing, and I love his humor, and damn if he isn’t great at Remembering Some Guys.

He’s just one example. The bigger one at this moment is a writer I have followed for a couple of years, but only recently become fascinated by for things other than the writing. That can happen when you read an incredible memoir that resonates with you through the combination of personality, brilliant writing, and a sense that you share some of the adventure contained within. The memoir is called Welcome to the Goddamn Icecube, and everyone should read it. The title alone is in my wheelhouse, for sure. The book is about overcoming some things in life, as memoirs are, but it also brings us to the point where Blair Braverman becomes enthralled with, and very capable at, sled dogging.

Sled dogging is in the news right now because we are in the midst of the Iditarod. It begins on the first weekend of March and runs until it’s done—normally about ten days, give or take. I think most know that the Iditarod is a grueling, miserable time for the mushers. It’s extreme, long, physically exhausting, and dangerous. Early in the race there is a section called the Happy River Steps. Part of the official race description of the area includes the following:

After a mile or so of dropping down toward the valley and zigzagging through the forest, you’ll plunge down a short but very steep hill; directly in front of you will be one of the warning signs and the trail will vanish over the edge of what looks like a cliff. It is a cliff. This is the entrance to the Happy River Steps. Stop the dogs at the top, say your prayers, revise your will, and then see how gently you can get the dogs to creep down the hill. Of course, you will be standing on your brake for all you’re worth.

You can see that section, albeit in low visibility with a storm hanging around, in this video by Aliy Zirkle.

The race is through there now, but it’s an early reminder to the racers that they’re doing something very real, and very serious. It’s a reason why we like athletes. They do these things that you and I could maybe, possibly do for a few minutes (hold on to a dog sled, maybe make contact with a major league fastball), and they do it for long periods of time at very high levels. It’s awesome.

The Iditarod has long been a lightning rod for animal activists who see it as abusive to the dogs. I can’t speak for the racers, but I will tell you that one of the major draws to Blair Braverman for me is how she treats her dogs. In fact, a recurring theme throughout interviews I see with mushers is the attention paid to the dogs. A simple follow on Twitter, and maybe beginning with this Buzzfeed listicle would help you understand Braverman and those dogs quite a bit better than anything that you might already think about the race. She loves them. And they’re lovable. And she introduced the dogs that made the team in the best way possible. (I’m Team Helli, by the way.)

People spend time online to connect with others. If you’re a writer, you have to connect people to your work. You have to show it off at some point. And if you like doing things that others will think are interesting, you put that stuff online as well. Blair Braverman’s online presence is one that I had a very easy time connecting with. Having read her book, having looked at all the goofy pictures of her dogs, and knowing what it feels like to prepare for what might be the most difficult and rewarding experience of your life, makes this connection an easy one for me. I’m rooting for Blair, want her to finish, kick a little ass, and take care of all those dogs along the way.

Speaking of Aliy Zirkle, there is a great new Netflix series that she is a part of. It’s called Losers, and it’s all about athletes who have come close, but not quite pulled off the ultimate. These are phenomenal athletes—just ones that never did the one thing that they were competing to do. Zirkle’s story is a jaw dropper if you don’t already know it. I won’t spoil that at all, because you will watch it, and I’d like you to experience it as the show’s fantastic storytelling tells it.

In contrast to Braverman, Zirkle is among the favorites for the 2019 Iditarod. She is in the lead (!) as I write this, and that’s a fine position at this point in the race. I want this to be her year. I spent past years with my daughter keeping an eye on the standings for Zirkle. We got interested in dog racing after taking a tour at Mitch Seavey’s place in Seward, Alaska in 2013. Mitch has won the race three times and is also among the favorites this year (currently 12th). When we took a look at the race online in 2014, we spotted Aliy’s name and immediately took to being fans of the one woman near the top. It turns out that was an eventful year for her, just not the most eventful (seriously, watch the show).

Follow Blair, Aliy, Mitch, the French guy my cousins apparently serve beer to (currently 2nd), and the full race standings here.

Also, this bit in Vogue by Blair Braverman on some of the women running is nicely done.

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