I think by your second mid-distance race the realization is there that the romance covers up for reality. Not to be negative about it at all, it’s just the truth. When you set out on your first adventure, you have no idea what you’re about to face, or you don’t understand it. But the next time you go, it’s a bit more real.
The start of race to the Sky was an odd mix between a rush, and the undeniable reality of the troubles to come. My friend Charmayne and I were the only two Mushers in the junior’s class this year, and both of us were preparing our teams for the Junior Iditarod. My mentor and friend Laura, would either give me the go ahead for Alaska, or tell me we weren’t ready.
I managed to pack my sled and get everything ready, with significant help from my handlers, and we were headed to the start.
When you rocket out of the chute, you head up and over a small hill. I am very glad that I could not see what was on the other side, for it would have made my nerves significantly worse.
You shoot over the first hill with a fresh team, rocket down the other side in a trench that’s been dug by all the other sled brakes before you, and go skidding across a road with narrow trail heads on either side, while the front of your team takes a corner.
I don’t think I took a breath until we were heading across the meadow.
We took a narrow trail through the trees and eventually came out onto a wider trail.
Within the first few hours, we came to an intersection that, oddly, had two markers. I stopped the team and studied the trail. The fork to the left had an arrow pointing down the trail, and the arrow to the right had the same thing. Both had Sled and dog tracks heading down them. I stopped stumped, but heard a stopped team barking to the right, and headed down that trail. Later I would find out that I was lucky, and chose the correct route.
Shortly after, I went over a small hill, and at the top, saw what I thought was a small dog. Confused, we headed up and over the next hill, at which point, I slammed on my brakes and set my hooks as fast as I could. There was a skunk marching up the trail straight for my team. Of course, my first thought was that I should protect my dogs, and stand at the front of my team. Then I realized how stupid that sounded. So I watched and waited as he strutted his way toward my team, my dogs flipping out about the prey that was so close to them, tugging the sled and my snowhooks forward inch by inch as I desperately stood on my brake. At the last second, he flicked his tail, and turned off the trail, and we passed without issue, my muscles relaxing.
On we traversed across meadows and up mountains. The wind had been picking up at the start, and sections of the trail were windy enough for me to bundle up and hunker over to keep my face from the wind. We ran with a few other teams for awhile, and they picked up the pace and moved on as the light started fading.
The only real landmarks that I knew, were the end of the 20 mile loop, and huckleberry pass. I don’t think I even realized I had hit huckleberry pass, until I was almost to the top. Heading up, I could see light from Mushers behind, and above me.
Around that time I started to notice a difference in the team. Sunny, who was running in wheel, was running slightly off. I spent a little while watching her gait and trying to figure out exactly what I was seeing. It looked like a front leg, and after we started heading down the other side of huckleberry pass, I decided to put her in the sled bag to ride the rest of the way to the checkpoint. She was most definitely not okay with this. Sled dogs love to run, and bagging them during a race, or anytime for that matter, can be challenging. She spent the first twenty minutes teetering inside my sled bag, braced on my handlebar, cooler, cooker, and the outer edge of my sled bag.
By the second half, she got a little more sleepy, and I managed to stuff her down in the bag and zip it up. When I peeked in five minutes later, she was fast asleep, curled up as close to me as she could get on the inside.
When we reached the bottom of the mountain, we hit a plowed road, and the sled when skittering across the sheet of ice and frozen slush. The brake made a horrible grinding noise, and of course, this was the time Sunny decided to be fully awake again. Although I don’t blame her, the sound of that brake was making my tired brain smash itself against the sides of my skull.
Sunny was immediately up and becoming an escape artist again. Despite my efforts to stop her, she shoved her nose out of the sled bag and began trying to claw her way off the sled.
I had to stop for about three minutes just outside the checkpoint to get her wrangled back in.
We pulled into Whitetail Checkpoint, and I signed in, my Handlers grabbed my leaders and took us straight to the spot they had ready with our stuff.
Dog care mode was on, and I was requesting water, things from the truck, (which my Handlers were allowed to have parked a short walking distance from the Team rest area) and going straight into our routine.
I requested my vet check as soon as possible, and got straight to giving dogs praise, a cookie, and taking their booties off. After that I got their food ready with a mix of Redpaw, Chicken, and water.
My mom, Trevor, and I, went over the dogs, messaging them and putting on their coats, giving them straw, and making sure they had everything they needed.
When the team was taken care of, I distinctly remember Laura dragging me away from my team, telling me that the team was fine and to go get something to eat ‘right now’, (for those of you who don’t know, I’m horrible at eating in checkpoints, much to Laura’s dismay).
I managed to choke down a few bites of food, and then headed to the truck to sleep.
With the heat on, I managed to sleep fairly well, and woke up feeling at least moderately awake and ready to take care of the team.
When we left the checkpoint, at the last minute, as we’re about to leave, Laura leaned over and said, ‘Just so you know, the next 7 miles are plowed so just keep the team as slow as you can, and watch for the different turns on and off the roads, most of them will have people and lights at them.” Then she patted my back and said, ‘you’ll be fine’ And then off we went into the night.
Skittering down plowed roads with a fresh team hanging on for dear life was not how I had imagined my morning going. I clung desperately to the handle bar and tried to stay upright the best that I could on the sharp corners.
At long last, we finally pulled off of the roads and up into the hills, (while doing so I was almost flung off my sled, but that’s beside the point.) hoping that dawn would come soon.
It was cold. Very cold, and both the fact that I hadn’t changed my under layers before leaving the hot truck, and that I had sweat even more during our dash through plowed roads, meant that I was starting to feel a bit chilled.
When it’s cold and you’re tired, you really don’t feel like moving. I think at some point I stopped to snack dogs, and took off my parka to put more layers on.
It was a waiting game until morning.
Moving on in the dark, the seconds started to blur and feel like hours as I fought sleep. I could see where other teams had stopped to snack every few hours, and I used it to time my stops as well.
If I remember correctly, this was also the race where I looked all through my sled bag to find my headphones, and couldn’t, (later I would find them in my parka pocket where, ironically, I had put them so they were easy to find).
Music is a life saver in those never ending seconds, and it helps fight sleep and boredom as well.
I remember coming down the open face of a mountain, and looking back to watch the Sky start to lighten just barely. I could see decently enough over the next few miles, but my brain obviously wasn’t keeping up with my eyes when I had to make a sharp right down off of the trail onto a plowed road.
My snowhook hit my knee, (facing backwards thankfully) leaving a good sized bruise, and I smacked into the ice, avoiding hitting my head on the hard surface. I vaguely remember sliding on my knees for a moment behind the tipped over Sled as the dogs continued on, and then I just kind of flopped over, hopping it would be enough for the dogs to stop and go, ‘What the heck is she doing?’.
Sure enough, there came the odd looks, and I’m very thankful for one of my leaders, Nellie, who’s my glue dog, and turned around to stare at me, wagging her tail, unsure.
In those few seconds, I managed to flip the sled up, say ‘ready? Let’s go!’ And take off, me a little more awake than five minutes ago.
We skittered along the road for a little while, me very aware of the pre race warning of the logging trucks that traveled in and out during the day. Luckily, no one was there yet, and we slide down the road with no problems. When we made it back onto the trail, travel was relatively quiet for some time.
I was having trouble finding a motivated enough dog to lead, and I was concerned about having an issue with it at Junior Iditarod. I tried to shove those thoughts from my head, I needed to focus on the here and now, but it’s hard when you’ve worked on something all season, and then a significant concern pops up.
I switched my leaders in and out for awhile, attempting to find that match. I finally settled on Nellie, and Rubicon, one of my young leaders in training.
The pair tend to be competitive with each other, and I hoped maybe that would kick in.
Though their competitive spirits decided not to show themselves on the way to the finish, they did truck the team along and keep everyone moving.
It was then that I started to focus on being happy.
Now I know that sounds odd, but when you’re exhausted, and you’ve been mentally and physically working, it can be challenging to keep your spirits up.
The whole goal of the season was not to be competitive, it was to learn to run mid-distance, and to attempt to have some fun while doing it. The sunrise had been absolutely gorgeous, and with the light came happier feelings, however, my lack of sleep did not go away. When I fell asleep on my sled, I ate a candy bar and felt more awake for the next twenty or thirty minutes, at which point, I started to fall asleep again, and ate another one.
The challenge came not from driving the team, it was when I could look out across the valley and saw a lake. Which I assumed was Seeley lake, where the finish was. When we passed it, I was confused. When you ‘know’ where the finish is, you tend to get excited, and the mental dip that came afterwards was challenging.
The dogs can pick up on your emotions, and it’s a Mushers job to stay in good spirits so that it doesn’t effect their team. The next ten miles that I didn’t think were there, became a mind game. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled out my map to try and figure out where we were.
Needless to say I was elated when we unexpectedly went past a sign that read ‘No Mans Land’ one mile from the finish.
A short ways up the trail, there was a cluster of people standing and watching teams come in. Laura and my mother were among the group, and we pulled up, stopping when we were asked to. Now, please understand that I am very tired at this point, and have little to no awareness about what’s going on. Laura walked over, hopping on the runners with me. I naturally assumed that she wanted a ride into the finish, which of course, I was totally fine with. So I asked the dogs to head out again and they immediatly began straining in their harnesses, trying to inch the sled forward, which I noticed they couldn’t, because Laura had her foot on the brake, which made absolutely no sense. If she wanted a ride into the finish, she should probably take her foot off the brake. At which point she starts laughing, and tells me that this is, in fact, the finish, and that I can go pet my dogs and she’ll hold the sled.
Oh. That makes more sense.
After praising my team, we pulled away from the finish. I was beyond proud of my dogs, and that they had continued on despite having an inexperienced Musher. I was also very ready for a nap.