CB300 Part 5: Point Lodge to Finish

While Iditarod begins its final chapter, it’s time for me to write about the last leg of the Copper Basin.

Our rest at Point Lodge was revitalizing, and the run that came into Point Lodge was even more so. My little team was getting into their groove. By now I only had the ten girls and they felt bomb-proof. I was starting to bond with them the way you only can during a race– and I was so filled with pride and joy in how they were doing.

It had been tough to this point. In many ways this race had been tougher than any I’d run, mentally, because these were *my* lil buddies, my friends, and my choices affecting every moment. Any time a dog gets sick or is sore or anything on a race, you feel it… But when it’s your very own buds, it feels 100 times worse. You evaluate every choice you made up for the whole season… for their whole lives!… up to that point. Did I make a mistake here? Did we screw something up here?? Some sorenesses or events just happen and that’s the risk of living life fully. Same as the marathon runner who trains and eats and hones themself to near perfection, only to twist their ankle a mile from the finish. Sh*t happens. But, mentally, these are my lil babies (I hate that word but really it’s the only way to describe these munchkins sometimes), and so every choice is weighted, heavily.

So once they had such a successful ride into Point Lodge, I was flying high. As much as the worry hits you with your very own team when they are sore or tired, the joys when they succeed are manifold.

The big question leaving Point Lodge was this: cut the run in two, or do it all at once? It was a 73 mile run. There were some hills to contend with at the end. About 30 miles into the run was a “safety checkpoint” where the race provided some bales of straw. No vets, no dog drop, but a campsite. Having straw provided is a big deal because then you don’t have to carry it. I went back and forth quite a bit about whether or not to use this. In the end, I decided the dogs were looking good and that we’d try to push to the finish, with the ability to stop if we needed. I worried that stopping mid run would ruin their momentum. I really did a lot of hemming and hawing about this. Ultimately, I emptied my sled of anything unnecessary. I got rid of bowls, extra clothes (including my bibs and dog jackets), extra snacks. I brought a meal and enough snacks for the run. I traveled light. If we did need to stop, I could cover the dogs in blankets and straw, and feed them on the snow (they love eating off the snow anyway!).

I had the vets look at Furiosa briefly before we left. She had coughed once or twice in the checkpoint, and I had thought I’d heard her cough on the trail. I think she may have inhaled some straw in the checkpoint because she only coughed the one time. Later on our run, I’d learn that what I was hearing on the trail was Furiosa trying to grab snow off the hard trail. The scraping of her teeth against the snow made a “cough” like sound! The vets took a really close look at her and determined she was a-okay: her lungs sounded okay, she was peppy and happy. Obviously I’d be keeping a close eye on her, but for now she was good to finish. I hooked up the team and Sarah and Arthur led Ophelia and Annie to the main trail on the lake. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon.

The dogs trotted along nicely for about a mile until Ophelia started diving off to eat snow and explore. She needed a mental break from being up front. I switched her out for Rebel and we started plugging along!

We moved off the lakes and into more wooded trails. I was tired, but the dogs were excited. Ravens flew close to the team, which always revved them up. I sang and danced on the back of the sled, in between falling asleep. I had to keep my foot on the drag to keep the dogs at a steady pace, which was a good sign. They were doing really really well.

On this part of the run, I was feeling good, but I was also exhausted. I was still hacking up a lung now and then, and daylight didn’t put a stop to the hallucinations. But, clotheslining that tree with the top of my head was still on my mind. I needed to stay awake. I couldn’t let my thoughts drift and bring me down to sleep. My music was repetitive and lulling. So, for the first time in a long time of racing, I did something I’ve never managed before: I kept myself awake with my brain.

This was a weird revolution for me. What I did was, I guess, practice mindfulness. With part of my brain I observed when I would start to drift and I’d say, “Nope, you’re sleeping again!” Sometimes I’d say it out loud. For the next chunk of hours, as we drifted into dusk, I kept myself awake just by observing that I was going to sleep.

Some of you may know that I struggle with mental health issues; practicing mindfulness is not a new concept for me… But I’m not really good at it! Being able to employ it successfully here was a big deal for me. It showed me that I can do it! Wow. Weird. And, of course, it kept me awake and prevented me from konking my head on a tree (again).

Darkness fell and we came closer and closer to the 30 mile mark, where the safety camp would be. I went back and forth. The dogs were doing amazingly, trotting in perfect rhythm, happy and gelled. Should I stop and rest while they were feeling good? Or would that kill the momentum?

When we came to the intersection where Gee was the camp and Haw was the finish, I made a split second decision and we went Haw. Time to head to Glennallen! I definitely think even now that this was the right choice. Momentum is a fickle beast and we had it and I wanted to use it. Stopping and resting doesn’t necessarily build all of that back up. So much of it is mental. I wanted to get the dogs to their cozy truck beds; I wanted to take this momentum to a successful finish. They like stopping and camping, but they would like their truck finish even more!

Haw took us along the highway and towards Glennallen. I knew we had some hills coming up. The first part of this run had been relatively, mercifully flat. Now we’d have a big climb– actually several. The last time I’d done these climbs I’d been contending for a top ten finish with Scott Smith’s team (we got 13th!). One of the Berington sisters had almost caught us in the hills that year, and I’d run and ski-poled and pedaled with all my might. This year we were all alone.

The first set of hills was along the highway: a gently rolling climb. Now and then semis would zoom by out of the night, briefly lighting the dark world, brights on, separate from the cold and nature. A few miles into our climb, we saw it. The mental eff-you. “Glennallen 10 miles.” A real road sign in my long race of hallucinated ones, and this one mocking me most of all. The race course would not head those ten easy miles to Glennallen: instead we’d turn left soon and go around the little town for another 40 miles. I don’t know if the dogs could tell how close we were. Hopefully not. I knew the sign was coming so I kept myself upbeat for the dogs, while internally flipping the words off in retaliation.

We crossed some driveways and passed some outlying buildings. So tempting to see civilization so close. Soon enough though, we turned left– And the real climb began.

The hill that departs from the highway here is several miles long and unforgiving. It goes up and up and up and up. This is the part of the trail where one of the Beringtons almost caught me the last time I did the race; but this time there was no competition to fuel our climb. Nonetheless, the dogs were relentless. Like they had done the whole race, they chewed up the hill, digging and digging. I grabbed a trail marker and began ski-poling to help propel us up. Once again, I reminded myself to bring actual ski poles on the next race! I always forget. (Also I always lose ski poles so it’s expensive to use real ones.) With one ski pole you alternatively pole and pedal so that you are always helping the dogs a little. Allen Moore has a “spider” style where he double poles in rapid time. Sometimes I’ll do this but probably not as gracefully as Allen.

Rebel proved her metal once more on the hills. I watched my GPS as we climbed and climbed. Just a little more, I told the dogs, just a bit more. As soon as we got off this hill I’d stop and snack the team, too. We never stop on hills: a rule I learned from many high caliber kennels.

Finally, when it seemed like the hill would never end, we turned right. The race course around Glennallen is very square. It’s something like 10-12 miles up, 10-12 miles over, and 10-12 miles down again, then the remaining miles back towards town. So I was waiting for that right hand turn to get us back onto fairly level trail. We made our turn and stopped and gave the team a break. Only 30 more miles to go! We could do this!

Well, this is when our race fell apart. At least, sort of.

The team was tired. That much was clear. The hill had really sapped the energy they’d brought into the first half of the run. This was also a threshold I’d seen them hit on the other 70 mile run… Mile 40 or 50 became the exhaustion point. Putting some calories in them helped a lot. Snacks are fuel! The dogs took their snack break and were ready– Except not Rebel. Rebel was mentally very tired. She said, I really need a break from being the leader here. I immediately switched her out for Nala. We got going and Rebel was 100% happier being in the team. Being in the front can be really tough. Especially to these lil nuggets. What the heck was happening? Where was the next checkpoint? Why so many hills! Most of the dogs (except maybe Annie) had never finished a race like this! So they had no idea what to expect. This started to become apparent in the next five miles.

The next five miles were some of the toughest I’ve ever had mushing. I have thought about this period over and over since then, and wondered what I could do better. There are some things I’ll put into practice next year to be sure… And some of it may just be that I had really really young inexperienced leaders. Even my first year of mushing, where I ran 9 yearlings, I still had 1 extremely experienced veteran to guide us. In my team, for all I knew, I had zero experienced dogs. That’s pretty tough! Getting that experience is key. But part of the experience is getting through such toughness.

Nala went forward in lead for a bit, but soon became distracted. She didn’t have the focus or desire to be up front. I put Ophelia up front. Same thing. I put Rey up front. She did great for about a mile! Then she started diving to the side. One issue we kept running into was that many prior teams had snacked their dogs on the trail and left a lot of frozen treats behind. The dogs wanted to stop and chow down and rest when they found this. We had no momentum at all. I put Cassidy up front. She was a little too freaked out to go forward much. I put Egret up front! Egret had NEVER led for my team, ever. SHE DID AWESOME! For about a mile. Then she balked.

The only constant in all of this was Annie. Annie. Never. Stopped. She never hesitated. She continued to bomb forward, digging in with every step. But, she is small– Maybe by now my smallest dog! And she couldn’t pull her leader-partner if they didn’t want to go forward. We were constantly stopping to untangle swing dogs, and/or to switch out leaders. I tried every single other dog on the team in lead. They were all mentally pooped.

My team never “quit,” thank god. That’s when the whole team doesn’t want to go forward– And it’s a horrible experience. I also think if this was to happen to me, it would be a sign of user error. Either I’ve pushed the team too hard too fast, I didn’t have enough conditioning, or my attitude needs to adjust. I– the musher– am the leader of the team. When the dogs trust me they will do amazing things. Of course there are outlying, anomalous experiences and I can’t speak for all mushers or teams. But to me, my dogs’ conditioning, ability, and attitude is 100% my responsibility. Dogs quit when they are not having fun. The goal is to Have. Fun. Not to win. Fun happens when the dogs are healthy, conditioned, and led with a positive attitude. This is what I’ve learned from my years of mushing.

The only other time I’ve come close to a team quitting was my very first race. That was when I learned the really important lesson about how much the dogs absorb your attitude. That race, my first race, I was trying really hard to be competitive. When the dogs got down in the dumps, I realized: Holy bananas. What am I doing? We’re supposed to be having fun! As soon as I changed my attitude, the dogs changed too, and we finished in great time.

Throughout this tough process of my leaders having a hard time, I tried to keep my attitude light and happy. I talked to the dogs a lot. I chirped and chatted to them and told them how awesome they were doing. They WERE doing awesome. Our attitude was good! That at least we had dialed in.

Like I said, the team never quit. Every dog was steady and even excited in team. They just all– except Annie– were feeling overwhelmed by being up front. It was like they would look back at me and say. “I want to keep running but I can’t do this front thing! Pick someone else?”

So finally, I did something I’ve never done before. I put a dog in single lead.

Annie had never hesitated and she wasn’t hesitating now. So… I connected all the lead lines to her harness, took a deep breath, and said, “Ready? All right!”

We took off. Annie dug in with her classic gate. Annie always lopes. It might be because she’s so small, she has to. Regardless, she works hard, never stops. The only time she took the slightest pause was if she saw food on the trail. Once she stopped dead in her tracks and half the team ran by her as she chomped down a snack… Then she took off again. Zoom! (Earlier in the race, I forgot to mention, she ate half a dead bird this way!) She needed those calories plus she was way too fast on the uptake for me to stop her… So she got some extra “candy bars” as we went.

I was terrified having her in single lead wouldn’t work. It was really my last resort. Every other dog in lead had started off great for about a mile and then balked. I was so scared Annie would do the same.

She didn’t. She just kept churning through the miles. At long last, we were really moving again. It had taken us more than an hour to cover five miles. We had lost all momentum. Now, thanks to Annie, we were gaining it back. Slow and steady, we moved on.

So what about pushing too hard? Should I have stopped at the campsite? I still think, no. I think most of all, I didn’t have race-experienced dogs. I think this will be different next year– Afterall, the 10 girls have all conquered the Basin now. I’m also looking to add a couple experienced leaders to my team for next year’s season. That experience, in part, is what told Annie that if we kept going, a good rest would be at the end.

For all my hallucinations of man-made items, I was looking desperately for the pipeline. The last 12 miles of the trail start with a quick crossing under the pipeline… Then you know you’re heading home. I was looking and looking for non-hallucinated architecture. I wanted to see the hard edges and unnatural structure. I needed to know we were on the way home. I was exhausted and overwhelmed.

And finally, there it was. We popped out of the trees and were under the rounded metal and beyond it. Heading *home*! The next part of the trail was on a maintenance road, wide and fast. The dogs picked up speed. Annie digging and digging in the font.

And then at long last we came up to the highway, brightly lit and lonely, and turned right towards the finish line.

The last ten miles of the Copper Basin are notoriously draining. You feel like you should be there– But you aren’t. You have another hour and a half of flat, boring trail, passing structure after structure as you near town. You just want to be done. The dogs kind of think so too– The structures seem like checkpoints but you just keep passing them by. I remembered the dullness of this section, and the forever-ness of it, so I was prepared, but I was also cursing the trail the whole last 10 miles.

And then, finally, miraculously, we were there. We passed The Hub gas station and turned towards the church that housed the finish around 12:30 on Tuesday morning. As the dogs rounded a little bend towards the finishing arch, a little cheer went up from some spectators (mostly my handlers and Shawn’s family!). I looked up at Annie, digging and digging in still. Never stopping. I choked up. That little dog had gotten us home, single-pawedly.

My team was tired but they had smiles and wags. They were ready for a big meal and a big rest– and they deserved it. I checked in and we brought the team to the truck. Sarah and Arthur had a full meal ready for them, and we handed out food right to the dogs on the line. They gobbled down their well-earned meal while we unbootied them and loved on them.

I thanked Annie. I hugged her hard. I am not sure we would have finished without her. She was far and away the MVP of the race. I hadn’t expected that of her, but she shone in this race and won a huge place in my heart.

We tucked the dogs into their cozy truck boxes. They LOVE their truck boxes– they try to jump in themselves and then snuggle themselves to sleep. We put up the sled and the lines and the harnesses. The race was over. It was hard to believe.

I went into the church to get something to eat. There are always snacks and treats provided here for mushers. More than anything I wanted a Sprite. My handlers had generously made me coffee, but I needed something cool and sugary. I drank a bottle of water. My own water bottles had froze up during the race. I’d been drinking a tiny gatorade on each run but that’s it. Next year I have some plans to up my own hydration… Which will also require some adjustments to my ability to pee. Stay tuned for updates on this…

There was a mighty spread of food in the church, but all I remember (and all I ate) was a pile of no bake cookies. Mmmm.

Last time I’d finished the race (when I’d gotten 13th), there had been a big group of mushers around. Finishing had been very communal. This year, it was only me and a few volunteers. My whole race– being at the back of the pack– was strangely lonely. After I grabbed my cookies, we finished loading up Todd the Truck, and headed to the hotel. I was spent. The handlers and I made a deal that they’d let the dogs out in 4 hours, and in 8 hours I’d get up and feed them myself (and Sarah and Arthur could sleep). That way we’d all get a somewhat solid rest.

I curled into my sleeping bag, ate some peanut M&M’s, and that’s the last thing I remember.

The dogs slept well and ate a lot. They were no longer hesitant to chow down at the truck! Max and R2 were very hyper… They’d been resting for a few days! I gave out so much love and thanks to the dogs. They were pros now, Copper Basin vets. The best dogs. I was so filled with pride for what they had done. We let them out every 4 hours until the banquet, and fed them extra meals. We brought Cassidy, Annie, and Ophelia into the hotel to give them massages (and so I could give Annie the biggest thanks).

The banquet was that night (Tuesday). We met up with Shawn’s family for lunch / late breakfast and then headed to the hotel to organize the truck for the ride home. Since we didn’t have a race to get to right away, I had opted for us to stay one more night in Glennallen. That way the handlers and I could get some actual sleep! Sarah and Arthur hadn’t slept much more than I had, and of course we wanted to drive safely home.

The banquet was fun. We sat with Shawn’s family and got to hear tales of the trail and hear speeches from each musher.

The strangest thing happened during my speech. I got up and said that this was my third Copper Basin, but that it was my very first race with my own dogs… And the mushers around me, all these people who I admired and respected– They burst into applause. I can’t describe what I felt.

To me, after my final run, and the toughness with my leader, in truth, I felt like a huge failure. I was so proud of the dogs and so frustrated with myself. I felt I had failed the dogs. That I had failed their potential and failed them personally. How? By not conditioning enough during the season.

It’s no secret I struggle with depression and anxiety. This season, it has been difficult. And sometimes that difficulty translates into not being able to mush.

But that’s unacceptable. Because I believe *this* is why the dogs had such a hard time. Remember when I said dogs quitting– or coming close– is a matter of attitude, pushing too hard, or lacking conditioning? We had a good attitude, we had 31 hours of rest (so not pushing!)… Which leaves conditioning. We didn’t have enough training under our belts. We had a lot. Enough to finish, and finish with wagging tails and healthy dogs. But maybe just barely. And to me, that’s not a line to mess with.

The applause of the mushers reminded me something. It’s really, really tough to run a race like the Copper Basin with “young guns,” as a musher friend puts it. Because the other factor, like I mentioned, was experience. I had it, Annie had it, but everyone else was a newbie. Finishing *was* an accomplishment. We had challenges but we also sorted those out. Part of proving you can do big things while struggling with mental health is… well, struggling.

So what will things look like next year, to get through that?

Well, to be honest, that’s been tricky. I have a lot I want to do. About an hour after crossing the finish line, Arthur and Sarah had convinced me we should all do it again next year. And I really want to. I want to prove that the dogs can run with minimum rest– and I want to prove to myself that we can do it. That we can race. And train to race. We are also aiming to do the Quest 300. That’s a big race, a new one to me, and a tough one.

How am I going to manage both my tough mental health and the high demands of training and racing?

Well, it starts with a plan. Part of the plan is building in more structure and routine. Part of the plan is freeing up some time to focus on only mushing. Part of the plan is to hone my mental health care even more finely. There’s a lot to do and build and iron out.

What I believe, without doubt, is that these dogs are amazing. The only failing was mine. I strive to live up to these dogs every day of the year, and honestly, I feel like I mostly let them down. Now, I don’t need reassurance about that, thanks very much. I am working on how to honor what they do and can do, and how they love and live so joyously. It’s not easy. Life isn’t easy. Living with depression and anxiety aren’t easy. But in all of those challenges, for me there is only one direction. It is the toughest, stupidest, most frustrating, most difficult, and most alive direction of all. The direction is onward. And that’s where we’re gonna go.

Thank you for following along with us this season; for making our race possible and for giving me the support to make it happen. There were many days in training when I thought of people rooting for us and that’s what kept me going. Your investment propels this little operation. Legitimately, we wouldn’t make it without you. You got us to the start line, along with people like Sarah, who trained the team with me, and Padee, who helped in every support role you could think of, and Shawn, who is the backbone of ATAO. The dogs got us 99% of the way through, and Sarah and Arthur made sure we all did it safely.  

Annie got us to the finish.

I need to honor all of that. And I will, and we will. So let’s get ready for another successful season. The countdown is on. Let’s do it.

Onward.

Part 4: Sourdough to Point Lodge

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Mari loves dog mushing, boxing, writing, and hiking. They spend their off time reading as much as possible and going to the movies.
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