I’ve been listening to Radical Face a lot lately. I haven’t been writing a lot. Sorry about that. Lots of things have been going on, and not a lot of time to describe them. Although, that’s not really the reason I haven’t been writing. This tends to happen at this time of year. You pour a lot in and there isn’t a lot left to describe it.
I ran the Copper Basin 300 and the Northern Lights 300. Well, the dogs ran and I hung on. It’s hard to believe that time has come and gone. A few months ago I was looking forward, anxiously, trying to imagine how I’d get through. Never mind that I’d done both races before. Four years between races is a long time.
I did get through, and we did very well. I’m working with an exemplary team. I guess I’m supposed to say that… But I really mean it. It’s such a privilege to see the best come out of these dogs. They are a happy, thriving group, and they all excelled in various ways in the races.
So here is a little bit about both of my races:
The Copper Basin 300 was probably one of the most mild that has been run. The humans were lucky to have temps in the 20s most of the race. The dogs didn’t enjoy that too much. I found myself uncomfortable most of the race not because I was cold, but because I was sweating. Remember my sumo suit of gear? I wore it because I expected to be cold. The Copper Basin is always cold (except that one year). The year I ran the race the first time, temps were predicted to be around zero, and mid way through the race they dunked down to -50. That’s what I was expecting.
Our Copper Basin adventure began before we left the yard. I spent the two days before our take off, when I wasn’t mushing, packing the truck and making sure everything was in order. We were lucky to be lent a really nice dog truck, since Scott’s had burned in the fire. It had ample room for dogs, people, and gear. I started the truck the night before we’d leave for the race, and it turn on like a champ. I spent that night loading all of my gear into the truck. I was working alone, as Scott was at work on hitch. The dog box was super tall and loading my sled on top of it myself was an adventure all on its own.
The next morning I got up early, fed dogs, loaded my personal gear (going over and over the checklists), and just before it was time to start loading dogs, went to turn on the truck.
Initially it seemed like a dead battery, so I pulled my Subaru around and began the process of jumping the truck. After many attempts, this didn’t work. The battery was charged but the ignition wasn’t catching. I am not a truck or car maintenance person, I don’t know all the terms. But the truck was not starting. I called my handler, musher Lev Schvarts who is taking some time off racing this year to work with a passel of puppies, and he gave me some tips about trying to make sure I was jumping the truck right. When this still didn’t work, he came over with his truck and tried to jump with his stronger battery. At this point, it was clear something else was going on. We tried a few things, including something with starter fluid which, if it had worked, sounded terrifying, but still no dice. By now, the hours were ticking away. I was supposed to be in Glennallen by 3 for check in and vet checks. Someone from the race who had my number contacted me to see what was up– I’d sent the race a message on Facebook but since my phone kicks the bucket anytime even the remotest cold is introduced, I couldn’t do more than that.
Eventually it was clear that the lent truck was not going to happen. So we quickly went to plan B– Lev’s truck. Lev’s truck has what I learned was called a gooseneck trailer. It took a little bit to get it prepped, since Lev hadn’t been using it this season. Once that was all prepped, we did the fastest change over in mushing history, moving all of my gear (sled, drop bags, drop lines, ganglions, harnesses, mandatory race gear, mushing clothes, and personal gear) and all of the dogs from the lent truck to Lev’s trailer. We were cutting it close. We still had to make it to my own house in Palmer with my Subaru, since that’s what Roman would be driving to Glenallen to catch the tail end of the race. I was keeping in touch with the race, and they were giving me some pretty gracious leeway, but it was important we make it to the mushers’ meeting at 5:30.
We made it to Glenallen at 5. The vet team, volunteers, and race central were all literally keeping the lights on just for us. The second I started filling out paperwork, they started turning off the lights. Lev dropped dogs for the vet check, for which he had the entire team of 10-12 vets (who were exemplary, by the way). It took him less time to go through vet checks than it took for me to fill out my paperwork. We made it to the mushers’ meeting in the nick of time.
At these pre-race meetings they often do bib drawings. I drew number 23, so I’d be leaving at 11:46. After bib drawings they do a trail report. The head trail breaker made it into the meeting fresh off the trail, and gave a rundown of what we’d be seeing. All in all, the conditions were reported positively, and this was true. The trail we ran on was for the most part some of the best race trail I’ve ever experienced. The only times the trail was not as good was because a lot of other teams had traveled over.
They did cut off the first 20 miles of the race, and I’m glad they did. That part of the trail was icey and seriously rutted. It had rained in a small section of the Copper Basin and then frozen, and that’s where that 20 miles was. I’m grateful we didn’t start with 12 fresh dogs on an ice rink. Although that’s what we’d been training on for the last two weeks due to crummy weather at home, I wasn’t excited to be racing on it.
As it was, the first 30 mile run to Chisto was probably one of the hardest parts for me. A lot of the trail was pretty even. There was a lot of passing, which is the case when you start a race. My race plan called for a slow start– I wanted to conserve my team for the last runs. I kept them at a steady pace and didn’t mind a few fast teams blowing by.
My parents came to the race start and followed the team where the trail met up with the road now and then. They took a lot of pictures (my dad had just discovered he could do video on his iPhone), and cheered me on. It was really nice. And then, suddenly, I was on a series of steep downhills heavily rutted out by the teams ahead of me. This wouldn’t have been that big of a problem if it didn’t cause my sled to jostle and bounce, which caused my snow hook to fly up in the air. I watched in slow motion as the hook (or anchor) flew up off its resting place under the handlebar, bounced a few times, and then neatly tucked itself under the right runner or ski of my sled. It’s hard to picture if you haven’t mushed, but essentially I was hog-tied. I was careening down a hill and suddenly had no way to brake. The snow hook had lodged under the sled, under the brake, upside down. There was nothing now to slow the team, and we picked up speed and continued bouncing off both sides of the rutted hill. Inevitably, the sled tipped.
By some kind of measure of gymnastics, I managed to hang on. The team and sled kept going– they don’t particularly care if you fall down. Trees lined both sides of this chute, and I prayed I wouldn’t slam into one as the sled and I dragged down and down. Snow packed into my parka and down my neck. I am sure I was yelling at the dogs to stop. Finally we reached the bottom of the hill and I collected enough drag to make the team realize it might be okay to pause for a second. I stood up, shedding half the hill, breathing hard, thankful I hadn’t let go. I looked up, and there was my mom and dad, standing right in front of me on the side of the road, eyes white all around, staring. I waved. Doing the family proud.
I made it to Chisto in one piece. Because it was a short run, we were taking a short rest. With little time or mileage to separate, most of the race was piled up in Chisto. The checkpoint was packed. The little cabin where the famous Chisto cinnamon buns were served was elbow to elbow. It was still just early evening, and my break wasn’t long enough for sleep. The team looked great and ate well. I did my chores and chatted with other mushers. After our brief rest, I pulled the plug and we headed to the rest of the race.
The thing I was the most worried about on this race– besides some of the technical sled driving, which, aside from my first undignified descent, I managed with no issue– was sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation in mushing is probably one of the things that makes this sport so extreme. It’s tough enough to manage a team hundreds of miles across some of the most desolate, challenging country left on this earth in temperatures that most people can’t even imagine*. But now do it while you have no sleep. When I had previously ran the Copper Basin and the Northern Lights, I got about five hours of sleep total over the three days of the race. That’s actually not too bad. This year– I got one hour of rest on each race. One. Split up between two checkpoints on the Copper Basin, and at the last checkpoint in the Northern Lights. Going into the races, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do it. One of the reasons I got five hours of sleep on both my first Copper Basin and my first Northern Lights was that I slept an extra hour. When my alarm went off, I decided I needed to sleep that extra hour. I’m sure that was nice. I was afraid, in these races, that I’d do that again, which to me would mean I wouldn’t be giving this well-trained team their due. My goal was to meet minimum rest for these races, and it scared me that I might not be able to.
I had no problem. Furthermore, I felt so much better about sleep deprivation on both races than I ever have. I was functional, happy, and generally awake. (When you get into that sleepless mode you tend to start nodding off on the sled.) Perhaps a big part of this was that I wasn’t dealing with severe cold. It was so warm I was sweating most of both races in my heavy winter gear, which I wore anticipating more typical cold weather.
I will do a longer breakdown of each race maybe a little later… For now it’s a bit like re-reading a book I just read. Maybe those descriptions will make up some summer posts.
There was a cool article posted at ADN about some of the mushers’ experiences during the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck while I was running the Northern Lights 300. I’m quoted a bit. Here’s the link.
I was proud of my placement in both races. 13th in the Copper against a really competitive field was a good feeling. My goal for the NL300 was to beat the placement I’d made the first time I ran, 9th. I got 8th! I almost got 7th– I was in a dead heat with another team in the last two miles to the finish, but he was able to pull ahead of us when crazy Aniak, who had been a rockstar the entire two races, suddenly opted to initiate a minor tangle at the front of the line, which I had to stop to negotiate. Again, 8th is no slouch position, and I was proud of my race.
One of the coolest things about both races was watching the younger dogs in our group come into their own. Harpoon especially has shone. Along with Hooch, he became my go-to leader during the Copper Basin, and ended up filling that role again in the Northern Lights.
Hooch did not get to go with me on the Northern Lights, which was a little sad. She had a pulled tricep incurred in the very last miles of the Copper, when I pushed the team for some speed mistakenly thinking there were teams coming right up behind us (it ended up being some teams training on those trails). On the Copper, she was incredible, leading all but one leg (I gave her a break for a leg… Being a lead dog can be a big mental challenge, and my goal was to get a happy, excited team to the line). There was something incredible and special about getting to work with a lead dog with whom I’m bonded… We had our own shortcode, our own language. It was everything I had dreamed of. I can’t wait to run her in Iditarod.
It’s hard to believe my races this season are wrapped up. I spent a lot of time nervously thinking of how they’d go, and now they are in the past! Not to worry, I have plenty ahead…
Scott and I finished drop bags this week for his Iditarod, which wraps up one of the last big pre-race projects. Now it’s just a couple of weeks of keeping the team sharp and enjoying some nice runs. How can it already be here?
When Scott leaves the finish line, I’ll be back at the kennel during his race working with our young dogs. I should also have just a little more time on my hands, and I’m excited to post a bit more. When you are training and racing hard, there’s a lot of time to think and I do a lot of writing in my head. More tricky to get that writing on the page, especially when your spare time is far and few between.
Thanks to all those who followed my races! Next year I should be doing some mid distance races again as part of training the team for the big one… Then it will be onto the real deal, just about a year from now.
Iditarod, here I come.
*Well, not this year. This year it was warm, too warm, on every race…