Meier’s Lake to Sourdough: 33.9 miles
We left Meier’s lake in the beautiful afternoon sun. I was not wearing my bibs or my parka. I knew I had a big climb to conquer right away, and I wanted to be able to run up the hills as easily as possible next to the sled. Once the trail leveled out, I’d be able to throw my parka on, and if it got really cold, I could put my bibs on without taking off my boots (because Apocalypse bibs rock).
The dogs were barking and ready to go. I’d been worried about them in Meier’s Lake, because the run before had been long and tough. We left behind two friends– The boys! Max and R2 were dropped at Meier’s, and now we carried on with a team of ten… Only the girls! It was kind of cool. And, my worries felt a little assuaged when we took off. The team was ready! The big rest was what they needed.
The climb out of Meier’s is immediate and steep. We hit it with all cylinders firing. The dogs didn’t hesitate. We shortly heard dogs barking ahead, which just made the ATAO crew charge harder. Soon we came upon the source of the noise: there was a team stalled on the hill. The musher tried to push his sled up and call his team forward, but they looked pretty dubious. This section is *steep.* Maybe the musher hadn’t been able to run more and had stopped the team himself? I didn’t know. We passed the dogs and continued onward!
It was a glorious day. If we couldn’t see the view from “The Hump,” we were treated to a stunning vista here. Hills and mountains rolled along the horizon. Our climb had brought us to a ridgeline; we had a perfect view in every direction. I wished I had a working camera– and then I decided I ought to just enjoy it.
The next part would be the really tricky part. “What goes up must come down.” The descent from our steep climb would be just as steep, and full of switchbacks and dangerous corners. I was nervous and ready. The dogs were happy, dug into trotting mode, smiling as they maintained a steady rhythm. They didn’t know what was ahead… But if there’s anything that excites a dog team into sprinting, it’s going down hill around sharp corners.
I saw the drop off that would begin our roller coaster ride ahead. I put on my parka as we mushed towards it. Going downhill would be less running for me (and so less warmth), plus I wanted the extra cushion in anticipation of potential crashing. I cinched up my neck gator and hood, to keep snow from crawling into my clothes for if/when I wiped out. There was not much more I could do to be ready, except to slow the team.
The dogs are trained to slow down on the word “easy”… Well, sort of. There’s a great video of Jeff King mushing through the totally snowless trail of Iditarod 2014. He explains in the video that the dogs realize when he says “easy”, things will get exciting, and so they re-program to speed up. In some ways, “easy” means to pull harder– In other words, there will be more resistance for the dogs to pull against. My advantage over Jeff, in that video, is that I had something to dig my brake into. Good thing! The run down the other side from Meier’s was as I remembered it– A series of quick back and forths at a sharp decline. I rode the brake and called “Eeeeeasy, eeeeasy” to the dogs. The team did really well. They didn’t over-excite. They listened to “easy” and picked their way carefully down. We got through the first set of switchbacks unscathed! I knew the rest of the run was still pretty technical. We’d been told this was a 43 mile run. We were at mile 6. “Miles to go before I sleep…”
As we descended, so did the sun. We had left around 2 in afternoon, which meant we didn’t have much daylight to play with. As the sky darkened, temperatures dropped too. I was glad to have my parka on. My bib-less legs started to get a little chilly, but I danced and moved to keep myself warm. It would be a lot of work and time to get the bibs out and put them on. I’d save that for if I got really cold. I had exponentially more mobility without the bibs on. A little chill was a fair trade for that. More than anything, stopping the team would halt their momentum. This was an important lesson I’d learned long ago in two ways. First, mushing a good handful of distance races. I used to stop the team a lot. Give them extra breaks, I thought! Eventually I started realizing that stopping the team put a damper on the dogs’ spirits. They don’t want to stop. Sometimes they need to for a break or a snack. It’s best in those times to keep breaks short and to the point. Everything is about momentum. Even when you aren’t the fastest team on the trail, you have to keep the train rolling. I really learned about momentum in distance running when I started training for long foot races myself. That was when I learned that it’s okay to stop briefly, maybe even walk for 30 seconds or so, but that if you stop too much longer (or at least if I do!), it kills your inertia. Got to keep going! Got to hang onto that roll. Stopping to dig out my bibs would kill the dogs’ momentum. Would warming up be worth dampening their joyous forward motion? Not really!
The dogs were doing great on this run. They loved the twists and turns.
I had Nala and Rebel in lead. Those two are a great combo. They are probably Sarah’s favorite combo. Both are hard drivers and full of unbridled joy. I wanted to give Ophelia a break from the front with her sore wrist, and Annie deserved a mental break. Being in lead is a tough job. Annie had been kicking butt at it but I didn’t want to wear out her mental capacity.
Nala and Rebel were a great choice for this run. They charged up the big hill and danced their way back down. They were full of wagging tails and excitement around every turn. Of course that excitement is a little *extra* exciting for the poor human dragging along behind…. But even with the speedy enthusiasm, we didn’t crash. GO ATAO!
After the descent, the trail twists, turns, jumps, and jives. There are switchbacks through trees, over little humps, and onto and off of river beds. For 20 more miles we played in the woods. Some friends at Meier’s Lake had told me: “This is the most fun section of trail!” I was so overcome by my anxiety that that seemed preposterous. But as we negotiated our way through the twists and turns… I had to agree! It was actually pretty fun! I could see it being a tough trail. There were marks on some of the trees from clear crashes! But my little 10 dog crew was doing great, listening to “easy,” having fun, and I was driving a sled like I knew how.
There were only two incidents to speak of on this run. The first came when it was still light out. We had gotten to the bottom of the big descent, and were winding our way through the wooded course. A big tree came up on our right. It leaned in to the trail just a little. I leaned to the left and drug my foot on the left to pull the sled over. I thought we had enough clearance but just as we went by, the corner of my handlebar caught against the tree. We stopped and I slammed into the sled (Newton is very present in mushing)(an object in motion tends to remain in motion). The dogs looked back in surprise but then charged forward. The “stop” was less than a second. More of a bounce. But when I looked at my rig, it was clear the tree had warped my sled. As the dogs kept us trundling down the trail, I tested the functionality of the sled. Was anything actually broken? I had my sled repair kit set to jet. I would be able to fix most anything that might happen except a broken runner. It seemed that things were generally in order– nothing physically broken apart, just kind of twisted. I’d have a crooked sled for the rest of the race.
The second incident came later on down the trail. At long last, the winding and jumping and turning evened out into a long and slightly boring section of straight-line trail through the woods. The trail was wide and even. I was tired. I saw the road signs I’d been seeing the whole race: hallucinations of man-made objects. I don’t know why this is what my brain was manufacturing this race, but it was. Through the odd signs, I drifted off.
Suddenly there was an explosion, like the noise of a shotgun, right by my head. A nanosecond later, I realized my head hurt. My instincts to hold onto my handlebar had served me well. The noise wasn’t my head getting hit so much as my hood being ripped off my head. I’d hit a tree. The very very top of my head had hit– Just one inch. It wasn’t enough to hurt me too bad (though I was seeing stars), and not enough to pull me off the sled. If I’d been an inch taller than my 5’2”, I’d have been leveled. The tree was clothesline-style across the trail. I’d been totally asleep and missed it. It was one of the scariest moments I’d had in mushing. I’ve never in my life been so grateful to be short. If I had been any taller I’d be seriously hurt and probably separated from my team. The reality of this made me monitor my sled-sleeping much more closely for the rest of the race. I only let myself really drift off on lakes from then on.
One or two dogs looked back after the big noise, but to them it was business as usual and more miles to catch. I laughed as we carried on and thanked the wider universe I was short. I hoped this wouldn’t be another bad tally against my too many head-hits. My two years boxing and sparring was enough, I didn’t need to be fighting with trees.
We met up with the Pipeline again. This time we were mushing on an actual road. I remembered that that meant the checkpoint would probably be coming up soon, though based on my GPS we still had another 10 or 15 miles to go. We were getting closer to civilization though. We came upon a big bridge. In the ice-fogged darkness, the pillars of the bridge against the road lights looked like a crowd of waiting spectators. For a moment, the dogs thought we were coming up to a checkpoint, and I was even convinced. But we were miles early. That couldn’t be it? As we got closer, the “people” resolved into man-made structures after all. The dogs were excited though, especially Annie. Every time she saw a light she barked and caterwauled. CHECKPOINT! CHECKPOINT! She said to the team, and they picked up speed in response.
We turned by an eerily green-lit warehouse, deserted at this time of night. We made a sharp turn onto another road, around straw bales set to show the right way to go. We dipped onto a big river. We must be getting close– but my GPS said we were only at 30 miles. Sourdough checkpoint is right off a big river, but I thought: we must have a long stretch on this river. I settled in to get through the rest of the run. And suddenly, there were lights ahead: two tents, definitely people. Moving headlamps. The checkpoint? It was so early?
It *was* the checkpoint. They had given us the wrong mileage. The run was only 33.9 miles by my GPS. Well that was a welcome surprise! The dogs began barking and screaming as they ran, picking up speed. They understood what lights and people meant now… It meant straw and snacks and food and rest!
We pulled into the checkpoint. I saw someone with an orange coat who I assumed was Shawn’s dad (it turned out not to be, but I couldn’t tell in the dark). Sarah appeared at the front of the team. I checked in and showed where my gear was. Sarah and I exchanged thumbs up and we started through the checkpoint towards our parking spot. Sarah had picked another awesome spot. When you are at the very back of the pack you have a lot of options to choose from! Sarah parked us at a spot with trees on one side, ensuring some wind protection, and also a little privacy. I was really pleased with the choice.
Shawn’s family appeared. This was the first checkpoint they were able to get right next to the team while I worked. Shawn’s mom, Julie, kept asking if it was okay to be there while I worked. I said of course! At checkpoints, no one is allowed to help the musher do anything but park the team. After that, I have to do all the chores. It’s a little weird for handlers, because you just stand there and watch your person do a bunch of work. Better to be the musher and actually do things! I pulled off booties, arranged the team on the line (I have a setup where the team can rest single file, instead of in doubles. This lets the dogs have their own section of straw and space. They are close enough that they can also cuddle up together if they want but they don’t have to), and handed out snacks. The dogs wolfed down the snacks. To our left was deepish snow. I stomped out little impressions for the dogs and filled them with straw. Each had a little nest! They cuddled right in. I got to work cooking their meal up. Since Sourdough had no running water, I had brought water with me from Meier’s Lake. I was really pleased to have done this: it meant I could get their meal cooking immediately. I was very happy with my homemade cooler setup, as well as my water bucket: a 3 gallon white bucket that I used to grab water for the crew or scoop snow to make water. My cooker is a big old square cooker and you can’t carry water in it because it’s so awkward. But it cooks really fast and efficiently, and fits in the sled great. My gear for the race was really lined out and I was pretty happy about that. I inherited almost everything I have, or bought it used, or built it. It’s not super fancy, but it works.
Shawn’s family took some cool pictures of me working with the team. It was fun to have them get to see what checkpoint work really is. They watched me go through the whole routine of taking care of the dogs, and eventually were ready to head to bed themselves. I don’t remember what time it was, but it was late at night. Or maybe early in the morning. It was dark. During races, you tend to lose all sense of time. A common question is: Is it morning or night? I use military time so I can tell more of what’s going on, but it’s still confusing. Anyway, Shawn’s family headed to their B&B, and I finished my chores. As my water was heating for the team’s food, I threw a double freezer-bagged set of meatballs that Shawn had made for me into the cooker. This checkpoint was rustic. There were two heated tents and a trailer for the vets, but no running water. I went to the warming tent and hung up my neck gators to dry.
I use a Buff polar gator and a Northface “neck thing” I call it (it’s also a gator). I’ve had the Northface one since 2000. It kind of smells but it works really, really well. The Polar Buff (which has fleece and the classic windproof Buff material) is the only other thing that compares. Honestly, that Polar Buff is pretty incredible. They have their material dialed in. Some friends lent me some fleece type gators for the race– two different types. One was homemade and the other was bought. They were interesting to try out, but both iced up really fast with condensation. The Buff and the Northface neck things collect condensation but they both wick the moisture and don’t ice up the same way. For optimum warmth, I wear the Buff by my face and the Northface outside of that. For Iditarod, I want to send a new Polar Buff to each checkpoint. That’s 17 of those. That’s a luxury, and I’ll survive without it, but it would sure be nice to have a dry one at each. I am also often scheming about some way to dry gear on my body. I’ve thought about using silicon packs (like they send with new stuff) in a contained area. Plus maybe some heat packs? I need to test this out.
One thing I did sent out to every checkpoint on this race was new gloves. I use Heatlok gloves that you can buy up here from AIH (Alaska Industrial Hardware). The gloves are black and yellow. You’ll see every musher you know wearing them, for good reason. They are really good. I used to wear leather, fleece lined gloves from the same company, but these Heatloks are where it’s at. They are affordable, they fit, and they’re warm. The start of the Copper Basin got to -40 in sections. I ONLY wore these gloves. (I think I may have frostbit my fingers a bit but that’s another story.) Before the race (thanks to the support of a bunch of you!) I was able to buy a set of 12 of these gloves and put a fresh pair in each checkpoint bag. So I had clean dry gloves at EVERY CHECKPOINT. This was a revolution. I’ve never had dry gloves for a race– I’ve always just suffered through 300 miles with my gloves getting more damp and more frozen. Sending new gloves was like luxury mushing at its finest. It made a huge difference to my race. (So thank you!)
Anyway, I left my neck gators to dry in the warming tent, and talked to the checkers there. I think there was bottled water there, which I grabbed. I’d been thawing Gatorades for my runs, which was a lifesaver, but I was thirsty for just water. For female mushers, there’s a perpetual delicate dance between hydrating and not having to pee. Peeing on the run is a real cluster for people with vaginas, so we tend to strategize our drinking. Since I was at the start of a four hour layover, I could have a little water, though.
The checkers told me the musher sleeping tent, next door, was pretty decent. I’d been planning to sleep by my sled, but having a warm place to lay down sounded pretty good. I was still sick– in fact definitely getting much worse– and at this point I decided that I wanted to lay down even if I did bother concurrently sleeping mushers. But I needed to check back in with my team, and grab some gear.
I went back to my team and talked to who I thought was Arthur for a while, but who turned out to be Sarah. Arthur and Sarah were both wearing the same type of bibs and boots, and I guess I only really was looking down, because I kept mixing them up. In my defense, it was also dark, night two, and I hadn’t slept for the whole race so far, except while mushing and bashing my head against trees. Speaking of that, I also hoped to find a friend who was a doctor and see if she’d scope out my eyes to make sure I wasn’t concussed (I didn’t want to ask anyone on my crew for fear of worrying them… This was my addled logic). But I was pretty behind the rest of the teams at this point. Almost no one was here. There were a couple teams. I went over and chatted with Rob Cooke, who had just gotten in. As we were talking, a team to our left suddenly burst into frenzied snarling. A couple dogs were fighting. Rob and I watched as the musher and a handler rushed to break up the dogs, but the dogs were pretty big and the two humans couldn’t pull them apart. As soon as it was apparent they needed help Rob and I rushed over. Four humans pulled apart the two dogs. I had helped to vice open the mouth of one dog (carefully), and avoided injury, until the other dog decided for a final retaliatory snap and bit ME instead. I got chomped right on my left pointer finger at the base of my nail. OW. I was wearing gloves (the very same Heatloks!), and pulled off the left one to look. Even though he hadn’t broken through the glove, the force of his bite had levered apart my skin and I was immediately bleeding. I put pressure on the bite for a few seconds to see if it would stop but it didn’t want to. Well, crap. I told Sarah I was going to the vet trailer. I went and knocked on the door of their fancy rig and some really courteous vets let me in. None of them had any band-aids! They had a lot of other things but nothing, really, for humans. One vet put… Iodine? Something with a B that is orange and stings– on it. Ouch. Then we wrapped it up with a little vet tape. Perfect. I had already taped up my left thumb because it was cracking in the cold and really hurt to bootie the dogs with. So now I was getting a good looking hand.
I went back to the team one last time, grabbed my personal gear (a bag of chargers and odds and ends), and headed to the sleeping tent.
There were no electrical outlets here, but I had a USB converter and a pocket-sized external battery pack. The most important thing to charge was my headlamp. I plugged that in and let it charge. There was one other musher laying down on the wood floor. I wished I had brought my sleeping bag or something to lay on in. I had my parka and I lay that out on the floor and lay down. If I wasn’t sick I’d have passed out right away. As it was, I lay coughing until I slowly drifted off.
I had told Sarah that if I didn’t appear in 3 hours to wake me up. I was pretty out of it– that was just terrible math! I realized that as soon as I got into the sleeping tent, but I also had my watch so I just set an alarm for 1 hour. Well, either that didn’t work, or I didn’t hear it. I woke up when Sarah came into the tent and said it had been 3 hours. OOPS. I was wayyyyyy behind. My plan had been to stay here for four hours. (Sorry for the terrible number grammar, but it’s my recap, you are stuck with the back and forth!) With sleeping three hours, I was about two hours behind schedule, leaving me at Sourdough for about six hours.
It turns out this may have been just what the doctor ordered for my team. Once I got them bootied and ready to go, they were super fired up and excited. The next leg of the journey would be forgiving: a 50 mile run over lakes. There would still be some hills (the Copper Basin is a hilly race), but I knew now we could manage that. I decided to keep my bibs off but ready in case I wanted them. My sled was packed, the dogs were eager and ready to go. I put Ophelia in lead along with Annie, to give Nala and Rebel a break. They had done amazingling on their run. With these young buddies, I wanted them each to take a turn leading, and also to not push them mentally. Ophelia and Annie were excited up front.
We took off… And I suddenly remembered I hadn’t checked out!!! OOPS. Luckily, the trail took us right back by the checkers!!! I hollered for a couple to come help me hold my team and they let me sign out. That was lucky– If that hadn’t worked out I’d have had to turn around or be disqualified.
Then we dipped back down onto the river and into the night.
Awesome, Will, you’re such a good writer that these accounts are really absorbing. I kept reading even though I should have gone to bed (super early work schedule). Onward!
Uh oh watch out for sleep hallucinations!!! 😀 I’m glad you enjoy them! More to come!
Do you have an address where you can receive Amazon packages? Maybe some Polar Buffs will find their way to you…
Hi Sherry!!! We have an Amazon Wishlist– it’s here: https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/2FLTWL46QDKAA?ref_=wl_share (and it has Buff’s on it, though the sellers sometimes run out or aren’t the best option)
Our mailing address is PO Box 16261, Two Rivers, AK, 99716 if the wishlist doesn’t work! 😀 Thank you!!!