I’m taking a mental health break from social media! You’ll see posts from me there, but I am not intaking anything from those platforms– And as we lead up to the race, I’ll be posting a lot more from here. Which is great… I should be posting more here anyway!
We had a big weekend getting some things checked off as we careen towards the race! Thanks as always to Padee and Sarah for being such huge helps to ATAO. We very much couldn’t do this without your help and support.
Before the weekend even hit, Padee was over last week helping me prep Solstice Surprises for Buddies, Founders, and Monster Sponsors!! When your packages arrive, give Padee a word of thanks– She’s making sure they get there before next year!
And, she helped put together booties and dropbag drawstrings for the Copper Basin!
We had a busy weekend planned. Which pretty much wore Jesse out. Which happens when you have to endure an annoying puppy.
On Friday, Shawn declared an impromptu Gingerbread Cookie party! They baked ALL DAY, which smelled amahhhhhhzing, and then we invited our awesome ATAO family over for a Gingerbread House Building Extravaganza… Of which I have no pictures! You’ll have to pester Shawn for that info. But here’s some shots of the extremely yummy baking process…
Of course I was a helpful taste-tester for all of this.
A few days earlier, I had noticed a little nodule on Sundance’s side. She didn’t seem bothered by it. It was hard and raised and had lost its hair. I decided on Saturday I better take her in to have it looked at. This threw a wrench into my plans for mushing Saturday, but Sarah was able to adjust her own schedule so we could do a big mush Sunday. I scheduled the vet appointment with North Pole Veterinary Hospital, and Sundance and I went in in the afternoon.
Sundance was pretty nervous to be at this strange place, but she did like the toys.
The vet took one look at the nodule, asked me, “Was it hard and raised?” and when I affirmed that it was, said she had a suspicion she knew what it was, and it was a good thing. She took a cell sample and brought it back to look at under a slide. She came back not long after with a sheet of paper. Lil Sundance had a fairly common small skin tumor that is benign and shows up occasionally in young dogs. It’s called– ho boy hopefully I’m remembering this right– a hystiocytoma. It is basically the best possible thing it could be. It goes away by itself, isn’t harmful, and best of all, isn’t ringworm, which is what it looks like. Even though we ended up not needing too much actual vet care, knowing my lil bud is in good shape was wayyyyy worth the trip to the vet. Also, Sundance weighs in at 38.1 lbs! She is likely my smallest dog. (Annie may weigh less but is taller.) For a little buddy she is very strong!
Saturday night, Shawn, Sarah, and I went to the Last Frontier Mushing Co-op‘s Second Saturday get together. It was a great way to let some locals see cool hand-made Alaskan crafts, beautiful photography, and meet some sled dogs and go for rides! And we got to hang out with mushing friends and neighbors.
Sunday morning we fed the dogs early (for me and them– I have been feeding normally at noon and midnight, because my after-work mushing takes me late into the night), and then I got down to brass tacks with my sled. It turned out that the sled was in worse shape than I thought. A big issue was that the bolts of the sled were old and rusted. Many broke, and others were utterly frozen. The plastic that had shattered was the body of the sled, and so was attached in many places. It was a fight getting all the bolts disconnected.
I commissioned Sarah to help get some of the worse bolts detached from the frame and other hardware. With a lot of elbow grease, we finally got the sled apart, and then I started putting it back together at high speed. We were planning to do the team’s first truly long run of the season, and we wanted to get out the door before dark. I was constructing like mad while Sarah did random chores to get everything else ready to go!
Finally by some miracle we got out the door, hooked up the team, and were on the trail! It had started snowing earlier that day, and we mushed into true winter. We each had a six dog team carrying a 40lb bag of dog food. Even with the extra weight, the dogs were flying! They were so excited to be mushing in snow. I got to look epic and scowly.
Sarah was so excited to be mushing. Every time we stopped for a break, she had enthusiastic things to say. “This is awesome!” “This looks like Narnia!” She was as revved up as the dogs!
It was a beautiful day to be mushing– And we were heading onto new trails, at least for the season. We finally were mushing towards the shooting range. The trail takes you up the Quest trail as it winds through swamps and forests. The trail is more narrow and the terrain more varied than where we’d been mushing all year. I mushed this trail a lot last year, so me and The Core Four are pretty used to it. The cover photo on this website is from that trail! Here’s a shot from near the same spot.
You can’t see in this photo– because of the falling snow!– but in the far distance when it’s clear, you can see rolling mountains and hills. I love coming out to these trails to see what feels like much more wild territory.
This trail is where Sarah kept talking about Narnia– And, minus the lamp-post situation, I guess it’s a fitting description. The trees gathered their cloaks of snow. Our world was narrowed to a close window in the encompassing white. We hugged a range of foothills, but could barely see them in the storm. The dogs traveled smooth and steady. It was magical, as only mushing can be.
Darkness fell just as we came to the shooting range, our turn-around point. We stopped to let the dogs roll in snow, but the teams weren’t interested in pausing for long. As we headed towards our home-trails, the snow cleared and the skies opened up to a clear swath of stars. With the clarity came cold. The moisture from the storm froze up around the dogs’ ruffs, and around our own faces. I felt my eyebrows and lashes ice over. There’s no great use brushing that away– it just builds up again.
Next, we went through one of our biggest tests; after a 40 mile run, instead of going home to cozy straw and dinner, we KEPT GOING! The dogs were confused as we passed by the inbound trail, but dutifully went Gee when they thought we should go Haw. They slowed down a bit and kept throwing glances back at me. “Did you forget the way home?” “Er…. Dinner is that way…” I knew they had the physical capability to keep going. We needed to work on the mental ability. We kept this part of the run EXTRA fun and positive. I didn’t try to push their speeds. They were figuring out what was up. If you have ever run– or done another sport– and had to keep going past where you expected to go, you can understand the tiny slump these guys felt. A big part of our training is to change their expectation, and to give a lot of positivity when something they expect changes. One of the most important things about mushing– if not THE most important thing– is trust. Your team needs to trust that you are going to take care of them. That at the end of a long day, there will be straw and food and love. Now of course my dogs know that. What they didn’t know on this run was that we’d pass that and do a bit extra before we got back to it.
So I was singing and dancing and giving the pups all the praise, when Sarah said something behind me. I had headphones in and about 20 layers on, so I couldn’t quite tell what she said. I turned and asked her to repeat. “Team!” she said. I leaned around to see behind her, and lo and behold, a four wheeler was there. I found a spot we could pull over, and we stopped. I set my snow hook and went up to my leaders. They are young so we are still working with them to not investigate a passing team. The team was Matt Hall’s team. We’d just been visiting with him the night before at the Co-Op party. I’d been asking him about his training. He’s working with 18 dogs, and so is sticking with the quad for now. His team was firey and strong, churning forward like a freight train.
Well, my team did NOT want to be out done!!! They went from kind of slow and unsure to EXTREMELY EXCITED and in that excitement, they “popped the hook”, which is to say, they pulled so hard they dislodged my snow anchor. The problem was, I was holding onto the leaders, and the swing dogs decided to go around me… So suddenly I was tangled in the gangline with a sled barreling towards me! But luckily, this was only six dogs. They clumped up and I pulled back on the leaders, and basically faceplanted in the snow with a lot of dignity right as Matt was passing. He called out (laughing), “Sorry!” and I regretfully acknowledged that I am always extra dignified around Matt (remember he had to come pull me and the team out of the swamp hole of doom). Le sigh.
But! The team was AMPED UP. And also still not anchored! So I disentangled myself, let the team go, and grabbed the sled as it came zooming past. And for our remaining miles, the dogs remembered in both mind and body how much energy they had left. They finished the run like pros. We traveled almost 60 miles all told. When we got back, the dogs were tired, to be sure, but happy. And they were extra excited when food came around. Even Nala and Annie, who usually pick at dinner, inhaled their food and wanted more.
It was a really successful weekend. Even though plans had to be altered, doing that 60 mile run was really invigorating, for me and the dogs. It gave me some confidence about my training schedule and the team’s abilities, and I think it gave the dogs the mental boost it was designed to. The next night, I took a team of 8 out, and they were so on fire I was like a banner hanging off the end of the sled. This is something you see happening when you get into the groove with a team, especially when they can overcome a mental hurdle. The 60 mile run was the first time for a lot of things. It was the longest run most of the dogs (and even Sarah!) had done, ever. And more importantly, it was an important lesson. Sometimes we’ll pass by the house and keep going! But at the end of the day, there will ALWAYS be a comfy bed of straw and a big meal and a lot of love. When the dogs know this, they get confident and that confidence translates into energy and power. It’s amazing to witness and feel. It’s like the dogs think they can do anything. This is how a team seems after a big race. Even though, in all honesty, I don’t think a dog team cares too much about a *race*, they can tell they accomplish something, if only the miles. And after that they seem like they can do anything.
Running is a mental game, and mushing is too. I’ve been dealing with some mental shenanigans, and I’m grateful my team has stuck by me. That includes the human team and the dog team, and the wider team out in the world– all of you. The thing to keep in mind is that at the end of the day we’ll have our proverbial bed of straw and big meal, and with that in mind (even when we pass the home trail now and then), we can keep going; we can do anything.