I left the race start with something less than dignity.
I was a bit of a mess, my parka still open, my bib half on. But my team was excited and ready to go, and it was time!
I held off my hookup truly til the last minute, which I think may have alarmed race marshall Judy, among others. However, we made it to the start line with a whole ten seconds to spare! Ten seconds on the start line always feels like eternity. Just enough time for me to get my hooks and lines all back in order. Not enough time to zip up my wildly flappy parka (that zipper always defies me) or to try to figure out the more wildly flapping bib. But the timer said GO and we took off, with Shawn’s “Goodbyeeeeee” echoing behind us. I felt that huge race grin paint my face, and noticed the race photographer taking a few pictures. “Well this isn’t going to look good,” I told her as I zoomed by, because I definitely looked ridiculous.
Oh well, dignity has never been my strong suit! Onward!
It had been a nerve wracking 24 hours, simply because I always get nervous before a race. Even this race, which is a small fraction of races I’ve done like the Copper Basin. I was especially nervous because I had run part of the race course Wednesday, and with 5 dogs and weight in the sled, the run had taken almost double the time I would have hoped.
The Two Rivers 50 has an elevation difference of about 2000 feet all told. Our cabin is right around 500 feet, according to my GPS, and the highest point in the race is just under 2500. The race start at the Pleasant Valley Store is 800 feet, so the initial climb isn’t quite 2000, but hey– Who is gonna split hairs that way? I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me.
Hooch’s shoulder was bothering her too much to justify putting her back in the team. I made that decision the run the weekend before the race, when, right at 25 miles, she started limping again, as she had the last few times I’d tried to put her back. Poor girl. Lots of massage and TLC were in order for her– And for me, the reality that this girl wasn’t going to be racing with me, at least not for the TR50. And, she’s old. She doesn’t need to race any more. She’s really happy on the couch and playing with puppies, and going on shorter runs with the crew. Any desire I have for her to race is entirely related to my own pride and ego. It’s not about proving anything about her or me: it’s about enjoying that incredible connection with the dog up front. I got to have that with Hooch only once, in the 2016 Copper Basin. It was one of the coolest feelings in the world. The week before this race, I had to accept that that time was past for us. On the run on Wednesday, where I tested the team to see if they could manage the hills, Hooch stayed home, and I cried as I ran up hills without her.
But I have five other incredible dogs, including Hooch’s amazing co-leader Bonnie, my upcoming all-star Annie, Hooch’s daughter Ophelia, strong and feisty Nala, and Egret, who digs in for every hill. And though it is still tenuous and growing– though I still must remind myself that I can let myself have that connection– I have a connection with these guys too. They are my team. My buddies.
On Wednesday, over long hours, we climbed and climbed. It was a hard run, the hardest I’ve had in a long while. On the way up I thought: There’s no way. We cannot do this race. It’s too long. these hills are too massive. We will not have a successful run.
And I also thought: I’m climbing these hills goddammit.
And on the way back down the hills I thought: Oh, we can definitely do this!
Because the human brain is very, very predictable… Especially mine.
The compromise between downhill optimism and uphill realism was this: I calculated that we could do the race, for sure. The team was happy and ready for more the day after our hard run. Even I was not sore or broken the way I expected after hours of running for hours with the dogs up impressively steep hills. However, based on the average speed we attained, and especially the speed on the hills, I needed to expect an incredibly slow race. I made a plan.
First of all, we’d camp part way through the race, after the worst of the hills. Aliy Zirkle has a camp up in the hills and generously offered to let me stop there. She figured it was about 30 miles into the race. I had already seen the camp on our run on Wednesday– It was our turnaround, and also where we rested in the middle of that long haul.
Second, I estimated and prepared for very very slow speeds. Overall, I planned for the race– including the camp– to take a total of 13 hours. That’s quite a long haul for only 50 miles. But I made myself ready.
Still, the night before, I fretted, because there was one contingency that wasn’t ideal. If my reliable old lady Bonnie came up sore– which she might, because she, too, is old, and slower than the rest of the young bucks– I’d only have four dogs to carry her through those hills. There are no checkpoints and once you get out there the only way to get back is to keep going. I was ready to slog through a long run, but what I absolutely did not want to happen was for the run to stop or be negative for anyone on my team. The ultimate goal with youngins– the rest of the team– was to have a “successful” run, which means a run that is fun, and that they accomplish. Going over hard hills is important to show the young dogs that they *can* go over big hills!
Sometime the evening before the race, my friend Ryne from Ryno Kennel texted me and asked how my dog numbers were doing. I admitted I was a bit nervous about running with just five. Ryne offered me two yearlings. I immediately went back to my place of pride, where I’d been railing about completing a race with MY DOGS ONLY! and realized that it was just that: pride and ego. The goal of the race was to give my young dogs experience and a successful, happy run. Having only 5 dogs might make that problematic. Having 7 dogs would only help. I had to swallow that pride, and do what was best for my team. I took her up on her offer. Ryne, understanding the weirdness I felt about accepting other dogs, offered me two of Nala’s brothers, also yearlings. That way it would feel a bit more familial.
So there we were at the race start. Nala’s brothers, Nile and Louis, where huge!!! Nala is a little girl, but a great one. These two were great and very large! And both very sweet. I was immediately excited to have them on the team.
Despite having the backup power, my plan was still the same. First of all, because Ryne’s yearlings hadn’t run more than a 30 mile run, and second because camping was a part of the benefit I wanted to offer all of the young dogs on the team. Camping practice is one of my big goals for this year. We’ve gone on a good handful of camps throughout the year: this race was another opportunity, and I wasn’t going to miss that. Also, I still planned to travel at my ideal speed, 8-9mph. This speed would definitely not win me any prizes in such a short race, but it’s the speed I train at. If I could achieve an overall moving average of 8.5 mph I’d be really happy– With some leeway in this case for the hills.
With the extra power of these two strong yearlings, I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I set my expectations right where they had been, that I’d be doing a 13 hour race. Much better to expect something tough and get to experience something a little easier. If I put my mental state into expecting the race to go super smooth and fast now, I might be disappointed, and that disappointment would migrate to the dogs, because they feel everything. So I went in ready to enjoy quite a long haul.
We pulled bib #2 at the race meeting, which meant I would be passed by a lot of teams. Anyone who wanted to be competitive on such a relatively short run would be flying: and most teams seem to train and definitely race at least a little bit faster than 8 mph. However, this is more good experience for my team! The opportunity to see passing out on the trail.
With all of our ducks only kind of in a row, we took off down the trail at our start time.
It was a beautiful day! I left the chute at 11:04, and the sun was just peeking up over the hills. The initial part of the run was on familiar home trails. Several teams passed me right away. I adjusted my parka and bib on the move and finally looked a bit more human. It was cold, something below zero. Colder than we were used to– Our run on Wednesday was around 30 degrees up in the hills.
The dogs looked fantastic. Annie and Bonnie held up the lead. Annie has been proving herself an incredible leader and dog. I am very partial to her. Ophelia ran in swing by herself. Nala and Egret paired up behind Ophelia in “team.” Both Nile and Louis in wheel had Nala’s beautiful, even trot, perfect for the speeds I like. A few more teams passed us. I rode the brake and drag, watching my GPS (thank you so much to Shawn’s parents for this gift– it lets me regulate the team very precisely!!) and keeping our speeds even. I realized I was hungry, and also that I had forgotten the deviled eggs that Shawn had made me. That was disappointing, but I comforted myself with the thought of having them for dinner. I’d eat at our camp.
We crossed the road and traveled towards the Chena Hotsprings Recreational Area. Everyone looked like they were in perfect tune. Seven dogs seemed like a big team to me! Even though we were the smallest team in the race.
We turned left off the main trail and entered the part of the race that I hadn’t yet traveled on. The part I did Wednesday was the back end of the race, which I did as an out and back. There was about 20 miles of race trail I had never seen.
The sun had just come up at the start of the race, and now it was going down again. It had been almost 2 hours, after all! Alpenglow shot through the trees, turning the winter world pink. We were headed up a valley towards the ridge we’d be climbing soon. I was stunned: it was beautiful.
Soon– after some more passes by other teams– we came to the Colorado Creek cabin. From the trail description, I knew this marked the beginning of our climb. I was ready!
And I was surprised. My GPS shows me elevation. The climb from the cabin was a series of switchbacks. Going around the corners required jumping off your sled and running around the bend while your runners bucked up and rode sideways on the embankment. The switchbacks made for a smoother climb, though, and I didn’t have to run so much as just paddle (eg, kick with my foot) to keep my strong little team moving. Other teams with many more dogs were running and pushing sleds and shouting encouragement. My little team seemed to say: “This is easy!” and my two additional strong yearlings barely broke a sweat (just kidding, dogs don’t sweat, but you get what I mean). They moved faster if I stayed on the runners, than if I ran beside them, although there were a few slightly steeper parts where I jumped to the side and ran. I watched our elevation climb. With the easy, gradual climb, we were at 2000 feet before I knew it.
The world up here was completely stunning. The sun was going down but as we climbed we chased its last rays. When we crested the pinnacle of our climb for the day, the sun was just winking out over the Alaska Range. The mountains, including Denali, looked like they loomed near enough to walk to, even though I knew they were hours south.
It was warm up in the hills. At one point when I stopped to let a team go by, I hurriedly scrambled out of my giant parka and stuffed it into my sled bag. I wanted to be ready to run for the team, expecting steep hills like from Wednesday at any second. It was warm enough that I mushed without gloves for hours. The dogs didn’t love that heat, so different from the temperatures we’d left. But I’ll admit it was nice for a wimpy human! I made sure to rub them down with snow and layer praise on each dog. Again, we focused on making this first race THE MOST FUN EVER for the yearlings. We were a happy crew. I sang to the dogs as we trotted down the trail.
We were passed by nearly every team. I wasn’t keeping count, but I knew I must be close to the back. Every time I thought so, another team would appear and call trail.
I did catch up to one team who had passed me earlier. I had caught up to him twice before, but in one instance I stopped my team to snack and let him carry on, not wanting to pass and repass, and in another instance, we were just heading up hills and I assumed my team would be much slower than his. But finally, after we had crested the highest elevation, we turned onto what’s called the Dozer trail, and I had caught up to him again. Ahead, I could see a hill which looked like an actual steep climb, and I knew from following this team that they would be slow here; and I knew my team, and me running, would actually be faster. He seemed to be calculating the same thing, and asked if I wanted to pass: I said yes, and my little crew did their first ever pass. They did great! We mushed on to the hill.
After my big run Wednesday, I had done some thinking about how to run better with the team up hills. I figured out a good system for myself and I was excited to try it out. The gradual elevation gain so far hadn’t been enough of a test, so this steep hill would be my first trial. We hit the hill and for the first time this race, I raised the drag mat– the mechanism for slowing the team rather than stopping them. On a hill, it’s good to get that out of the way so you can run between the runners more easily, and so it doesn’t add unneeded resistance.
We hit that hill running and conquered it with ease. Well, it was easy for the dogs. But it wasn’t terrible for me either! Running is such a mental game. Running up those insane hills Wednesday made me realize I could run up these little ones, no problem. If I hadn’t done that hard run, I wouldn’t be as confident for this race. Maybe the same is true for the dogs– I like to think so. Their steady pace, whether I was on the runners or not, said, “We got this, we got this.” Their happy, tongue-out grins said, “We love this.”
The trail description had said there were five hills in this section which would be tough, and the worst would be the first and fifth hills. I had just managed the first with no problem. When we came to the top of that hill we could see the next one ahead of us. One down, four to go. I was watching my mileage on the GPS, and I guessed we had about five miles to the camp out. It wasn’t yet even dark, just growing twilit, and we were making great time! The team was rocking it, and I was feeling fantastic.
Another team passed us on the second hill, and the musher said, “You’re getting a workout!” I asked, “Oh, did you see me running?” and he said, “Yeah I did!” and chuckled. I noticed he didn’t run behind his long string of dogs. I thought, he’s missing out on all the fun!
When we crested the third hill, an amazing sight met our eyes. The camp was there at the bottom of the hill! It was a full five miles earlier than I expected! I said, “WOO HOOOO” and the dogs picked up my enthusiasm. We zoomed into camp, a really happy crew. I parked behind Ryne’s handler Liz, who was also camping. I pulled off booties, offered some well-received snacks, settled the dogs into straw, and prepped a meal for the dogs. Instead of cooking water or melting snow, I had brought a cooler with a gallon thermos of hot water. This was still nice and warm. I poured it over the kibble and finely cut meat. The meat I’d divvied into one-inch squares. More surface area: faster thawing. The whole meal mixed right up. I handed out my small plastic racing dishes (Nile and Louis thought they were toys but politely understood otherwise when I said, “nope! Not for chewing on!”), and fed the team. Almost everyone ate very well. Annie and Bonnie, who are both usually picky, ate their full first servings and asked for seconds. Ophelia, who is a champion eater, did her thing. Egret was very warm. She has a thick northern coat, and I think the hot weather wasn’t her favorite. She picked at her food but refrained for this meal. Nala, Louis, and Nile all ate like the hard little workers they are.
Everyone on the team settled in for their well-earned nap, except Nile, Louis, and Ophelia. Ophelia was near the front of the team and Nile and Louis were in the back, but Ophelia was making eyes at those boys, and crying a love song. I do have a kennel of almost all females, so I’m sure some of my girls were all a-twitter to see these fine handsome males in the team. I explained to Ophelia that it wasn’t meant to be, and eventually she settled down with her obligatory camp stick to chew on. Nile and Louis eventually got the memo that camping is for laying down.
No one except Bonnie seemed especially tired. Bonnie was eager to curl into her straw and nap hard. On the other hand, she also knows when to take advantage of a rest, having run many thousand mile races in her day.
Ahead of us, Liz practiced using her cookers. The Ryno Kennel yearling team was raring to go, so Liz decided it was time to take off. Louis and Nile, who are part of that team, howled and cried and tried mightily to leave with them, but I made everyone settle down for another half an hour of rest.
By now it was actually getting dark. My original plan was to take a 2 hour break, but we had made such good time, and the dogs didn’t seem to want too much more rest, so I decided we’d cut it at an hour and a half. I also realized in this camp that the race officials would probably wait up for me. I was surely going to get the red lantern– the last place award– which I had expected– I just hadn’t thought about the fact that the race organizers would be waiting for me. I figured people would just go home. This goes to show I’ve never been a red lantern winner before. And also that I really haven’t fully appreciated the dedication race organizers and volunteers offer. However, in my camp, all of this did occur to me, and I realized that if the team was good to go, we could make the race volunteer’s night a little earlier and get in sooner than planned.
The last section of the race, we had done on Wednesday, so I knew exactly what to expect. I realized now that the five hills in the trail description included a couple hills I had conquered Wednesday. With the knowledge that we could absolutely do it under our belt, we took off down the trail.
It was dark now, and the stars were coming out. In the camp, we’d been passed by the final few teams, so I knew now I was well and truly in the back. It was freeing, in a way, to have all the space of the trail to myself; to get to enjoy the wind blowing through the trees, and the growing night wrapping us up like soft wool. As we crested the final hills, the lights of Fairbanks emerged below us. A healthy crescent moon sat above us, pointing the way. It was a beautiful run.
I was still wearing only my jacket, my parka tucked into my sled bag, when we came to the big descent. We careened down this trail, the course gutted out by 30 sled brakes. When a lot of teams travel a hill like this, it leaves nothing for your own brakes to grip, so it was hard to slow the team. But we managed, and coming down that hill– moving from about 1700 feet to 500 feet– was like stepping into an ice bath. I don’t know what the temperature was at the bottom of the hill, but the dogs’ fur immediately frosted over, and my own sweaty body was suddenly cold. I dug my parka out and slung it on and tried to create my own body heat. I thought about starting some chemical hand heaters but I knew we only had about ten or fifteen more miles. By the time the hand heaters got hot, we’d be done.
The trail went a bit more out of the way than I expected. Once we crossed under the highway, back to our side of the road, we took a right and headed over Jenny M hill, a trail the dogs and I are used to running. Then the course took us past home and back to the store. Those last few miles were cold and interminable. I was dressed light for running up hills, and the sweat under my layers wasn’t helping. I danced on the back of the runners as the dogs trotted faithfully on. I reviewed our plan over and over in my head. We would get to the store and check in; the dogs would get a snack; and then we’d mush home. I’d decided this a few days ago. It would be easiest to simply mush the four miles home and be able to put everything away as per a normal run. Our friend Jewel had been a huge help getting us to the race. She came by with her dog trailer and picked me, the sled, and the team up and brought us to the start. She was also the race timer. So that meant that when we pulled in at almost exactly 7:30pm, she was there to greet us!
I was so proud of my little team. They were happy and even ready for more! I gave them all a snack and some loving. “Did I get the red lantern?” I asked. They said I had.
I had some mixed feelings about that, to be honest. The red lantern is a mark of pride: as one person put it, it’s a sign of perseverance. I had a lot of people congratulate me on sticking it out. But I feel like what some don’t understand is that our race went perfectly! The dogs did awesome: they did exactly what I asked them to do! It wasn’t a grind. It was an easy run! What I asked them to do, and what I hoped for, was just not a fast run. But it wasn’t a difficult run! It was a beautiful, phenomenal race. For me, an important achievement was that I made a plan and executed it perfectly. Anyway. I guess, again, my pride is having more of a voice at the table than it really should. This is one of the big lessons for me of this year, I think.
The point of this year is to focus on my young dogs: especially my puppies. I wouldn’t trade a single one of these adult dogs. I am so glad to have them all. But I got carried away at the beginning of this season trying to leap back into racing. Racing now isn’t the point at all of what I’m doing. I’m trying to play a long game here. The point is to have successful thousand mile races in the next 3-5 years.
Both this race and my actually difficult run Wednesday gave me some really invaluable lessons:
- My old ladies are retired and they do not need to run extra long distances or tough ones. They get to live cush lifestyles that involve some fun runs and the couch. Me wanting to race does not get to push them past what they can do.
- I need to keep running. My own running / exercise has entirely, utterly fallen off. I just stopped working on it. Running up those hills Wednesday, I kept saying: “What the hell was I thinking??” I am a member of this team too, and I also need to be trained. My own self care / self discipline cannot be put to the wayside. When I am not in good shape, physically or mentally, I become an even weaker link than I already am as a two legger. I must strive to meet the standards of my incredible dogs. I owe this to them.
- I need to stop trying to race this year. Yes, racing is fun. It is not the point of what I am doing! This year needs to return to a focus of super fun runs for the yearlings, great training for my newbie Star Wars dogs, and lots of socialization and playtime for everyone. Yes, we may do something like the Valley Funale, or the Hamburger run… But no more trying to run with the big dogs for now. We are building. It’s time to take the time to do that.
All in all, this first race ever for ATAO couldn’t have gone better. It taught me what I needed to learn, showed me some jaw-dropping trails, and was both challenging but manageable for my young dogs.
We mushed home from the finish. The dogs looked like they were ready to take on the world… But they were happy to pull into the ATAO driveway! We had met Tyler, another Ryno Kennel handler, about a mile from home to pass over Nile and Louis. (HUGE thanks to Tyler for meeting us there, so the dogs and I could go straight home… He ran to meet us and then walked the two big boys back to Ryno Kennel!) The dogs were full of wagging tails and ready for some CHOW! I fed them and tucked them into bed with extra straw. Bonnie earned a place of honor inside for all of her hard work. She snuggled into her favorite dog bed and started snoring right away.
Because I was home so early, I even go tot sit down and watch a show on Netflix, and finally eat my deviled eggs, after the dogs were all comfy. It was strange to come home to an empty house– Shawn was headed to Wisconsin to visit family for Christmas. But I was so proud of my little team, and the hard work they had done. I curled into bed too, and slept hard, dreaming of the next run.
Great story of your first race under ATAO, Will, even though I know that racing at this time is not your main goal quite yet. But well-written and exciting. Thanks for sharing, and hope you get this, as I never know if you’re able to see comments on your blog.
Also, a belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you from Anecia and me.
Fantastic! I’m so happy for you and the team. I’m proud to be an individual sponsor and look forward to watching you and your team get stronger and grow together.
I read this out loud on our drive back south from San Francisco… Reaction from the audience (just me and spouse!): Wow, they sure can write!
This is such a compelling and beautiful description of your experience. Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed and descriptive recap of the race. It felt like we were there with you!
Aww we’re famous!!! Thanks for taking the time to read! I’m glad it was well received!