By Clark Fair
The woman with the giraffe head, the pale, diapered man from Arkansas and the running banana were among the highlights. The reindeer — the centerpiece of the Running of the Reindeer event at Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage on Saturday — were not.
The reindeer get the most prominent mention on the marquee, but they’re not the main attraction. It’s all about atmosphere, all about hoopla, all about participating in something big and noisy and full of promise.
It’s a lot like a carnival arcade.
Carnival games promise big prizes but the odds are stacked against the players. Try to toss a tiny ring over the top of a glass soda bottle. Try to burst three balloons with three wobbly darts.
Try to knock down all the milk bottles with a single tennis ball. Mostly what participants harvest from such promise is a series of near misses and then, if they’re lucky, a cheap plastic runner-up prize for coming really close.
That’s sort of what it’s like to participate in the Running of the Reindeer. There’s plenty of buildup, plenty of bluster, plenty of pageantry and pizzazz — but the run itself is all anticlimax.
The announcer from KWHL’s “Bob & Mark Show” stirred up the onlookers by booming out the possibilities — a good goring, a shish kebab human on antler tines — danger, danger, danger! The crowd wanted blood, he said. The crowd wanted to see someone hurt, he claimed. He likened the milling throng, which packed both sides of Fourth Avenue from D Street to H Street, to the crowd at a NASCAR race:
Sure, they were fine with all the left turns, for a while, but what they really wanted was a good pileup.
As I stood among the hundreds of runners, waiting to be released on a sprint for life itself, I was reminded of bad small-town circuses. I recalled slick ringmasters who knew how to play to the crowd, who knew that the real thrill was not the limber woman performing backbends on a somber elephant stomping around a sawdust circle inside a big tent.
The real thrill lies in anticipation, in bits of unexpected humor, a delighted child, the antics of an obnoxious clown, a minor explosion and a shower of confetti. Besides, the circus was there to make money on tame rides, high-priced concessions and selling lucky-chance tickets.
“Running of the Reindeer” is designed to make money, too, but for a good cause — the Toys for Tots organization — which is one of the reasons that the anticlimax of the run itself is really no big deal. It feels good to be a part of something so buzzing with energy and good will, despite the fizzle at the end.
The announcer kept the crowd rollicking, through a series of sarcastic remarks and double-entendres, humorous observances and asides, and plenty of instructions. He punctuated his pronouncements with introductions of guests — Hobo Jim, singing the national anthem and his “Running of the Reindeer” song; Anchorage mayor Dan Sullivan, who attempted cordiality and formality in the face of irreverence; broadcasters from the Anchorage ABC-TV affiliate, who were on hand to film the event live and send images streaming out across the state.
Eventually, though, like the reindeer, we were culled from our herd and put in place for the race.
The first batch to line up were the out-of-state runners, a mix of people from the Lower 48 and other countries, many dressed in costume.
I was not in costume, but costumes were ubiquitous. I saw cheeseheads, a man dressed up as an insect with multifaceted eyes, women in tutus, hockey players in full gear (except for the skates), military personnel, a group of guys in red long johns, shirtless men wearing only running shorts and shoes. (The temperature was perhaps 35 degrees.)
There were colorful wigs, plenty of animal motifs, lots of leftover Halloween regalia, a big guy dressed as Sully from “Monsters Inc.,” two women dressed as Thing 1 and Thing 2 from “The Cat in the Hat,” and fur, fur and more fur.
And it seemed to me that the majority of runners were holding cameras or cellphones capable of taking photographs.
People in the crowd, too, many members of which were wearing the blue-foam reindeer antlers given away before the event, were wielding cameras.
Spectators stood packed behind the wooden fencing along the raceway, many holding their cameras and phones aloft, all angled out into the same view of the street, all about to capture the same images from their cramped and seething vantage points.
As a helicopter pulsed across the sky, the announcer had the crowd help him count down to send the runners on their mad dash to the finish line. Then about 10 seconds later he began a second count to release the eight reindeer, who gamboled up the slushy snow (left behind by that morning’s ceremonial start of the Iditarod) and then bolted and ducked through the runners to reach the end point, well ahead of even the fastest sprinter.
The reindeer, all bulls, were motivated by a combination of two things: a supply of reindeer chow, and a cow in heat, both waiting inside an aluminum cage at the other end of the raceway.
After all the runners had reached the end of the course, they were shunted onto H Street, and the reindeer were gathered by handlers who maneuvered the animals back down the blocks to the starting area again so that they could chase after the next group.
The women followed the out-of-state runners. Then men ran next. And the couples and groups finished up the event.
During my run, I tried to stay in the back to get a better view of the reindeer, and maybe photograph a big bull darting just past me, but other runners got in my way and obstructed my view, and the reindeer were past me and through the crowd with remarkable agility and alacrity.
I satisfied myself with a slow jaunt through snow so soft it was akin to running on beach sand.
Still, I had fun, and if I ever again run with the reindeer, I’ll know what I’m getting into. I’ll dress in costume and leave my camera gear behind. I’ll wear boots to keep my feet warm and dry, because running fast is unnecessary. I won’t expect big thrills or the dangers of Pamplona.
I’ll participate because, in the end, it’s good, clean, slightly wacky fun during our long Alaska winter, and because the entry fee goes to help people in need.
Besides, where else will I get to see a big-bellied man dressed in Carhartt bibs and draped in furs gallumphing down a city street ahead of charging animals?