A few days before the start of the Solstice, a friend mentioned that it didn’t look like I was signed up to race. “Yes I am!” I said indignantly. “They must have made a mistake.” I was, of course, supremely confident… And supremely wrong, as it turned out! I had signed up for the Two Rivers 100, instead of the Solstice 100. One was in a couple days… One was in March. Oops.
Luckily, the Two Rivers Dog Mushers Association graciously let me transfer my registration from the wrong race to the right one. This silliness was an omen of more silliness to come… But I ignored it, oblivious to the shenanigans that lay ahead.
I had left Todd the Truck at the repair shop earlier in the week to get a pre-race once-over, as well as have a flat tire fixed. On Friday I drove in to town with Shawn to pick it up. Friday– my day off from my “real” job– was supposed to be my prep day for the race. What with one thing and another, that was the only thing that was going to work.
Unfortunately, things started unraveling in a way that indicated staying in bed really would have been wise. Barely out of the driveway, Shawn asked me if I could hear that weird noise coming from the back of the car. One of their rear wheels had frozen (literally frozen immobile) recently, so we checked to see if that had happened again. It seemed fine, and we were running behind, so we sallied forth. It became clear there WAS a noise but I thought it would be better to get to town and try to deal with it. We agreed that I’d drop Shawn off at their work and take this car to the dealership.
My mom was in town and helped transport me from one car place to another. I signed out of the truck shop with Todd all tuned up, and then started running my few errands I had before it was time to rush home and get ready for the race! But, I only made it to one store before another of Todd’s tires went flat… REALLY flat. In the -30 weather I wimpily opted to order a tow truck instead of changing the tire myself. Back we went to the truck shop… Where I got the bad news that Todd’s tire was “shredded” and that he’d need a whole new set. Right about that time, I got a call from the Subaru dealership saying that one of the rear ball bearings had gone out, and that a heat problem we’d also mentioned was due to a small but (of course!) expensive part. My day ended up going to a lot of running around town and car juggling. By the time I got home and had a chance to start prepping for the race, it was already 10pm. It seemed like there was no way I could get done everything I needed to.
I worked through the night and finally fell asleep around 3, with my alarm set for a few hours later. I fed dogs and continued frantically prepping. Shawn got roped into some chores, and then Sarah arrived on site. Together the three of us were able to get everything ready to go so that we were just a bit late to the start.
Once we got there though, I pulled my sled out and saw that it was busted. It was just one broken bolt, but a crucial one– a piece that holds half the sled up on one side. Luckily my sled-fixing kit was fairly complete and I had what I needed to repair it, but even more time was getting sucked away. I kept reminding myself that this was just 100 miles. A few days ago I had done a run that long almost all in one go.
With very small races like the Solstice, the mushers’ meeting (where numbers are drawn and the trail is described) is held in a gaggle in the parking lot an hour before the first team leaves. This meeting seemed interminable, though I know the volunteers worked to keep it short. I just knew I had so much to do. Fix the sled, pack my sled, put on my gear, bootie and harness and hook up the team… I was so lucky to have some helpers there, including Shawn, Padee, Sarah, my mom, and two of our friends, Kalyn and Saeward. Together these folks got me and the team ready to go. I’d probably still be in the parking lot right now if not for them!
In classic ATAO style (this seems to be our MO for the Solstice races), we unhooked from the truck and took off exactly as they said go. We were right next to the starting chute to so we just blew through. Normally you stop and the volunteers hold your sled til “go” but we didn’t have time! They said “go” when we got there! On the way, the front dogs somehow ran over Sarah. Word on the street was that she said it was “the gentlest way to be run over ever.”
We were off! I settled into the routine of *mushing,* glad the chaos was over. There was one thing bugging me in a big way. I had forgotten to pull out foot warmers for myself and so had thrown hand warmers in my boots. It was at least -30, so I needed something. I had also thrown on a second pair of socks, for the first time this year. But all of this stuff combined to crunch my feet up into balls in my boots. Immediately my feet were cramping and going numb. I was doing a ridiculous dance trying to get the sock-and-hand-warmer combo to even out and stop crunching my toes so bad. I didn’t think I could maintain that pain for 6 hours.
I was able to get my feet eventually to an acceptable level, and we carried on down the trail. We started with Emmy and Nala in lead. Near the end of the first run, I switched Annie to be up front with Emmy.
With the cold conditions and no recent snow, the trails were hard and fast. I kept trying to remind myself to keep the team to a steady pace: we didn’t need to sprint and get injuries. Some teams train to run fast, but my team trains to trot. With a small team, I think this is the best way to minimize injuries. However, the teams around us didn’t feel that way. About 7 miles into the race, we were suddenly caught by a slew of teams. We were passed over and over. There were only 17 mushers combined in the Solstice 100 and 50. Ten mushers in the 100 and seven in the 50. Or was it nine in the 50? I can’t remember! Whatever it was, I joked at the meeting that I was aiming for a top ten finish. (Which was guaranteed since there were only 10 racers in my event!)
I let the speedy racers go by us. The dogs were irate that I would suffer such indignity! The screamed dog obscenities at the passing mushers and chased after them. I rode the brake hard to slow them to something reasonable.
It was a beautiful day. I don’t get to mush in the daytime much, and now I might have an entire daytime run. What a novelty! The section of trail we’d been on I hadn’t seen in light at all this year. That would be a theme of this entire run. I really enjoyed getting to see the hills and snow and trees in the sun. I soaked up those precious few hours of day like a plant turning to the light.
Though the dogs were fast, their pace was up and down. There were some very new things going on for the year. First of all, it was the coldest it has been all year, and so they were wearing coats. They kept “shaking off” (while running! Talent!), because I’m sure it was an odd feeling. Second, they of course were not used to seeing so many teams, and not used to being passed from behind.
When you drive a sled, in my opinion, you have this connection between you and the dogs– not just mentally (which you do)– but physically, in the tension of the line and the sled. I communicate to the dogs probably more than anything with the brake. This is how I slow them, try to stop them, let them speed up. I’m sure they can feel the tension or lack of tension in my body as well, communicating my mood and confidence level to them. And I can also feel theirs, in their steadiness and cadence.
As we traipsed over familiar trails with new factors at play, I could really feel that they were all over the place. I’m sure seeing dogs flying past you at high speeds on trails you’re used to having to yourself mostly (because we run so late) is weird. This is part of how running a race like this is good training for the dogs. It let’s them have this experience so that the next time it happens (on our next race!) it won’t be quite so weird and off-putting.
About 17 miles into the race, I looked at the team and noticed something extremely alarming. The bungee that connects the sled to the team’s mainline had broken. There is a safety line running alongside the bungee and this had caught and luckily held. I don’t know when the bungee broke. It may have been earlier while we were being passed. What I knew was that I did not want to be running the team connected only by that safety line. I pulled over in a section of trail slightly off the main path. This was a benefit of running on home trails: I knew where I could safely pull off! I tethered the team to a tree and then went to work reinforcing the safety with some other lines of “iron rope” which is made of kevlar. Once I felt confident the team could run safely, we took off again down the trail. Sheesh I thought… Broken sled, broken gangline… What else??? I wondered if I was playing with fire carrying on while I clearly was *still* having very bad luck. But I wasn’t going to quit on the team
Teams continued to pass us. Two teams passed us but were running at a speed closer to our own normal speed, so we mushed close behind them. One musher, #3, signaled after a while to ask if I wanted to re-pass him. I shrugged it off, saying “go ahead” with broad gestures. It would be better for my team to stay slower and conserve strength. #3 turned back to his sled, adjusted his mitts, and then… BOOP. He hit a bump in the trail and with the teeniest of bounces was launched off his sled and back. He landed on his feet like he had just hopped in the air on his own– but his sled was gone from under his boots. He comically threw both hands up and to the side in surprise and then started running. For the briefest moment, I thought he might catch the sled. I think he did too. But then the dogs realized their load had lightened and they took off. There was no way. #3 stopped finally, both hands on the sides of his head.
Meanwhile, I was right behind him, and went to work We needed to catch the team if we could. I called the dogs, “hup hup!” and they picked up their pace. The leaders zoomed by musher #3 and he dove out of the way. As I passed him he reached for my sled but I said “I’m gonna try to catch them” and left him behind (sorry #3, we needed to be light). His team was too fired up though, and we couldn’t keep up, even without his extra weight. Ahead of us and his team, though, was a third, very experienced musher. She and I had run our first Copper Basin’s together long ago. Now a team was piling towards her, and she had no idea. Sled dog teams are very quiet… Except for ours, as we know. I called out to the musher as loud as I could, and she turned around and saw in a snap second what was up. She stopped her team on level ground and then grabbed the gangline of the other team as they went by. Since she was braced and braking on her own sled, she didn’t get to experience the whole “dragging” phenomenon I had done recently… But she also couldn’t sit like this forever. Her dogs and the dogs of musher #3, practically side by side, were sizing each other up and about to decide to rumble like jets and sharks.
I mushed up behind them both, stopped my team, set my hook, and ran up to my musher friend. Why could I do this? Because I was in front of my own team. So even if my team escaped, I was in their path and could catch them. Luckily, my hook was actually holding for once, and I could focus on musher #3’s sled. I set both of the hooks in his sled (he had one of the Alaska Forge hooks I’m getting and another kind that has an extra section to brace against the snow… I felt a wave of admiration and jealousy), and then tied his snub line to a tree for good measure. My musher friend asked if I was good and I gave her the heads up. She mushed forward so the teams were not together and then stopped to make sure everything was okay.
Musher #3 came running up to reclaim his team. The handoff went smoothly and then we were back on the trail. In a way it was nice to see such an uneventful lost team… And strangely cathartic to watch it all play out in front of me, especially knowing that between my musher friend and I, we had it handled.
My team eventually passed musher #3 as well as my musher friend, and made it to the checkpoint in 7th place in the 100. We were at least half an hour earlier than I expected, having run our fastest 50 miles in the entire season at an average pace of 10.2 mph. We had done head on passes with the leading teams, and I was able to calculate that they were going an average of 13 mph. That was way too fast for my team– There was no way I’d push them that hard. Or rather, *let* them run that fast. They wouldn’t need pushing to do that… They’d love to!!! But for my dogs, who train at closer to 9 mph, that bump in constant speed could lead to stress injuries, especially on such hard trails.
At the checkpoint, I bedded the team down with two full bales of straw– an extravagance! It was pretty cold though and I felt like spoiling them. We provided our own straw, unlike in many races where teams are given one bale per checkpoint, which is how I was able to indulge in double the bedding. I also covered each dog with a blanky over their coat. It was pretty cute. The dogs were a little discombobulated. Who were all these other dogs? Why weren’t we home? What was going on? They didn’t eat as well as I would like, probably in part due to this nervousness, but they all settled down to sleep like pros. Getting the nerves and weirdness of a first race out of the way on a small race like this is ideal. Hopefully this gives us just a little bit more experience to build on for our big races, the Copper Basin and the Quest 300. (PS thanks to Padee for dealing with cleaning up DOUBLE the amount of straw after we took off. That’s a big job and the dogs and I appreciated the work she put in so they could be cozier. Mono Onion Padee!)
Once the dogs were bedded down and fed, and tucked in, I headed into the store where the checkpoint was located. Padee bought me a hot dog, which I devoured, and then I set a few things out over the heater to dry. With the cold, my neck gators were completely frozen over. Even though this was just a short layover, and at not the latest hour of the night (we got into the checkpoint around 4 pm), I was tired. After chatting to some fellow mushers and to Padee, I lay down in the back of the store, rested my head on the baseboard heater, and passed out for a fifteen minute catnap.
My alarm went off and I headed back out to bootie up the team and get ready to go. Neighbor teams were up and rowdy. My girls were all tucked in and pretty content. I wondered if they were too tired, and felt a bit alarmed. But once I started bootying the dogs, they got up and started wailing and screaming to go in a more characteristic fashion. This happened on the Copper Basin, too. The ATAO dogs are just good at resting, it seems! It is good for them to maximize rest, and as long as they are excited when it’s time to pull the hook, I’m a happy camper. They have a lot of experience camping so they know we aren’t going to go until the boots go on or until I start re-connecting the tug lines.
By the time everyone was connected, even the sleepiest of athletes was barking to go– All except Egret. As soon as Egret got up I could see she had developed a sore wrist. I had Padee bring an official down to the team and we filled out a form to “drop” Egret from the team. She’d take a shortcut home in Padee’s car! (Padee reported that she did great in the car. Egret is a good girl!) Later that night I’d do massage to help ease the soreness.
After handing Egret off to Padee, the remaining 11 dogs and I hit the trail. It was dark now, of course. We would retrace the exact route of the day earlier. One exciting perk of this run was that I could listen to something. I hadn’t had time to hook up my headphones at the start, so the first 5 hour run was music- and pod-less… And since it was on trails we have been retracing over and over for months, it was a bit boring. I had “entertained” us all near the end of that run by singing. I think the dogs were relieved on the second run that I would be quietly listening to my own things. I tuned into some new podcasts and we mushed along.
We left the checkpoint not long before the final remaining musher, #3. Two other mushers had scratched at the checkpoint. In order to not get the red lantern, I had to beat musher #3. Now, that wouldn’t mean over-extending the dogs. “Not getting the red lantern” wasn’t worth that. But I hoped we could do it! A red lantern is nothing to be ashamed of, *especially* in a race this fast, but I had already gotten a red lantern in this race two years ago, and I was ready for other accolades! Though technically, I suppose we got that award in the Solstice 50… Either way, #3 ended up catching us about 20 miles before the end. I chased him for a while, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth pushing the team harder than they needed to go. We were doing a great job maintaining our goal pace, and that was what was important. Besides… We were sure to get our first top ten ATAO finish EVER! I let the dogs know they were doing a really great job and we carried on.
Near the end of the race, I started drifting off and seeing tiny hallucinations. I thought one of the dogs was a tuba for at least 30 seconds, despite telling myself that made no sense. I saw boats and weird construction things on the side of the trail that weren’t there. The strongest moment was when I thought I saw bright blue skies out of the corner of my eye. That was odd because in the world of night mushing, everything is very black and white. I turned my face towards the light to soak up sun without even thinking about it. It turned out to be the reflection of my headlamp against my ruff.
It’s somewhat disconcerting that I start seeing things / drifting off so easily on day one. For whatever reason, I have found that since I started taking hormones, I have a MUCH harder time dealing with sleep deprivation. It may also have to do with me getting to be an old person. Either way, this is going to be an interesting hurdle to overcome. We’ll see how much that affects me during the Copper Basin and the Quest 300!
At long last, we pulled up to the finish line. Since this was the same as the checkpoint, the dogs tried hard to beeline to where they knew their straw had been. Sarah was there to photograph our finish, and to help re-direct them to the outbound trail. On races so close to home, it’s a lot easier to mush the dogs right back to the house! I checked out of the race (we got the red lantern!), and then we headed home. I handed out some tasty snacks, and Sarah and I helped them out of their booties, coats, and harnesses and tucked them back into their houses. I had originally planned to do a third run with the team after camping them at home (similar to the race, we’d lay out beds of straw and stay for 4 hours). But with the temps around -35, and much colder out on the trail, I decided I didn’t want to tax them that hard. We may end up doing colder runs than that in our races, but for now there’s no need to push the team through those temps. Instead, we tucked them all up into their houses with a ton of extra straw. I’d check through the night– If it got colder than -44, the dogs would all come in to rest in the dog house. But for now it was still important for them to maintain their acclimation to the cold.
The dogs got a big, calorie-packed meal, and then we let them snuggle into their houses to sleep. I worked on Egret and Ophelia, who also had come up with a slightly sore wrist.
Finally, around 4 am, I stoked our woodstove, and then tucked myself into bed. I decided I could probably sleep in a little the next day (same day but you know, post-sleep). I was deeply proud of my dogs. After a few days of resting, I was excited to see what other adventures would come our way.