Obstacles and Goals

We’ve had a hell of a season so far. Some of it great, some of it not so great. I know it’s old news, but it does still boggle me how much of a wrench that porcupine threw in things. A few minutes of time affected our whole season. But I swear, the collected love and stubbornness and generosity of the community who cheers us on– not to mention a posse of incredible vets– brought every one of the dogs back to their best health and fullest potential through pure force of will. That is *the* victory of a season.

There have been other hurdles. Mechanical, physical. Mental.

To be fully honest with you, I have been having a hard time the last few weeks. If I look back at my training logs from last year, it bears out that this is probably a pattern for me. Seasonal affect is certainly at play. But I’m aware enough of my own demons to know that’s not the only element.

For reasons that intellectually seem silly, but are firmly emotionally seated nonetheless, the Solstice race really threw me for a loop. Before the race I was in a good place, actually. After a whole season of our gambit to do some 300 mile races seeming impossible, the team was finally coalescing. The dogs were in good health, all miled up together, and then we accomplished a huge long run of 87 miles. Seeing them conquer this was like an open doorway of possibility. Sure, there were still things happening– Cassidy got a giant abscess that was more complicated than usual (her body ended up getting rid of the foreign whatever-it-was after a minor surgery could not). I completely lost an important part of the dog truck (the exhaust extension, which is likely rusting somewhere under the snow). The Dog House is a perpetual disaster. But after all that we’d been through, I brushed these pre-race problems aside like flies. Cass healed up. I built another exhaust extension. I accepted my life as an extremely cluttered person. We made it to the start line of the race.

And then… The race. The race was weird. The dogs were a bit off. Nothing hugely unusual. But, as I mentioned in my last post– They weren’t steady. They didn’t maintain their same persistent forward motion. I think most of this was being distracted. It’s like a sports team who practices alone year round and only competes once or twice a year… And the team is also made up of really young kids and the competitors are all big tough kind of rough people. Basically, ATAO is The Mighty Ducks. So being in a race situation for the first time in 11 months– I think that threw them off. It was frustrating. I knew their capability. And this is not to say we didn’t do well. The team did great, overall. We did the thing. We camped. We kept a good overall pace. But we weren’t locked in. We weren’t in that kind of bomb-proof zone, where you go and go and nothing can sway you.

This is actually a *huge* part of why we are even racing at all this season. Because the big picture goal is Iditarod. Which is a race! A long one! The dogs need to get comfy with the race scenario so that they are able to slip into the zone. Able to say, eh, okay, so there’s some gigantic tough dogs over there, doesn’t bother me!

So now as I’m saying all of this I am talking myself out of feeling so bad about getting the red lantern for that race. Now I know, I know, the RL is a mark of honor, yadda yadda. But… I am prideful. It’s a fault. I need to sit with that and examine it and cogitate on why I invest so much pride in that. It has to do with how I perceive myself in the mushing community, and who my mentors are, and how I define success. For now, though, I want to burn that stupid lantern. My reaction internally to receiving it was– no! Fuck! I already have one of these! That red lantern was earned. We had seven dogs. We camped. This red lantern… The symbolism of “we made it.” Of course we made it! It was a 100 mile race… One on our home trails that we’ve run so many times I can do it with my eyes closed. Once we *got* to the starting line, there was no doubt that we would make it, barring some kind of wild accident. We should have done better though! The team that ran the 87 miles like a freight train could have at least beaten that one team ahead of us. But the dogs were off. They weren’t on their game, in the zone.

Anyway. The point of all of this is not to seek reassurance for the RL being okay, etc etc. I know all of that, I need to do my own work to come to terms with it and to address my Fatal Flaw of pride. Meanwhile, the real point of this is that the team was off, unexpectedly off, and it did put me into a low place. Suddenly I was full of doubt. The team that had felt so strong leading up to this place was fitful, fussy. This is not any fault of theirs. The team is my responsibility: I am their coach. On this race, I either miscalculated something, which threw them off, or they would have been thrown off by a first race regardless. During the race I was telling myself this. There were other factors too. They were wearing coats for the first time this season. It was the coldest it’s been this year. Plus as I said, being around these big tough teams. As they say in Mighty Ducks 2: “They’re bigger! They’re stronger! They’re faster! They’ve got more facial hair!”

I should rewatch Mighty Ducks, maybe it’s what I need right now. Help me, Emilio Esteves, you are my only hope.

So anyway, circling questions aside, the reality is, I basically got spooked. The whole week of Christmas, I couldn’t bring myself to mush. I was metaphorically laying on the floor and saying “I caaaaan’t.” It’s as pathetic as it sounds.

Want to know a secret?

I swear I am really horrible at Onward. I suck at it. I am the least worthy bearer of that mantra. And yet– and yet. After five days of pure angst and a stew of anxiety and depression, I finally, finally got back on the runners. That was good. We didn’t go far, but we went. The dogs reminded me: they are good. Still the tiniest bit off. Not back to pure form yet.

Running the dogs these last few days has been a battle. I am burned out. The task of Onward has been rough. My mind has already been on a roller coaster. My body is going through intense changes, which are, of course, amazing, but also take a lot out of me, and most of all seem to have altered my ability to manage sleep deprivation.

This entire year, since the end of last season, has felt like an exercise in trying desperately to catch up. Never finished with any projects (not true– we accomplished a lot! But my brain insists otherwise). Then all of our “bad luck.” It feels like bad luck. But I try to remind myself (and I really do believe) that it very well may be *good* luck… That there are worse things that could have occurred. Maybe a few minutes past the porcupine was a mama moose, and if we’d run into her she would have stomped the team. Maybe if the gangline hadn’t broken on my sled, I would have been ahead of that guy who lost his team, and something would have happened to them. Maybe if the truck hadn’t gotten another flat in town, I would have gotten into a wreck on the way home. Life is terrifyingly full of Maybe’s, and it seems in some ways we have been remarkably fortunate to keep coming out of the Maybe’s okay. And, at the same time– I also feel beat up.

I was in karate (a school of jujitsu) for ten years growing up, all the way until I went to college. And from 2013-2016 I boxed– I trained, sparred, and fought in the ring twice. In both of these sports I did well enough. I wasn’t especially talented– I was okay– but there was one thing that was undeniable: I was tenacious. In karate, I was a great uke, especially for throws. I remember one session we were, for reasons I can’t recall at all, doing multiple throws, one after the other. I was the uke, so, the person being thrown. My partner was a tall, lanky guy, and I caught serious air on some of those throws. Which obviously meant I came down hard: and I’d bounce back up immediately. Ready for more. Let’s go.

In boxing it was the same. I didn’t get knocked down, but I took a lot of punches in the face and head. In fact I was very bad at avoiding punches. But, as my coach said, I had a chin. He called me Rocky. I’ve only seen that movie once or twice, but I guess Rocky could take a punch. I could too, and I kept going.

I didn’t get up from the throws, or continue through being punched by a 200+ pound sparring partner because things didn’t hurt. That stuff all hurt a LOT. I guess this is the one way I am good at Onward. I’m good at immediate Onward. I will get up over and over and over again.


It’s been a long time of that. Both actually, physically, and mentally. Sometimes my sparring partner is my own brain. And this past week of Christmas, my brain was relentless. I felt exhausted. It was that moment of laying on the mat after the twentieth throw, not sure if your body can actually even *make* it up. Questioning why you are there, what you are doing. If it’s worth it. Wanting to tap out.

And then in the milliseconds between the count of 9 and 10, you get up. You draw on power of unknown origin and you continue anyway. You don’t know why, you barely know what you are even doing. You keep going.

The number of times in the past ten days that I have considered dropping out of the races this season is a lot.

When your mental health is a persistent enemy, it’s really hard to see clearly. For instance, last night I hoped to do another 80 mile run. Mushing is a constant stream of evaluation and decision. You’re the coach. You’re making the calls. It’s up to you to look at the capability of the dogs, and make the best choices for them. Around mile 30, I began questioning the choice to do an 80. I really, really want it in their bones that they can accomplish that kind of run, because the Copper Basin AND the Quest have really long legs. Last year, I felt it was a lack of prep for such long runs that was toughest for the team.

But, was hitting the 80 mile mark objectively the best thing for the team last night? As I looked at the dogs, felt where they were at– that connection thrumming through the gangline and to the sled and up through my arms– I ultimately decided to cut the run short. The dogs can get bummed out too. They love to run, but when they expect to go home and then we don’t, it messes with their heads. With our current trail system, we do end up having to run back and forth past home a few times if we’re gonna do a run as long as an 80. We had already gone by home once– Actually we’d gone HOME to drop Shawn off after they tag sledded with us for the first 20 miles. So the dogs had made it all the way to the finish line and then taken off again. And they were screaming and barking to go! But still, passing home yet another time– I didn’t want to bum them out. Martin Buser, who is my OG mushing mentor, says, “It’s not the miles, it’s the quality of the run.” Quality is happy dogs. So at around 56 miles we pulled into the yard.

But did I *really* make the choice to cut the run short for the dogs, or was that me and my own mental health… My exhaustion, my mental tiredness? I can’t tell. My brain is like vaseline on the lens of reality. It blurs and skews everything. Makes me doubt and then doubt my doubts. My goal, as ever, is to act in the best interest of the dogs. First and foremost, always. But am I? Do I? Are the dogs ready to race, or is it best to pull the plug? Will I put them in a situation where they don’t have a positive race, where they are off and bummed out?

Perhaps that is so, depending on my goal. The dogs may not understand goals, particularly, but they understand my emotion.

In my very first race ever, my team got seriously bummed out near the end. It took me a while to realize that this was because of ME. The moment I changed my attitude– remembered that I was doing this for *fun*– the dogs changed too, dramatically. They were smiles and wags and barking to go again. This is probably the most important lesson in mushing I’ve ever learned. And… Maybe I’ve been forgetting that a bit this year. Maybe the reason the team was off during the Solstice was just *me.*

If my goal for the Copper is something that we are not going to attain, and if not attaining that goal makes me spiral… Then the dogs will feel that and they will not be their happiest. And that’s not fair. That’s entirely BS actually. What’s the point if the dogs aren’t happy? There is no point without that.

So the only logical answer is to re-evaluate my goals.

At the end of last season, I had hoped to strive, this year, for a top 20 finish. It may have been a stretch, but I thought it possible. It certainly may have been possible at some point. The team has the innate talent, there’s no doubt. They are an impressive group of little athletes. But the wrenches that have been thrown into the works of this season may make that goal far out of reach. So much so that it’s not logical at all to reach for it.

A top 20 finish is something a human cares about. What is the goal for the dogs? The goal for the dogs should be: to be in another race environment and to have a really positive experience there. Period.

So how do we attain that? Well, I have to put on my big human pants and adjust my attitude. Remember that in theory I actually like this activity and especially remember how effing lucky and hashtag blessed I am to get to do this. Remember some gratitude. For the dogs, for my house, for Shawn. That’s number one. Two, I need to alter what I hope to accomplish and how to do it on this race. Part of my immense doubts is this: can the dogs even do it? I haven’t been able to train them as much as I want. We missed two whole weeks of training in Porcugate. My mental health spiral lost us another week. Where does that put us? Where does that put the dogs?

Well, I know they can run 50 miles, no problem. So even if we have to camp mid way between some checkpoints, the dogs should be able to conquer a 300 mile race. Step by step. And this is different than last year. The dogs know the trail. The routine of this race will be more familiar to them than their first time, last year. If we have to camp on the long runs, we can camp. If we have to rest longer than the minimum requirement, we will do that too. My stretch goal– my biggest hope– is to get as close to possible to that minimum rest. That’s an important learning experience for the dogs… And for me too.

So with adjustments, our race goals now look like: to create a good experience, getting it done step by step, and, most importantly… Chintzy as it sounds… To have fun. Hmm. Fun??? What is that asks my depressed and anxious brain.

Ohhhh let me show you, the stubborn and elemental side of me replies. We just have to get back up and go again. We still have more left to give.

Okay let’s do this.


3 Responses

  1. Amanda Blosser
    | Reply

    I suck at Onward too. I’ve talked myself out of just starting so many things. From my perspective I see you as persistent and determined to keep going.

  2. John Breiby
    | Reply

    Hi Will,
    thanks for another great “stream of consciousness” piece. Just talking through my hat here, it seems to me that you’re going through a lot of changes physically, which could, in part, be messing your head. So you should be thinking of yourself at least as much as you’re thinking of your dog buddies. Unless your head’s screwed on straight it will be hard for you to be fully present for the dogs. I have to admit that I’m weird here. I have almost NO competitive spirit when it comes to sports. My son is always agonizing about “his” team losing a football, basketball or baseball game. I could give a rat’s ass. Half the time I don’t know which sport the names of these various teams attach to. When I watch sled-dog racing on TV, I do hope someone wins, and if I know one of the people (you, in this case), I hope it will be them to win because they work so hard. But mostly I imagine what a great adventure it would be to be out there, skimming along the snow, listening to the squeak and thump of the sled, watching the trees, the mountains and the general scenery go past, watching your little friends pull their hearts out for you. Actually, they’re probably running because it’s deep in their ancestral wolf genes and they’re dreaming about catching a moose or a caribou in the end.

    A good friend of mine, whom I built a basket sled for around 1975, before the current Ptex-bottomed toboggan sleds became common, wanted to run the Iditarod. He only had seven dogs, so knew he didn’t have a prayer of winning. He was instantly passed by everyone but Norman Vaughn, with whom he hung out with all the way to Nome, helping each other out, listening to Norman’s stories about going to the South Pole with –was it Byrd?. At any rate, I’m not sure which one won the red lantern but my friend came away with a lifetime worth of experiences on the Iditarod, enjoying a long camping trip and getting to know a true Alaskan character, which I imagine most of the other races didn’t have because they were so busy trying to go so fast. There are different ways of being “best,” and you are already a winner at one of those to my way of thinking: you are the absolute BEST at taking such loving care of your dogs, and to my mind that makes you a winner, hands down, regardless of which arbitrary “number” you come in at the end of a race. Knowing how competitive you are, I doubt if this will help you, but it’s just my humble opinion.

    Putting on your English Major’s cap here, what does using *asterisks* around a word signify? Is it like a “quotation” mark? It seems like a relatively new form of punctuation that I didn’t learn as an English minor, but then I was a crappy student and may not have been listening that day. 😉

  3. TearyFantasy
    | Reply

    I can totally relate to the struggle of figuring out if your brain is telling you the truth or spreading lies. Yay depression and anxiety! But I’m happy that you’re taking time to remi d yourself of all the good things you have. Keep your head up, and go with your gut. You’re not alone. Onward!

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