Making tracks

Maia Nolan-Partnow
BILL ROTH / Daily News archive 2008

You can keep your bulls, Pamplona. Rudolph's back in town.

The Running of the Reindeer is making its triumphant return to Fur Rendezvous this year, with more races, more reindeer, celebrity guests and bigger and better costumes. Not too shabby for an event no one was sure would be successful.

"When you plan an event, you cautiously hope for the best," said Susan Duck, Rondy executive director. However, she said the event "exceeded anything I dreamed or imagined."

Last year, registration was capped at 1,000 -- 500 runners each in a men's heat and a women's heat -- and both races filled up. From 10,000 to 12,000 people crowded Fourth Avenue to watch, filling up sidewalks and spilling into cross streets. Some adventurous spectators, eager for a better view, climbed onto garbage cans, perched in trees and scaled the roof of the Public Lands Information Office.

"I was astounded by the number of people who came out to watch," Duck said. "Everybody was so positive and happy. It was Alaska at its best."

And then there were the outfits. Inspired by an e-mail from former Cordova mayor Margie Johnson, many runners arrived in costume, sporting reindeer antlers, targets, variations on the traditional white and red worn by Spain's Pamplona runners, and strings of carrots or reindeer sausage.

The footrace -- in which runners charge down a snowy street ahead of a herd of reindeer -- was the brainchild of KWHL disc jockeys Bob Lester and Mark Colavecchio. In 2007 Duck agreed to add it to the Rondy lineup. She called Williams Reindeer Farm in Butte, and owner Tom Williams agreed to provide the animal athletes.

That was the easy part. The real challenge, it turned out, was getting insurance. Duck found that most insurers were unwilling to hedge their bets on a mob being chased down the street by a herd of antlered animals. It took nine months and multiple rejections for Rondy organizers to locate a carrier willing to take on the event. (Registration for the race includes a liability waiver, but Duck said that's standard Rondy practice for all events that include physical activity.)

Last year the farm provided six reindeer for each heat. This year, Rondy organizers are hoping to increase the size of the herd.

"He's training them up right now," Duck said. "Depending on who makes the team -- we asked for more."

Besides more reindeer, this year's event will feature more races. On top of the men's and women's herds, there will be runs for couples and teams. There will also be a celebrity invitational heat featuring astronaut Bill Oefelein as well as local public figures -- including, possibly, the entire Municipal Assembly, depending on whether members respond to challenges thrown down by Assemblymen Mike Gutierrez and Patrick Flynn.

Bill Falsey was among the 1,000 brave souls who lined up for last year's inaugural run.

"It sounded, to me, like such a bizarre activity that I didn't want to miss it," Falsey said. "It had just the right proportions of Alaska kitsch and insanity to make it work."

Falsey said he didn't really expect the reindeer to play along, especially after meeting one when he went to pick up his T-shirt and bib number.

"It was the most docile creature you could possibly imagine," he said. "Children were walking up to it."

When race day came, though, the reindeer were off and running.

"They were fast," Falsey said. "There was this moment of 'Oh. Is this going to be more dangerous than I thought it was going to be?' "

Falsey won't be in town for this year's race, but said if he could he'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Although reactions to the Running of the Reindeer have been mostly positive, Duck said she received two or three letters before last year's race from people who were worried about the welfare of the reindeer.

"I take that very seriously because I'm an animal lover," Duck said. "I trust Tom. I trust the way we did the event."

Reindeer will just lie down and refuse to move if they don't want to do something, Duck said. But last year's reindeer were more than willing to run.

"Everything was done with their safety in mind," Duck said. "They were having fun."

• Maia Nolan lives and writes in Anchorage.

Photos: Rondy reindeer races
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