I will not be running the Copper Basin 300 this year.
I am heartbroken about it.
On Sunday and Sunday evening, I took the dogs out for an evaluative run. We did a short first leg. It was cold, and the dogs were well dressed in coats and for some, in shirts. Everyone wore booties. Rey and Rebel were not in the team: both have incurred foot issues that put them out of the pool for the race team.
The team did well on the first leg, but were tired at our “checkpoint”– we camped in the yard for five hours. While we camped, I met with ATAO’s human crew to go over plans. Shawn, Padee, Sarah, and newbies Nik and Amanda, helped put together drop bags, make up rice and fat snacks for the dogs, organize my mess, and so much more. They did a lot of work.
At the end of the dogs’ rest, they and I headed out into the night for a long run. I decided in this run to head up into the hills to the north of us.
The hills around two rivers are excellent training, but we hadn’t gone up that way this year because of my lack of confidence in the trails, and because I have been taking the full team– a long string of dogs with which to manage the switchbacks that make up the climb. But the dogs were already tired, even just after a short first run, so I trusted we could manage a slower pace going up and down.
We did manage a slower pace, but it was too slow.
I have run a lot of dog teams, from a lot of different kennels, in my time. I have seen the spectrum of innate ability, and more importantly, conditioning and readiness.
On the hills north of home, I came to the understanding that the dogs are not ready for a race right now.
I don’t mean, when I say a race, that they are not ready to compete. They certainly are not that. But I mean that they are not ready to run an entire 300 mile course and have a good time. They can probably do it. But it will not be the experience I want them to have. It will be slow. It will be grinding. It will require a lot of rest. Going slow and taking rest are not bad things on their face. But there is a mental aspects– not just for me, but for the dogs. Going slow, slow, slow is not fun for the dogs. Stopping so much and so long can become demoralizing. And being passed a lot is also demoralizing. They want to be the passers!
It’s totally possible to go through a race– even a thousand mile race– and take your time and camp your way through. Take a lot of rest and so on. But I don’t think this team is even ready for that. They might be. But I don’t want to put them in the situation not feeling sure about that. On the run, as I came to this realization, I thought about something I read once, that a good lawyer only asks questions they already know the answer to. (Not sure how that holds up, but I read it.) I realized this ought to be true of a musher putting their dogs in a big excursion as well. I ought to know and feel confident in their capability to complete the course successfully. Success, here, to me, is that they complete each leg and have strength to do the next one. That they bark to go. And that they can conquer the hills.
The hills is where we hit our wall, on Sunday night.
This makes perfect sense, and is something I’ve worried about a lot.
Last year, even though I didn’t do as many *long* miles as I’ve wanted, we did really focused, excellent hill training, and it really paid off, Even though we did take a lot of rest in the Copper Basin, the team conquered the hills without batting an eye.
On Sunday night, this was not the case. On a climb half the elevation of the main climb in the Basin, the dogs had a really hard time.
The reason this makes sense: I think I can point this part straight back to Porcugate. The two weeks of that (mis)adventure were exactly in the height of our main weight / hill training. Missing that period put a serious dent in our training that we have never caught up from.
We made it up the 2,000 feet elevation, but it was tough. The dogs were looking at me like, “what are we doing here, boss?” not like “WHY ARE YOU SO SLOW HUMAN LET’S GO,” which is, and should be, their normal MO.
This is not a dog problem. These dogs are innately incredible. I have some amazing athletes on my hands. They are happy and dedicated and powerful. We *did* get up the hill. But it was a rough success, bordering on Not Fun At All. I will admit– it was not fun for me. Because I could see the whole picture I’m describing here. But I worked hard to make the run as positive and fun for the dogs as it could be, tough as it was. We rested as they needed; we stopped more than usual for scritches and praise. I encouraged them and sang to them (that might be rude of me, you’ll have to ask them). But still, it was very, very hard.
There are just too many days of training we missed. The dogs managed really long runs this year. They hit much faster times than we did our previous year. That’s all great. But the runs were too few and far between. Whatever the issue– life factors, my own mental health– we simply didn’t accomplish the number of runs we needed to to be ready for this race.
The point of this race was twofold: one, to get another race experience under their belts, to continue building up that background as we move towards Iditarod. And two, to do so on much less rest time. That’s important: I want and need them to experience that. I want them to move up to the next level, which is inherently tougher– but I want them to be equipped to conquer that level with confidence.
That’s not a dog problem, as I said. It’s a coaching problem. It’s a training problem. So that’s on me.
When we enter a race, I want to feel confident in all the tools I’ve given and taught the team to be able to knock out a course as well as they have potential to. I want them to come away with that same confidence. I don’t want them to come away fully tapped out. Fully tapped out is not a fair or fun way to accomplish a race. If we go to a race and come away tapped out, that tells the dogs that races are exhausting and draining– not amazing times that bolster them up.
We’re not to the point where I feel confident that the former won’t happen on the 300 miles. We’re not to the point where I feel confident we won’t stop on hills– anathema to overall hill training. We’re just not there.
I think I knew this was the case in our experience during the 100. I think this is what got me so down.
The other thing that got me down was knowing that this is so much on me.
I talked about my own mental health, and how it’s not been great. It’s kind of a vicious cycle. Fear of failure will do that to a person. Well, now I get to live in failure for a bit. But maybe that “failure” is an opportunity. A forced time to examine some things.
I realized on our run, as I was trying to tell the dogs we were having fun, that *I* haven’t had fun for……… A while now. Like, I can’t remember when I’ve had fun mushing last. Even though I haven’t done as much as I should, I’m simultaneously pushing myself too hard. So I demand a lot from myself, and then it’s not fun for me. I also realized on this run, that the dogs are a metaphor for my own mind. People sometimes tell you to treat yourself, or care for yourself, like you are a child to be tended to. To talk to the little one who is full of fear and all the other things, deep in your mind. But I’ve never been able to relate to that. I am not a good parent to myself. I am either all punishment or all indulgence. Either the disciplinarian rules my brain, or the screaming toddler does. But when I considered that maybe my brain is a dog team, I was radically shocked. I’d never treat a dog team the way I treat my own brain. I’d never push them that hard, I’d never, ever punish them, period… But far and away I would never punish them the way I punish myself.
Anyway, that’s all my own stuff to work on. But it was important to realize that I have spent the last three years of starting this kennel by demanding the dog team of my brain to “be better” and “do more” and… I haven’t even considered the idea of having fun. And I think the dog team of my brain has quit.
So I’ve let the team down, and I’ve let myself down. Or… Or we’re all just at a crux of realization. A turning point. A time to evaluate.
Why am I mushing? Am I mushing so that I can push desperately to try to run races that are more exhausting than enjoyable? No, why would I want that? I don’t. Am I mushing so that I can spend my winters slowly breaking and my summers dreading the winter? Why in the world would I do that?
I am mushing because I love the dogs. And I do love these dogs. I thought, too, about how if I’d started my kennel earlier or later in life, how I wouldn’t have *these* dogs… And I scoffed, because it’s inconceivable. I have the best dogs. They are my best friends; they are my family. They bring me joy by just existing. The other day, I said something to Shawn, something like, “I like when dogs sleep with their noses under their tails.” And Shawn said, “You like a lot of things dogs do.” And for some reason that was the most true thing I’ve ever heard.
And you know what dogs like? They like running. They effing love it. They want to do it. They lose their minds for it. And they are capable of amazing feats of running. They harken back to their wolf ancestors to trot and trot and trot and eat up the miles. Smell the scents from here to the western seas. They live for this: to travel and to eat. We are a pack.
But I’ve been a terrible pack leader. And I don’t say that to berate myself, however it sounds. I say that because, ho boy– It’s true. We lost the thread. We’ve been running to race, instead of racing to run. We’ve been mushing to train, instead of training to have fun. I have entirely lost the concept of “fun.” The dogs know. They get it. They love it! They understand how to stretch their limbs and feel the entire trail and be in the moment, and then get home and devour their meals.
I wish, quite honestly, that I wasn’t the pack leader at all. I’m not good at it. But maybe that’s my gift in this season of my life. “Every problem is a gift,” is what my Sensei used to say. This is what I am a student of now. How to be a better coach, a better leader. To my real dog team, and to the dog team of my brain.
Meanwhile, I have let you down. And I’m sick about that.
There is some recuperation at hand.
We have another race coming up– the Quest 300. Will we aim for that, yet? I don’t know. I will say, we are only going to do so if it can be fun. Dogs are good at fun; they love it. They understand the joyfulness of fun. I only want to give them that. So if fun is not in the cards for training for another month, then the race is not in the cards. Maybe, instead, a re-establishment, a reminder course for me, on what I like about mushing. About why I do it. About fun.
The funds you have given us are not wasted. They helped fix the truck: now we can travel to new trails, and the truck will be ready for races again next season if that’s where we land. They helped harness the dogs in harnesses that not only fit better, but don’t chafe at the dogs (which is invaluable). They helped us procure meat for the dogs, much of which has already been part of their winter diet, and a lot of which can be saved for next year. They helped us get snow hooks, which I think are at the post office, and which will up our safety levels beyond measure. And most of all, your generosity got us through a horrible time of getting dogs healthy again after running into our poky friend.
If you are here because you love following races, and you are disappointed we are not going to be on the trackers right now, and if that means you’d rather follow other, more race-ready teams– I get that. If that means, for you, Patreon isn’t right any more, I get that too.
While we may not have race events for you to follow, we’ll continue (and up) the Buddy emails and updates, the general video content, and the glimpse into the dogs’ world. I hope that’s a value, at least.
We will race again. At some point, in some way. If nothing else because I want, I need, to show the team how it feels to complete a race successfully. It feels amazing. When the dogs conquer a trail and really have it under the their belts, they become super dogs. You can feel their power thrumming up from the line. They can do anything.
But to do that, they need to be given the appropriate tools. And I need to reevaluate, for myself, how to provide that for them. How to not ruin my own brain doing it. Maybe it’s just a change in perspective. Maybe other things. I need to find that out.
I am so sorry to let you down, and to let the team down. I have been the weak link. This team is so worthy, and you, this incredibly kind and dedicated small base of ATAO dog followers, has been so very worthy. I want to give you all the world. I want to give you the experience of following a team having fun traipsing across the state. And I want to give the dogs absolutely everything.
I will pause now, and look at how to do that better. I will ask them. They are better teachers than I am. How do I have fun? We will mush and I will, as I sometimes do, let them choose the way. I’ll pay attention to the wisdom of Emmy and the newfound cockiness of Annie. I’ll let myself feel the goofy playfulness of Cassidy and Furiosa and Sundance and Rogue. I’ll laugh with Rey and Rebel. I’ll dance with Aurora and Belle. I’ll ground myself in the seriousness of fun with Marnie, and I’ll shout about fun with Zenny. I’ll run around and investigate fun with Egret. I’ll be sassy about fun with Ophelia. And I will inhabit fun with every single pore of myself, as much as I can, like Nala. And obviously I’ll take master classes in fun from the pups. Lincoln and Mungry and Pup know how to do it. The house dogs get it too. The dogs are fun throughout their whole selves and whole bodies. They allow themselves into that space. They are that thing. I will stop trying to bend myself to be perfect, and I will strive, right now, to have some peace, and to have fun.
It’s very, very hard to say this in this circumstance, but it’s important to remember that it comes in many forms. Sometimes pausing to take stock is it’s own form:
we’re on the journey with you, will. the setbacks and learning curves included. we love the doggies too, and we know that for the dogs to live their best lives, you have to have a very active role as a parent, coach, teammate, supporter, etc.
as a human, finding the balance of all of those things, especially as they coexist with your own personal internal life and self, is a constantly-evolving process.
we’re excited to be part of your journey. we aren’t here because we think a team or a sport is a polished and finished product. we’re here because we love to watch people and animals learn and grow and we’re all gratified by the progress made, even if it’s not where y’all place in a race.
pushing through complicating events and gaining a deeper understanding (or just knowing when to exercise your understanding) of what the dogs do and don’t need, what they are and aren’t ready for… that’s all part of the process that your friends and “fans” are here to support you through. same goes for what YOU do and don’t need, where YOU are and what YOU’RE ready for. we’re here to be supportive through it all.
the dogs are lucky to have you, and you are lucky to have the dogs. and those of us watching from home are lucky you are willing and able to share so much of yourself.
our support is not contingent on whether or not you succeed by a certain grading rubric.
Will, you have gone through some MAJOR life changes in the last year. Happy as I know you are about those changes, I would think that anyone would be simply overwhelmed with accepting your identity, starting T, surgery, getting married, working full time, taking care of the kennel, the homestead, the pack, Shawn, and yourself. THAT is a f*cking load of things to manage. I’m tired just typing it, I cannot even imagine actually DOING it all. Not going anywhere. You are doing what is going to be best for everyone in the long run. Please remember to be kind to yourself. You are doing AMAZING!
Will you are human. Don’t beat yourself up. Have you entered already? Can you start and stop well before it gets hard? Just do what would be a good experience?
And now I’m crying. I’m more proud of this decision and the place of self awareness it came from than any race. I’m also selfishly thrilled about the content level I’m about to enjoy! Lol You’ve disappointed no one. You’ve shown what it takes mentally and physically to even attempt what you do. Throw down the snow hooks and breathe. Pet some bellies and everyone take care and heal up this winter.
“Even though I haven’t done as much as I should, I’m simultaneously pushing myself too hard.”
Will, this is the hardest darn lesson to learn. Honestly. I’ve been there. Hell, I’m still there so often now. A few years ago I acquired the mother of all burnouts, and I just did not understand at all how on earth to balance this. How to give myself time when there was so much I should have been doing. Until I began to understand that “should” is not at all what I should be living by. But “could” is. I’ve done as much as I could and I won’t push myself too hard.
Do what you can. Do what’s fun. The dogs will understand. And so will your fans and community.
We support YOU as a musher, not as a racer. Sure yet races are a goal but NOT a requirement. Support is here to do what is best. You got this.
Will – I am here to watch you learn, grow and be the best you can be for, with and because of your team. Racing isn’t the important part. I celebrate you guys because you have priorities that I think would mirror mine. You haven’t failed us. I hope the dogs help you to find your place, your speed and your joy again.
I , for one, want you to know that any money I donate I consider to have no obligation. No buddy videos required – or races or anything except I guess keep the pups fed and you guys too. Beyond that? You owe us nothing.
Will, thank you for allowing me to tag along on your journey. I want you to know that I support ATAO out of an abundance of joy – never out of expectation. I’ve followed you and your team for the last 18 months or so, and I’m so grateful to see your journey. Your high regard for the pups and respect for your supporters exemplify the reasons people want to give to you and the team. The things you are learning and the muscles you are developing now will serve you for a lifetime of mushing (and caring for yourself.) If I could, I would somehow surgically transplant the grace and mercy that I feel (and I’m sure almost all of your supporters feel) directly to your heart and your mind – so you might know in the realest way possible that you have not let us down. In no way do I want to commandeer your story and make it about me, but I do want to affirm that you are not alone. My dog pack is actually a team of humans in an HR office. I try my best to care for them, coach them and train with them, so they are ready when the “race” comes. And, I fail every single day. I said multiple times today that I am failing in every category of my job. BUT, it doesn’t make me a failure. Just as you are not a failure. We are learning new things that will make us even better mushers going forward. (I am saying all of this to both of us, because I need to hear this too.) I’m learning to care for myself well, right alongside you. You are unique AND you are not alone – both are true. Your inner-critic is very familiar. Your commitment to the team rings true. I’m not yet sure about me and my success, but I’m darn sure about yours. You got this, Will. So glad you are seeking the joy in the thing you love!
Belly rubs and ear scritches,