I’ll be the first to admit that going into Stage Stop, I was not confident that I would enjoy it.
I definitely err more on the side of enjoying alone time on the trail. The mid-distance races I’ve started running with my team allow for more space between mushers on the trail, and when you pass or are passed by a team, you see them only briefly, allowing for the solitude I’ve learned to enjoy. At least, that’s what I thought.
Pre Stage Stop me was very nervous. I always have pre race nerves, whether I’ve run the race before, or it’s my rookie run. At Jr. Iditarod I freaked so bad I kept telling my mom I didn’t want to go, (Luckily, Laura knew better and had my mom pack my sled and do everything but physically put me on the sled runners).
The instructions for the vet check were to be there early so that they could get everyone parked. We unloaded dogs, chatted with mushers, and waited for the vets to come around to my team. It took a few hours for the vets to make it to us. They had around thirty-six teams to check and most teams had as many as fourteen dogs in their racing pool that needed to be looked at. Six out of my eight racing dogs would run, and I was borrowing two dogs off of Laura’s race team, Oaken and Cloudjumper.
The team checked out with the vets and were approved as happy and healthy and ready to race!
The first stage would take place in Alpine, so after pre race celebrations and the main stage race teams ceremonial start in Jackson, WY, we loaded up and headed off to Alpine!
Stage Stop is run uniquely.
The main Stage Stop is eight days of racing run with ten dog teams and a fourteen dog pool, meaning that though only ten dogs can run on the line each race day, you have fourteen dogs to pick from each day. The race travels to a different town for each day of racing. Jackson Hole, Alpine, Pinedale, Kemmerer, Big Piney / Marbleton, Lander, Driggs, and Teton County.
The Eukanuba Classic is an eight dog race with a ten dog pool that follows the first few days of the race running the same or similar courses as the main stage teams. I would be running the same eight dogs both days.
I, of course, dreamed about the race the night before and woke up feeling like I was going to be sick. This is not unusual for me, though it’s starting to only effect me as much when I’m running races that feel like a big deal. Before we left home when I was packing the truck, I put tape on every bin I was packing and marked it with what was inside. Just in case I really started to freak out, my mom would be able to find everything she needed to get me on the trail. Once I’m out there, I’m fine. My brain clicks into place, and it’s just me and the dogs.
The morning of the race however, I was able to manage my nerves, get me gear together, ready my dogs, and hook up my team, (I may be getting better at this crazy game after all.).
The team was ready to go at the start line, their enthusiasm building in anticipation of the take off. I managed to keep the sled upright on the first two corners, and settled in for a steady run along the river. The trail was gorgeous and we enjoyed a bit of alone time before all the passing began. I had Brother and Nellie in lead, Rubicon and Olaf in swing, Freckles and Steampunk in team, and Oaken and Cloudjumper at the back in wheel.
Some people wonder how I choose where I put dogs in the team. The truth is, it entirely depends on the race.
During training, I try to make sure no dog runs the same position twice in a row. This keeps it interesting for them, and it also allows me to see where each dog does best and in what situations. Some people’s response would be ‘well what about the lead dogs? You only have a few of those, right?’
Good question. And the answer is no. Think about it this way. Say I have two lead dogs. They run lead all the time, on every training run, and in every race. For one, those dogs better be extremely mentally strong. The position of lead is a lot of mental work. It’s more taxing mentally than simply following another dog, and the role puts pressure on a dog. Some dogs thrive under this pressure and some don’t like it. Now say I’m in the middle of a race, and one of my leaders has a sore wrist, or isn’t feeling well, and I have to leave one or both at a checkpoint. Now what? Scratch from the race because I have no lead dogs? Because of this rotation that I do, every dog on my team has run up front this season.
I have eight racing dogs. Five of them are lead dogs, three can run up front with an experienced partner.
Brother and Nellie have hands down been my best leader team this season, the Uncle and Niece duo have brains and experience and Nellie loves the speed, so together they keep everything moving smoothly. I very intentionally put Rubicon in swing because she’s getting ready to make her first step into the limelight as a race leader, and having her close to those two race experienced lead dogs means that she’s picking up a lot of good habits. Dogs teach dogs.
Olaf ended up next to her because they love each other. Running dogs next to a partner they really like makes the whole team happier.
Steampunk likes to dip snow when it’s above ten degrees, so having him set back from the leaders a little bit prevents him from pulling back on them when he takes a mouthful of snow and generally keeps the team moving steady. Freckles ended up next to him because, though she does wonderful in swing as a backup lead dog, that would have meant putting Olaf next to steamer, and though they’ll run together, they don’t particularly like each other and team mood is important. Everything on that gangline travels up and down, effecting the whole team.
All this said, Oaken and Cloudjumper simply ended up in the back running next to each other. Oaken has run over 300 miles with my team, but Cloudjumper is a yearling that I had never run before, so it was also convenient to keep an eye on her.
We had a great time! The dogs were loving all the passing that was going on, and I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the company on the trail as well.
Our first stage in Alpine was 28 miles and the dogs ran fantastic, and after a beautiful run on day one, I was excited to get back out on the trail the next day.
Pinedale was more open and flat, which means it’s basically the opposite of where we train, and the dogs loved it! The open country made it harder to guage exact distance, that or I’m just not used to seeing a team so far away, considering that where we race for the most part has a good amount of trees. The sun was shining and I desperately wished I had remembered my sunglasses.
The team turned around from day one and ran Pinedale better than any other run this season, turning out a great run time and everyone came in happy, tails wagging, and ready for more!
I fully expected to finish in the back three of the class, but the dogs far exceeded expectations, worked phenomenally together, and turned out the two best runs of the season landing us in 3rd place overall!
So basically, in case the free concession stand with food and candy wasn’t enough, I also don’t have to leave any checkpoints. Does this mean we’ll be going back to Stage Stop? Absolutely. Maybe to run the big event? Anything can happen. Like I was telling my mom on the way home, I can see running Stage Stop AND mid-distance races being my thing. No one said I had to choose.
Only time will tell.
We just may be crazy enough.