Chistochina to Meier’s Lake – 68 miles
We set off into a lonely night. When I’ve run the Copper Basin before, I’ve been competing and aiming for minimum rest, which meant I’d be running with teams ahead and behind in close numbers. Not this year. This year only five or so teams hung back to rest as long as we had. The pups needed it! Our goal was to rest rest rest, often and a LOT. But it was a strange feeling for me. It also meant we left in the dark. There were no handler trucks racing along to the next spot. There were no other teams when we took off. Just me an a long, empty trail that ran beside an empty highway. I remember the trail seeming orange in my lamplight, but my lamp is LED– I must remember wrong. Maybe there were roadlights, though that doesn’t seem right either.
The team was excited to move. They looked good, a little bonded crew trotting in quick time together. I worried a lot about the hills ahead. We had trained almost exclusively on flat trails all winter. Could they do the 4000 foot climb we had coming– And the many ups and downs before and after? I hoped so.
Kalyn, a Ryno Kennel handler and a friend of mine from Minneapolis, had taken off not long before us. After a while, we saw their headlight far ahead among the trees, just after we’d turned away from the roadside trail and towards the first climbs of this long trek. It was great timing. The ATAO athletes surged forward to catch the light. They were so excited they loped their way up the first set of hills, a steep, road-like ascent. Whether it was the motivation of catching the light or just the type of training we do, they managed the hills with ease. In fact, I’d be lucky that the entire team would truly conquer every hill on this whole race… And we had a lot of hills ahead of us. For now, I was just grateful and impressed. The dogs were doing awesome!
We caught up with Kalyn a ways ahead of us. Kalyn and I stopped our teams and exchanged a few words. We decided to run together a little. Kalyn had me pass and I led for a little while. It became rapidly clear though that the Ryno team of two-year-olds was outpacing my little yearling crew. Kalyn passed me and led the charge. We continued over an easy-rolling climb. The dogs were happy to follow another team, and I was happy that they had a great motivator. My team LOVES to chase things. When we are at home, if they see another team, they go bananas, barking until we pass and then for a while after! ATAO is easily recognized from the vocal buddies. I love this excitement.
The run we were on was 68 miles. It would be the second longest run these dogs had EVER done– and definitely the hardest. First we had to conquer these hills. After we climbed the 4,000 feet to “The Hump”, then we’d descend onto the Upper Gulkana river, which can be wet, even in sub-zero conditions. We’d been told there was a section of river a few inches deep we’d have to cross. At Chisto, I’d been regaled with some horror stories of previous wet years at this crossing, including one year where sled and musher floated downstream a bit because the water was so deep. I had my fingers crossed for a less dramatic crossing.
Kalyn was really outpacing us. Kalyn and I had a bet about who would come in before the other– I had long ago bet Kalyn that I would not be first. I know the Ryno team, and I also knew I planned to take a ton of rest. Mathematically there was no way I’d finish before Kalyn. So I decided to capitalize on it and I bet Kalyn 10$ they would come in before me. Heh heh.
Well during this run it was looking like me being a tenionaire was soon to come true. If the Ryno two-year-olds are any indication, Ryne Olson is gonna have a kick-ass year in the Quest. I’m excited! (The Yukon Quest starts tomorrow, as of me writing this.)
Anyway, eventually Kalyn and the Ryno team forged ahead (for which Kalyn would later apologize, but I was glad they’d gone ahead! No need to stall those excited youngsters). The ATAO team kept going. They all looked strong and were really doing well on the hills. We passed some teams camping, which always got them fired up. I had considered camping on this run, but opted against it because I wanted to give the pups the experience of a monster run followed by coming into a checkpoint.
The sky was thinly clouded. The moon rose orange and heavy. Sometimes out there the moon felt like my only company, even behind the clouds. I hoped the sky would clear more before we reached “The Hump.” There’s a beautiful view from the top when you can see it.
For this run, I had switched Rebel and Ophelia into lead. Rebel loves to charge up hills, which is why I selected her for this run. Ophelia is smart and drives hard. Probably her biggest weakness as a leader is a lack of focus when she gets bored. But she wasn’t bored on this new trail– Just as I suspected. Rebel was working hard and going forward as always, but Ophelia was an MVP for this run. She fulfilled all the potential of both her leader parents, Hooch and Clyde. You could tell she was in her element, doing what she was born to do, and loving every second. Every time we stopped she seemed so full of joy she couldn’t contain herself, and she’d jump and wiggle and dance and dive into the snow. Ophelia was her most Ophelia self: her very best.
There were some slightly technical areas on the run. Most of all there were some downhills that were rutted out by 20 other teams having gone over them before. When you are going downhill in the dug-out chute of two dozen other teams, your brake has nothing to grab onto, and even worse, you can get “popped up” onto the side of the ruts that have formed and your sled will flip over. I feel like it’s the luge without laying down.
Finally we were digging into the climb up “The Hump.” I recognized sections of the trail from the two times I’d run the race before. Some of it was jumbled in my mind, because the first year I ran it, the race went in the opposite direction! But with each run, the course becomes more solidified in my mind. Next time we run the trail, the dogs will know it better than I probably ever will. Dogs have an incredible memory for this kind of thing.
The mountain climb up to “The Hump” is fairly forgiving. It rolls its way up and up, and then suddenly you are on top of the world. The sky was somewhat obliging. Just as we crested the steepest section, Orion peaked out from behind the clouds. Orion feels like my guardian constellation at times. I see him often as we mush, and in the lonely wilderness he feels like a friend. I was happy to see him. As we mushed the ridgeline, I turned my headlamp off and felt the wideness of the stars around me. I couldn’t see the mountainscape below, but I knew it was there. The world felt big and I felt small; but also comfy. Happy. In sync with my little team. Part of the world as we should be.
We started the descent. I hadn’t been able to turn my GPS on at the start of this run, so I was calculating mileage based off of time and an estimated MPH, and the mileage the trail report had given. For instance, they told us “The Hump” was at mile 45 of this 68 mile run. I knew we had a bit more than 20 miles to go. That’s doable– A nice easy run in training!
I also knew my dogs were getting tired. This was for sure the biggest elevation they’d ever done! It had also been a few weeks since we’d done our 77 mile run. At 45 miles they started looking around for the checkpoint!
We could see the far off headlamps of a couple teams here and there (probably the Ryno team and another). Sometimes this got the team all wired up again and they’d bark and try to sprint again. We picked our way down to the river bed. This was supposed to be at mile 48, I think. So 20 miles to go. Lucky for us, the river was “dry…” meaning ice bridges had formed over top and allowed us a dry crossing. Thank god! I was nervous the whole way. A few dogs had been wearing coats for this run, and before the final potential water crossing, I stopped and undressed them. I gave them their second snack of the run which they gobbled down. It was good they were eating well! I also made the decision to switch Rebel out of lead. She was starting to get tired– And no wonder. She had worked probably harder than anyone on the team, practically dragging them all up the each hill. Now she had a bit of diarrhea, and was ready for a mental break from the front. I switched her and Annie, apologizing to Annie for putting her up front again. Though Annie is a great leader, she seems a lot happier in the team. I hoped she didn’t mind me calling on her for the last few miles of this run.
The final river section was an easy crossing, no wet feet for dogs or Mari’s. Yay! I was grateful… Though it probably would have been good for the team to experience a water crossing in a race! I’m sure we’ll get the chance next year…
Now we had a few wooded miles to the Pipeline. The Copper Basin travels alongside the Alaska Pipeline in a few sections. The Pipeline is amazing and somewhat surreal to see, but it’s also incredibly boring *and* the section has some killer hills. A double whammy. While my team had been working hard up every hill, I had been too. I ran alongside the sled or kicked to help move the sled forward on every single hill. I wasn’t looking forward to the pipeline section.
We popped out under the strange man-made structure in the middle of the wilderness and began one of the most mentally challenging parts of the race. We had 16 miles of this repetitive and hilly trail. I started counting down the miles by the mile markers next to the pipeline. I saw the first one and noted the number, not sure what it was delinating. When I saw the next one I wanted to cry… Had we only traveled ONE MILE???
I was getting tired. The dogs were getting tired. They were also getting bored. Ophelia started goofing around, playing in the snow and getting unfocused. We went a couple miles with this, but ended up stopping a few times to untangle swing dogs. I finally decided that even though Ophelia had clearly done an amazing job for this run, we should finish with her in best focus, and that meant giving her a break from lead. I put Nala up front with Annie.
As we went, the sleep deprivation of my last week of illness, and the sleepless night of mushing, started to catch up to me. I started hallucinating. The thing I kept thinking I saw was signs. Mostly road signs… Made up billboards. But lots of other signs too. I guess… The universe was giving me a sign??? Or several?
At one point I thought I saw a man run into the trail holding up a pizza box. It was offensive in several ways. For one, I was super hungry. Was he mocking me??? For another, WHY WAS HE HOLDING THE BOX VERTICALLY??? Was he mad??? He disappeared though and I realized I was falling asleep.
I’m pretty good at sleeping on the sled (NOT recommended). I tell my body to hang on to the sled and it does but I fully go to sleep. Besides hallucinating– seeing things that weren’t there– I also did a lot of standing-dreaming. I dreamed about all kinds of weird-ass business. I don’t even know what. I was just… Sleeping. It’s not actually restful. You wake up every 20 seconds and recalibrate. Oh… Did I fall asleep? Oops. Okay. Focus! On the dogs. Dogs remind me of logs. Logs are like trees. Trees are like… Zzzzz. Oh oops! Did I fall asleep? I was even asleep pedaling, running, and ski-poling up the hills. I have done 300 mile races before and have gotten some hallucinations and sleep deprivation, but this was only my first night run and was already way more than I’d ever had. The sickness was really doing a number on me.
We FINALLY got off the pipeline and onto a small wooded trail. It wound back and forth until we came up on a lake. I could see the glow of lights and hear a highway ahead– Which meant we were almost to the checkpoint. I started singing the “Home” song to the dogs to let them know we were almost there. But just then, I noticed that R2 was looking weird. He was running wobbly– off balance. I stopped the sled and went to look at him. He *definitely* didn’t feel good. Through the whole 68 miles, any time we stopped, R2 was still his bananas self, screaming to go and chomping on the lines– Including about 20 minutes ago on the pipeline. Now he just looked woozy and dizzy. Something was up. I could literally see the big light of the checkpoint, just a few hundred feet ahead. Normally with a dog looking off like this, I’d load him into the sled immediately. I did some mental math and knew that I needed to get him in faster than it would take me to load him up. I took his tug line off so that he was basically just on a “walk” with the team, instead of feeling the need to pull, and called the team up to run the last few hundred feet. We pulled into the checkpoint and they asked me my bib number.
“Six,” I said. “I need a vet.”
Dr. Mercedes Pinto (who works at North Pole Vet clinic, the one we use, and who is a talented and experienced race vet) was waiting by the checkers. “What’s up?” she asked, and I explained what was going on. She took a look at R2 and pulled him off the line. “I want to look at him right away.” She took him into the cabin set aside for the vet crew and started him on fluids. She suspected he might have an affliction called rhabdomyolysis. If so, we caught it so early that he never showed the telltale sign of it– having brown urine. I am so grateful this happened just outside of the checkpoint and we were able to get care to him immediately. R2 was dropped from the race and got some more fluids. This perked him up. Rhabdomyolysis is a disease that horses, dogs, and quarterbacks share. It’s something of a mystery to the medical and vet community, and there are a slew of studies out and about to find out more about what causes it. I’m still learning a lot. My big question for the vet team is what I could have done to prevent it. The answer is not much. It’s just not clear what causes this. Why did it happen to R2 and no one else? They’re all on the same diet and training regimen, and went through the same run.
One thing they suspected was his level of excitement being so high for so long could be a factor. There’s no evidence, however, to suggest that once a dog gets rhabdo they’ll ever get it again. Then again, there’s just not enough evidence about this disease as is. I’m not even sure disease is the right term. It’s a condition that happens to race horses and working dogs, as well as football players notoriously. There’s some thought that it occurs mainly when a period of exertion closely follows a period of rest. The vets said that the period of rest at Chisto would have basically counted. I am looking into whatever strategies I can take to make sure this will never happen. But I also know what to do and look for to catch it. That’s the main thing to do, and I’m grateful I caught it with R2. I’m also deeply grateful for the stellar vet team who took such good care of him and got him back to himself in pretty rapid order. He ate dinner a few hours after we came in (served to him by Sarah and Arthur, who took over his care once he was “dropped”), and reportedly was doing well. By the time I finished the race, R2 looked great. I never would have known he had been so out of it. If it seems like R2 is not capable of doing distance racing, he’s going to become an awesome house dog. But by all accounts, this is most likely a one-off event and R2 should be running again next year. Because we’ll be doing surgery to have him neutered (his testes are somewhere inside his body), we’ll be doing follow-up blood work at the same time. Dr. Pinto will be working with me on this.
I was pretty happy about our run, but having this happen really shook me. I got the dogs bedded down and fed. They ate well. However, Max also seemed a bit off and wouldn’t eat. After his last run not going the best, I decided I’d give some serious thought to dropping him. For now, he was fine to rest up in his cozy straw bed.
The sunrise in Meier’s lake was stunning. As it came up I tended to the team. Ophelia had a sore wrist. Normally, a sore wrist is no big deal– But with Max seeming off, R2 being out, a sore wrist felt like a big curve ball. Was my team falling apart? I treated the sore wrist as we normally do– With some massage, using essential oils, and then a “wrist wrap,” which provides compression and heat to the soreness. It also keeps the dog from walking on that wrist while they rest. With proper care, a sore wrist is not a big deal. A friend and neighbor, and also fellow musher, came by and reminded me this as I was freaking out a bit.
The team curled into their beds pretty happily. They deserved a big nap! It was strange to not have R2 here. While Sarah watched over the team (Sarah and Arthur were taking shifts), Arthur and I went up to go get food at the lodge. We sat at a table and ordered. I had been dreaming of the eggs and toast I’d have here since the race start. I was so hungry. And exhausted. My cold had raged back up on this run, and when I wasn’t falling asleep or hallucinating on the sled, I was coughing, a lot. I really couldn’t stop coughing now. There was a cabin reserved for mushers to sleep in, and I was planning a long stay here, but I knew if I tried to sleep I’d be coughing the whole time and would keep all the other mushers up. I decided I was just going to hang around the dining room.
Shawn and their family and my family showed up after breakfast. I hadn’t seen them in Chistochina because they’d headed to bed before I was done with my chores. Now they were here for breakfast and to say hi. It was great to see their smiling faces. I was really happy to see Shawn. I really needed their logic and perspective to temper my worries about the dogs. Shawn would later say that I looked terrible and was having a meltdown at Meier’s. I don’t know if it was that bad! It may have seemed worse since it was really the first time Shawn had seen me since the race had started.
I chatted with mushers, handlers, vets, and friends. It was great to visit– and a little weird! Because I was taking so much extra time here, I had plenty of room to hang out. Sometimes in the hang out, I leaned against a wall and fell asleep… But amongst friends no one minds a sleeping musher. I had a lot of coffee!
I was nervous about our next run to Sourdough. This would be the most technical part of the trail. Although I’d never had an issue running this section, it’s always stood out to me, and the potential for an issue is pretty clear! In my already worried and anxious state, I really worked up a bad image of what was ahead.
Finally, it was time to get going. I cooked up a second meal for the dogs and fed them all. I decided to drop Max. He seemed a bit better but I just didn’t think it was worth pushing him further than he needed to go. He’d done a great job and would be back next year. The vet thought I was making a good call. Ophelia’s sore wrist looked much better after a long rest and the compression wrap. Okay! Ten dogs… All girls! This was the core of my team (sorry Max and R2). I packed my sled. This next section would be hilly again– some parts even steeper than what we’d just traveled! I knew I wanted to be able to run up the hills with ease, so I decided not to wear my heavy Apocalypse bibs. Instead, I’d just wear my down compression pants from Mountain Hardware. Basically very light snow pants. I have never tried to wear such light gear on a race, but the temps had climbed to around zero (pretty toasty!), and I knew if I wanted to warm up, I could throw my bibs on on the trail more easily than trying to take them off. I stuffed my bibs and my dog jackets into a canvas sack and strapped the sack to the outside of my sled. I bootied the team. They started to get up and move around, sniffing excitedly and wondering if it was time to go again. Yep! We’ve got adventure to catch!
The dogs came up off of their long nap ready to rock and roll. I knew the first part of our trip would be a monster hill. I was ready.
Here we go… I thought.