This post was started in mid December of last year as I was preparing for the TR50, ATAO’s first official race. In that race, we took home the Red Lantern– In other words we came in last! But this is a great honor in some ways. It means we stuck it out to the end. I had a small team (only seven dogs, vs. many teams with twelve), and the hills on this course were pretty intense, especially for a small team. I opted to camp part way through the race, because it would be highly valuable to my young dogs. We tried to camp at every opportunity we got– In their yearling seasons, camping and quality runs are the important factors of training.
The training run I describe below is the run I did a couple of days before the race. I wanted to see if my small team could handle the hills. They could… I’m not sure about me! I took five dogs up a steep incline– I think we climbed 2000 feet. It was one of the longest 30 miles runs I’d ever done. We were doing the back half of the race as a “lollipop”– in other words, an out and back.
I knew the climb was going to be tough, because fellow mushers had told me it was a decent hill. I brought my five dogs and opted to put 60lbs of weight in the sled. That’s kind of wild. The next day, I told my neighbors about this and they looked slightly horrified. With a five dog team (of Alaskan huskies, who are small, mind you) adding 60lbs to a steep climb is… Not advised. But I wanted to make sure the team could *do* it, and I’d much rather they do it with more weight than the race would be.
Once we got out on the trail, stubbornness prevailed. I could have gotten rid of the weight, or turned around. I did neither. The dogs and I pushed up the miles in painful molasses time. I was quite literally pushing the sled, or hanging on behind it and running with short clops the dogs could only disparage. If I rode the runners, the sled was too heavy and the dogs stopped (and stopping on a hill is not good! It’s important that the dogs don’t think you even *can* stop on a hill). So I had to clop along, but my running pace slowed the dogs down to the point of irritation. If I wasn’t hanging on, the dogs could have pulled everything up easily and with great joy– But I’d be left behind! So I hung on like a sad, clingy wannabe, shaming the beautiful gates of the dogs ahead of me. Running behind a sled is painful. You have to juggle your footsteps between runners, and you can’t let go of the sled– So you are running bent over at the waist. My shoulders burned from hanging on so tightly.
As I ran and let my body become ruled by lactic acid, I schemed about how to make running up hills work better. I thought about omnijouring (running with dogs pulling you) and how the connection point being the waist was so much more ergonomic. I thought about safety lines and how to make it so if you fell and dragged, you wouldn’t die. I came up with a plan.
Meanwhile, I also made it up the hill. Eventually. Painfully. And then we zoomed back down the route we’d just come, exponentially faster than our ascent.
The post I wrote in December was about what I listened to along the route of this journey, and how that affected my run. Audio is something that helps me get through– Whether that’s getting through difficulties in life, in sports, or in mushing. Here’s what was in my headphones:
Anatomy of a Training Run
As described by the choice of audio along the route:
Part 1: Podcasts.
Pop Culture Happy Hour (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., Kanye, and Gilmore Girls).
The podcasts last until I run out of service.
The beginning of the run is chilly, in the hollows of the hills, in the darkness. These days, everything is in the darkness.
Leslie Odom Jr. is smooth. I could listen to him world without end. He gets me to the base of the hills.
At the first hill, a short but steep climb, I mislay what the hosts are saying. Then we are up, after a lot of labor and breath, and the voices I carry around in the crooks of my ears are telling me again about Rory and Lorelei.
I was never a big Gilmore Girls viewer, but when PCHH talks about them, it feels homey and happy. I am going now through a narrow trail, closed in by spruce and willow, all heavy with the most recent snow. The podcast waxes philosophical about the show; there is a spruce tree that has fallen under its burden of white. I stop the team– the tree is across the trail. I brought my machete. Usually axes are prescribed, but I got a machete a while back and have discovered it’s lighter and more useful. PCHH is wrapping up their show. I am hacking away at the spruce tree. My patient group of dogs stands waiting, curious, tense. I get the spruce tree chopped and have to lift its unwieldy bulk to one side of the trail. I pick the best gap in the brush I can find, and lamely chuck the big tree through. It goes mostly into the woods– I tip it up and over itself to get it all the way off the trail.
Now the podcast is done. And unbeknownst to me, now the easiest part of the run is done too.
Part 2: Music
I am out of service range, which means no more podcasts for now. I turn to music and shuffle my songs. I pet the dogs, give the leaders Annie and Bonnie an extra scratch behind their ears, and get back to my sled runners. When I step on, the iPod Gods rule all.
Before iPhones, I had my iPod, and before that, a CD walkman– A Sony Sports version, that was yellow and black, that purported not to skip. It did pretty well not skipping, especially bouncing around in my sled bag or my parka pocket. On runs, I’d listen to one CD over and over for 75 miles or more. On a dog team, 75 miles takes a long time. I listened to the soundtrack to A Walk to Remember hundreds if not thousands of times when I mushed in high school. Changing CD’s was too hard in the snow and the cold. There was every danger of freezing your walkman up.
The shuffle function saved me from total monotony. It may have been the same CD but it would come to me in a different order each time. This was the inauspicious beginning of the iPod Gods– though they didn’t know their own name yet. All that was known was that they could either grace you with the perfect epic score when you crested a mountain ridge– Or curse you with that one song you never liked, that drove you to rage, but that you couldn’t skip because the buttons didn’t function well in the cold. In mushing, you are at the mercy of these forces.
Then the iPod gave the iPod Gods their name, and a better range of possibility. Now, shuffling thousands of songs, the iPod Gods could surprise you every time. They could bless you with the quintessential sound track as you wound your way down the river, the dogs feet padding together in rhythm. Or, if you angered them, they could laugh in your face as they played “sound effect # 4” that you forgot to remove, that is a door knocking sound on loop for five minutes.
The iPod Gods lost a little of their power when the remote headphones came out. Then the people reclaimed their control. They could skip or rewind or fast forward, or even stop and start again. All of this in the teeth of any musher who chose. (I control my headphones with my teeth, because– Mushing. AKA every body part is too bundled to reach other body parts, so that makes hands semi-useless.)
Still, the practice of praising the iPod Gods when a good and worthy tune manifests out of Shuffle All Songs was ingrained in me, and still seems a good thing.
So when my music starts up with Legends of the Fall, I am grateful, and send a little nod of thanks to those electronic forces.
Legends of the Fall has always been my favorite mushing soundtrack. To me, the sweeping, melancholy trumpets and woodwinds and strings are home. The sounds tie together the world outside and the determination within.
I need the determination, because we are climbing again.
I thought the little hill we had conquered was all and enough. It was a steep, punishing hill, and I feel good about having done it, and convinced we are at the top.
We are not.
The first new climb is a very sharp left. I call the dogs up (“all right, all right!”) and they jump too with enthusiasm, and I jump off my runners and begin to clop away behind the sled. As John Horner weaves his work, I hold onto the handlebar with one hand and try to pull my drag mat up with the other. I am switching from side to side and in between the runners like this is an agility course, not the first leg of a very long climb.
Legends wraps up before the top of the hill. I am grateful that the Oh Hellos pop up next, to give me more of a beat and a push. When we crest the hill, we see immediately that we have not crested the hill at all. This is a very small, slightly flatter ground, and there is a lot more hill to go.
Over the next three hours, my dogs and I climb only a few miles. We are slowed by me most of all. Two leggers are always the week links. Lady Gaga, Mumford & Sons, Janelle Monae, Regina Spektor, some annoying band someone gave me in a mix. Jimmy Eat World, Mandy Moore (LOL I still have A Walk to Remember???), Emile Sandi, Elton John, One Republic. I am climbing and my entire world is just the burning in my arms and legs. My dogs are patient, ever pulling. They look at me with great contempt and pity. For them this is not too difficult. We stop at flat parts (never stop on a hill!) for them to grab mouthfuls of snow. It is hot up here, that is the only thing that is rough for them. We have risen out of the cold of the valleys. The temperature here must be at least 20 degrees warmer than back home.
I strip off my puffy coat (my parka was in the sled bag long ago), til I’m down to only a hoodie and my light snow pants. I had to weigh out whether it was better to be warm in the cold parts or cool in the warm parts. I knew the run wound bring us in to warm inversion weather, and I also knew I’d be sweltering from running up hill.
At one point, we stop and I am bent over the handlebar pretty much gasping for great, undignified breath, when I look behind me and see that the city lights of Fairbanks (20 miles away) are spread out behind me like stars on the ground. I call Shawn, to let them know where we are and that I’ll be home even later than I thought. I think about turning around. I look at the dogs, who are looking at me, patient and ready to go.
“All right,” I say this time– More of a concession.
We continue up the hill.
My shuffle has reduced to background noise by the time we find the camping spot where we turn around. My legs and arms seem burned away, as though they no longer exist. I am moving still, of course, but I have been ablated from myself by the climb and the night and the gentle soothing offerings of the iPod Gods.
We get the camp and I decide we will take a quick break for the dogs to have a snack.
While they munch down their well-deserved calories, I finally drink some water, and pull my phone out to recalibrate my tunes.
Every once in a while I will go into a phase where I listen to the same song on repeat. I have listened to the same song on repeat for hours, days, even weeks. Once I listened to the same song, without a break, for all 20 hours of a thousand mile drive. In fact, I have done this at least twice. I am not sure what it is about a single song on repeat that gives me permission to both fully indulge in the rhythm and sounds, and also to check out and come away from the music for a while. In listening to music on repeat, I can push myself to better work, harder work, and I can find space within the familiar bars and notes to think.
Part 3: One Song
A steep climb means a steep descent. When I ran the Copper Basin 300 the last time, I kept saying in my head, in a sing-song, sleep-deprived way: “What goes up, must go down!” The CB300 has good hills, and some of the rides down are a bit bananas.
I know that I’ll be riding the break on the way down. At least with only five dogs, I’ll have a lot more control.
I get the dogs ready to go.
I push play on my remote.
I pull the hook.
Tunde Olaniran / Let Me Go
In the end, we make it down in one piece. When we dip into the final hollow, I can feel the cool air settle around me. I did out my parka as fast as I can, my hands already getting fumbly and stupid with the cold. It’s below zero down here, and I’m sweaty. I wish now that I had better bibs on, but I also am grateful I had the light ones for the climb. I think about the race tomorrow. Tunde Olaniran is calling out in repeat, his fortieth singing, or less, or more.
Should I do the race, I wonder? I am not sure. The dogs did well on this hill, but I’ve heard the other side (where the race ascends) is even worse. Can they do even worse? I don’t want to set them up for failure. They need to be able to overcome obstacles. So do I.
As the miles to home tick down, and the hours to race day drift closer, I find the same determination that pushed me up that hill.
There’s only one way left to go now.