A journalist observes life in the far north.
Two things went through my mind as I staked out the Equinox Marathon relay exchange area last weekend, waiting for the 40th most powerful woman in the world to show up. One was that it would be a long day if I did not bag an interview. The other was that I should try not to seem too eager.
As I scanned every bib for No. 759, a feeling crept up on me that Melinda Gates had managed to avoid me. The night before I had called the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation trying to schedule the interview. I wound up giving them more information than they provided me. I was told that they could only help me if I were calling about foundation business. With personal stuff, such as Gates’ involvement in the marathon, I was on my own. I had a feeling they called Gates and warned her that the Fairbanks press was looking for her. Maybe she managed to sneak by.
I was already thinking about Plan B—I would have to follow the race route and try to document the small dramas that make a marathon interesting—when Bib No. 759 appeared. I scanned the runner’s face. It was her. I knew because I had checked out her image on the Internet the night before. My heart raced.
Gates searched for the next runner on her team, who was not where she was supposed to be. Gates was frustrated. Great, I thought, now she’s in a bad mood. I approached her.
“Melissa,” I said, following about 10 feet behind.
No response. She kept walking.
I thought, oh, this is how it works. She’ll ignore me until I go away.
I tried one more time. “Melissa French,” I called out. French is her maiden name and the name she used to enter the race.
She turned around and corrected me. “Melinda,” she said. I wanted to die. I introduced myself, held up my notebook and asked if she would mind a few questions about her participation in the race.
She said sure, but could we walk a bit as she cooled off.
I asked the first question that came to my mind. Who came up with the name of her relay team, Susan’s Seattle Soul Sisters? The late Susan Butcher, a famous sled dog racer from Fairbanks, is Gates’ friend. Bucther died of cancer despite a valiant fight in a Seattle hospital. I kept asking questions as they came to my mind and kicked myself because I had meant to write down a few questions. I hoped I wouldn’t choke.
Gates was gracious and surprisingly normal. No makeup. No jewelry. No fancy clothes. No handlers. She beamed in the company of her children and close friends. She delighted in talking about Butcher, who she admired.
Then she had to go. As Gates and her friends hopped into an SUV and drove off, I felt a little like Gollum from “Lord of the Rings.” I had my precious interview.