2020 Race to the Sky Recap

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Writing this blog post is a landmark, because it’s the first mid distance race I’ve run that I actually enjoyed and had fun running.

See, dog mushing is a peculiar sport, and an even more peculiar addiction. Half the time it’s absolutely miserable (if I’m completely honest it’s probably more than half the time), but for whatever reason every year the weather cools down and we forget allllll about how hard it was and miserable and cold and tired we were the year before, and head back out into the wilderness to feed the monster.

The details are a little fuzzy, but the feelings I had during this race are not.

I remember distinctly waking up nervous. Going through the pattern of grabbing my warm race clothes and heading outside to let the dogs out of the trailer, and standing there in the snow looking up at the trees as rays of sunlight shown down. In that moment I felt any worry I had drift away.

Confidence. Confidence is what I had been lacking before. Confidence in myself that I knew what I was doing and could handle my team. Confidence that I had the ability to run with the front of the pack. Confidence in how well I knew my dogs and myself and what we were capable of together.

But that’s not missing anymore.

The race start was better than any other. Sure I was nervous, I’m not sure my pre-race nerves will ever go away completely, but I know now that I can control it.

It’s manageable.

Which doesn’t mean I didn’t feel like puking the entire start of the race.

It was windy and clouds started to roll in bringing light snow. The team passed the vet check with ease and before long we were hooking up dogs and getting ready to head for the start line.

Both Laura and Rick were there, and had thoroughly talked me through the race. The team was coming off of two other back to back hundred mile races and they were looking strong. They knew this race. Every single dog had run this trail at least once, and most more than that. Five of them had won it several times with Laura and Rick. All I needed to do was trust them, play it right, and the cards would fall where they would.

The start is always an adventure, and in this particular race you rocket out of the chute and immediately skid down a small hill that other sleds have trenched out with their brakes. When I hit the field beyond the start I remember loosening my grip on the sled and safety line, and feeling my hand tingle a bit from hanging on so tight, and my veins felt like they were buzzing from the sudden rush of adrenaline.

We flew across the open field and into the trees on the other side. I was trying to keep the dogs slow; there was a bridge up ahead, and I knew with the twisting narrow trail I wouldn’t have much warning.

Through the trees, around the corner, across the bridge, another corner. Take a breath.

Very quickly it was becoming apparent that my brake was not functioning how it should, or at least not how I was used to. I was using Rick’s sled for this race, and still adjusting to the differences. Pressing my full weight on the brake, it still wasn’t pushing down enough to have enough impact to make the dogs really think about stopping. Annoying, but easy to work around.

Of course in the rush of a race start my brain blanked briefly on the course, and though I knew I had been following markers, I thought I had taken the twenty-mile loop at the beginning of the race backwards, and was heading the wrong way.

I saw a woman riding a fattire bike, and asked if she had ‘seen any other teams and were they heading the same direction’ she shouted yes with a smile and with more relief than I care to admit, we continued on our way.

Not long after, I started to see markers for the direction I was headed again, and they were telling me to make a right and begin the loop. See, I had forgotten that the loop didn’t start immediately, and you had to head down the same trail you would come back on later that evening.

Knowing where I was, I relaxed and settled in to watch the dogs. I pedaled hard on the uphills and rode the sled downhill, soon catching a few teams and passing them. I was keeping count. How many teams ahead and how many teams behind? Who did I want to catch where, and how did the dogs look?

The dogs were taking the trail with ease. I had Sike and Nellie in lead, and Sike knew exactly where he was.

We hit the lake, (at least I’m assuming that’s what it is) an open section of trail that breaks out of the trees for a few minutes before heading back into the woods and heading around what I would guess  is the backside of the loop. The snow on the lake was deep and punchy, sucking the dogs feet down, and I slowed them way down so they could pick their way through the mush. Once we made it across I stopped just on the edge of the trees to snack the team, slightly hidden from view, but keeping an eye out behind me for any sign of another team hitting the lake. I could see them traveling behind us, and as soon as I was done, I called the dogs up again.

Passing another team, the dogs were hitting a rhythm and I was content pumping away behind them on the sled.

And then we started to pass head on with all the snowmobiles.

Before the start, they had warned us that the local snowmobile club was doing a poker run the same day as the start. I had seen them jetting through the trees earlier, but now we all happened to be going around the same loop, but in opposite directions, which meant a lot of blind corners and a lot of stop go, stop go. I spent well over ten minutes in the same section of trail stopping repeatedly with the team banging in their harnesses and screaming to go. All the snowmobilers were very polite and courteous of all of us sharing the trail, and finally when the sun began to go down, the traffic was once again just dog teams, and the team was able to hit a rhythm again. We had lost time, but there was nothing to be done about it now, and thinking on it never helped anyone.

I knew we were getting close to the end of the loop when I skittered out onto a plowed road briefly, and then took a right.

And immediately face planted and got a mouth full of snow, and spent about five seconds dragging on my face before my snowhook fell, stopped the team, and I heard Boats scream.

Let me tell you there is nothing that will make your heart drop faster than hearing a dog yell during a run. When we hit the corner, the momentum from skidding on the ice and hitting the edge of the snow sent me and the sled tumbling sideways. Nellie and Sike took the corner wide (as I asked them to) but from what I could tell, the two dogs behind them, also known as the swing dogs, aka Bear and his brother Bo’Sun, had ended up with some slack in the line and Boats had his leg caught up so that he couldn’t pull it back over by himself.

I slammed the other hook down and rushed up there to pull slack back in the line and get his leg over. Straightening everything out I flexed his leg thoroughly and was relieved to find that nothing was wrong.

I patted him on the head and he grinned at me, tail waving and incident completely forgotten.

I sighed and moved back to the sled, and we headed off through the woods in the fading light.

The super moon was rising, and running under it and the mountains was surreal. To think that some go through life and never experience moments like that is mind blowing to me.

We caught another team and ten minutes later hit Mel’s corner. This time I slid around it on my runners instead of on my face like I had my junior year.

And we were full circle from where we had started.

Instead of hanging a left and heading back toward the start, you continue straight and begin the climb to Huckleberry Pass. I stopped the team again, snacked them, and let them chew their salmon and catch a breather. Rick and I had mapped out my race beforehand, and had scheduled a few longer stops to keep energy in the team. A team passed while we were stopped, and to avoid twiddling my thumbs I checked booties and changed a few out.

I checked the time again and we headed out, climbing up to the pass, and passing another team. The climb up took longer than I remembered it being, and I pedaled the entire way.

The darkness had fully set in, and I watched the dogs through the light of my headlamp. The beautiful synchronicity in the quiet as the dogs move steadily down the trail.

We hit the steep part of the climb and I could see two teams ahead that we were gaining on. We passed the first team and I steadily pedaled behind the sled, pumping away to the top of Huckleberry Pass. We passed the second not long before the top, Charmayne and her crew, and she passed us again going down the other side. There were three teams ahead of us, one I could see, and two that were far enough down the pass toward the checkpoint that I couldn’t see any lights.

The view of Whitetail from the pass is one of my favorites. I honestly can’t explain it, but seeing the lights of the house and all the mountains lit up by the super moon is burned into my memory.

When you first see the lights of Whitetail, you still have a little less than an hour until you actually reach the checkpoint. You have to keep your emotions in check and not worry about being ‘almost there’. The dogs pick up on everything, so you have to keep your mind calm and focused.

The three of us were all traveling within sight of each other for most of the way down. Just before Whitetail, the team behind me sped up and passed us when we hit the plowed road leading into the checkpoint. Sike and Nellie, knowing exactly where they were, perked up at the crowd of people and we slid in to a stop, and signed in. My mother, who was waiting for us, ran ahead and lead Sike and Nellie into the team resting area.

Six hours. From the moment you sign in you have a mandatory six hour layover, and when your time is up you can leave.

I remember most of what happened in the checkpoint, but the exact order that it happened I do not know. The dogs were fed and taken care of. Bedded down with their jackets in the straw, and all received a nice massage.

I headed into the ranch house to get some food and water before I crashed in the truck to take a nap. At least, that’s what I wanted to happen. However, the truck was absolutely frozen cold, and the handwarmers in my sleeping bag weren’t doing much good. By the time I fell asleep, it seemed I was being woken up to come tend dogs before leaving again. That always seems to be how it is at races, and frankly, that’s how it actually is. Running on little sleep is becoming a normal by now, and I attempted to ignore my groggy brain as I climbed back out into the cold.

I watered and walked the dogs, letting them stretch out their muscles and pee. They drank, and soon it was time to pull jackets off and hook their harnesses back into the gang line. They barked and jumped to go, spirits high!

We made it out to the start point, and as soon as I signed out, we took off down the trail.

Those that have followed my team in our past Race to the Sky, and those that are familiar with the trail themself, know that you leave Whitetail on a plowed road and proceed to skitter on and off plowed roads for the next seven miles.

If you have never driven a dogsled on a plowed road, let me tell you you aren’t missing out. The grinding of your break shoots up through your leg, grinding through your ears and skull relentlessly, your leg vibrates for so long on the ice it starts to feel numb and tingly, and all you want is for it to end.

Off the plowed road, through the fields, and WOW the mountains behind Whitetail were spectacular, seeming to shoot up out of the ground suddenly, towering above us.

And then whip around a turn and back onto a road. And then off again and into a field. And on it went like so.

We hit a corner that was a sharp left onto a bridge and I remember briefly looking down as I realized there was in fact a large drop to my left, loosing my breath briefly as I realized that’s where a musher had broken his leg before, and then desperately throwing myself around the corner on the back of the sled. By some miracle I managed to stay upright and I breathed again, hard. I remember thinking, ‘wow I’m going to hate doing that corner again next year now that I know that’s there’ which is a step up from ‘I’m never doing this again’.

I squinted ahead, looking for the glint of a trail marker that would tell me where the next turn off the road was. And “Sike, Gee!” a right turn and into the field.

I managed to stay runner side down (right side up), for all but the last intersection, where I hit the edge of the trail coming out into the road, and proceeded to take the turn on my knees with my sled tipped, right in front of the volunteers sitting in their truck, lights flashing to warn us of the turn. If you were in the car watching, I’d like you to know that I meant to do that.

I managed to get myself and my sled upright again, and we continued down the road skittering and trying to avoid hitting the frozen ice chunks that had fallen down after the road was plowed, and had frozen hard as rocks to the ice.

Another truck with its light flashing told me where the turn off to the trail was, and I thanked the volunteer that was standing out in the cold and pointing us in the right direction. I’m not sure if I was thanking them for showing us the turn, or just yelling a general thank you that that part was over.

We hit the hairpin corner I knew was coming, rushed around to the other side, and I sighed audibly.

We were golden. We made it through the fields with no issues. I knew the rest of the trail, and was confident we would have smooth sailing.

I stopped to snack dogs, took a breath, and pushed my head back into the zone.

I’m an overthinker. Anyone who knows me enough to call me a friend knows that. The best way I’ve found to ‘shut myself up’ is to make sure I’ve got my headphones stashed in my pocket. Put on some headphones, turn on some music, and my focus narrows and intensifies. It keeps me awake and it keeps my head in race mode, which is easy to slip out of when you’re tired, likely dehydrated, maybe a bit hungry, and if it’s Race to the Sky, definitely cold.

Forty miles to the finish, and I needed to focus. The dogs looked fantastic. I was pumping away behind the sled and they were taking on the hills with ease. They didn’t look the slightest bit tired.

I started to check the time.

If my calculations were correct, I would be hitting a large U in the trail shortly. The trail dips back between two hills, and comes back out again with a long view of the trail ahead.

If I was correct, I should be seeing a headlamp in front of me.

We broke around the edge of the U and almost immediately I saw a small flash on the opposite end, and then nothing.

I squinted at the trail all along the U, but there was nothing but darkness and trees lit by the moon.

I questioned; had it really been a headlamp, or had I imagined something I simply wanted to see?

I would later learn that it was in fact a headlamp, one that belonged to my friend Charmayne, who was just ahead of us on the trail.

In that moment I let a tiny slip of discouragement slip in. I shut it down as hard as I could immediately. Doubt and fear infect. If I let a little in, more would come, and the dogs would feel it. I had done that to them in the past, as every rookie musher does, and I have no doubt I will do it again. But not this race, not when we were doing so well, with the dogs looking so strong and on a trail I knew at least moderately well.

So we continued down the trail and I marveled at the beauty of the mountains and the dogs and the snow and all of it. All of it so alive and beautiful and despite the cold and the sleep deprivation and the twinge in my stomach that meant I should eat my snacks, I felt that I was where I was supposed to be, and doing what I was supposed to be doing.

I remembered the downhill stretch before the last plowed road going by quickly two years prior, and it was like that again this year. We skittered out onto the road, hanging a right. You’ll be proud to know that though I almost lost my balance, I managed to keep my sled from slamming onto its side on the hard packed ice.

This section of road is maybe a few miles (?) but it takes forever. And the whole while your brain is smashing into your skull because DEAR GOD THE BRAKE ON THE ICE.

And you want to scream or make it stop but there’s no choice but to continue on. But this time I was slightly distracted. I was watching Nellie who was in lead. She was doing the barest of head bobs. I knew it was her wrist, as she has a tendency to get sore wrists, and I was sure the impact of the plowed roads, despite me keeping the team slow, had triggered it.

I knew there was a safer place to stop up ahead, so we continued on for what felt like ages, but I know for a fact it was not that long.

We turned off the road and onto the trail to Seeley Lake.

I stopped and put my hooks down, going up to Nellie in lead. I unhooked her, and she followed me less than willingly back to the sled, where I had cleared a spot for her to sit.

She looked at me in horror and I groaned inwardly. This should be good.

My sweet Nellie girl had realized I was bagging her, and she said HELL NO.

I grabbed her around the middle and stuffed her in the bag.

I would get her in the sled, get her harness and collar snapped down and put her head by me so I could grab her if I needed to. She would squirm and shove up as hard as she could getting herself out of the sled, and I’d have to do it all over again. This lasted several minutes until finally I managed to get her at least mostly settled, and I reached down and pulled the hooks. At which point she thrashed about like a dying fish. We made it ten feet and I had to set the hooks down to calm the monster in my sled bag that was furious.

“Nellie, will you stop it?!”

She looked at me insulted and huffed, continuing to struggle.

How dare I remove her from her team! Especially so close to where she knew the finish line was.

After multiple attempts and a continuous stop go, stop go, I finally pulled her out of the sled and put her in towards the back of the team. Maybe there was some way I could rig it differently…

I warred with myself for a minute. Did I leave her in the team, or bag her? I was tired and aware of it, and trying to think clearly through the sleep deprivation. Wrong decisions are made when you’re tired and physically exhausted.

Did I know what was best, or did she? And then I realized I was questioning how well I knew my own dog. A natural reaction when tired, but this was Nellie. I didn’t just know her, we knew each other.

I looked at my gps and shook my head. I had already spent more that twelve minutes fighting her. She was not going to let me put her in the bag. I also knew from experience that she would let me bag her when she actually needed it.

So I looked at her, shook my head, looked up at the stars, looked at the rest of the team with all their tails wagging and looking at me in confusion of ‘mom why are we stopping??’ And back at her where she stood staring at me.

“You want to stay in the team?”

Yes.

“Are you sure?”

Yes.

“Okay…

…but you’re running in the back where I can keep an eye on you.”

The dogs were vocalizing their displeasure at our long stop, and they took off as I pulled the hook.

No more funny business. This was the home stretch. With my eye on Nellie I called them up as we began to coast down the twenty-mile stretch heading for Seeley Lake, and the finish line. No more turns, no more tough sections of trail, we had a straight shot and it was game on.

The team had lots of juice left. They had only become stronger from the last two races, and we were more in sync. I knew how to read them and they knew what I wanted.

I noticed that Rubicon was loping hard in wheel, and on a whim stopped briefly to snack the dogs and moved her up into lead with Sike.

She was thrilled. This was her team, her trail, and it was time to go.

The dogs were yelling and I whistled calling them up. The last twelve miles of the trail flew by and they kept pace well to the finish, where they came in tails waving and grinning at the small crowd waiting there.

That finish is a point of pride for me. That’s the best I’ve ever managed my team during a race, and they came into the finish looking for more trail, and very very happy. We finished fourth overall, and I could not be prouder of not only my dogs, but of myself as well. To have reached a point where I can finish a longer race and not ten minutes later be thinking about how I can do better the next year, and wishing I was running the longer 300 mile race, is a landmark for me. I worked to get there. I pushed my fears and worries out of the way to get there. And boy does it feel good!

The weather is turning, the dogs are becoming restless, and we are signed up for over five hundred miles of racing this winter. Who knows what the next few months hold, but it’s sure to be good!

As always,

Happy trails.

Christina