And so it begins.
We left home this morning headed for the 8-dog Rocky Mountain Triple Crown; A series of three back to back 100 mile races. It starts with the Eagle Cap Extreme in Joseph, Oregon and then heads to McCall, Idaho for the start of the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge. After Idaho we have a week to rest and train in Montana before heading to Lincoln for the Race to the Sky. We plan to be on the road for about three weeks.
Training the dogs this past month has been full of all the ups and downs that are a part of dog mushing! Over the last few weeks we’ve had rain, frozen and icy trails, deep snow, trees down, and injured moose in the trail. Among other setbacks I (of course) came down with a nasty cold late last week and am still fending it off.
Our first stop will be Joseph, OR for the Eagle Cap Extreme 100 mile!
Since our training as of late has been less than ideal, we’ll be going into this race with the mindset of using it as a training run. Run the dogs conservatively and make sure everyone looks happy, healthy, and ready for the next race! I currently have two teams entered in the race so all the dogs will have a chance to run.
The trailer is packed full with dogs and gear, and we have three weeks ahead of us! I’ll be attempting to keep everyone up to date on our trip as best I can with some help from my mom while I’m on the race trail!
You can follow along on our Facebook Page and Instagram at @whiteoutracingkennel and our twitter at @WhiteoutRacing
I’m afraid that I have some very unfortunate news regarding Race to the Sky.
Very late Tuesday night I went out to do a night check in the dog yard. I had been up late sorting gear for the race and was about ready to drop on my feet. I went around to the dogs making sure everything looked normal and was headed back to the house for some rest before an even longer day of packing the next day, when I heard a cough.
I walked over to Brother thinking over and over, please don’t cough again please don’t cough again. But he did.
Upon a visit to the vet the next day, Brother was presenting symptoms of Kennel Cough or something very similar.
Every dog on my team and in my Kennel is vaccinated for a multitude of things, one of them being Kennel cough, but of course, even if a dog is vaccinated it is still possible for them to get a virus.
We travel to many races that have many teams that come from all over. We also train on public use trails with a parking lot that often doubles as a rest stop for travelers, where many people bring their dogs. I don’t know where Brother picked up the virus, it could have been any number of places, but I do know this:
This is highly contagious among dogs and it would be irresponsible to bring a dog that is sick, and dogs that have been exposed, to a race site and put other teams at risk, (not to mention it’s against the rules). There is also a possibility, that despite them all being vaccinated, the rest of the team could pick it up too. So this year, we will not be attending Race to the Sky.
It’s still not quite real, but it is painful. We’ve been working for this race since September. I’ve put in hours and hours of time and training into making it to this race. It meant a lot to me.
So for this weekend I will be avoiding Facebook and updates on the race, and watching Netflix and cuddling my team.
Looking at it in a positive light, it gives me the opportunity to go to some races later in the season that I have not been too. Race to the Sky is fortunately a race that is very close to home and I have years to run it again and again and again.
My dogs health and wellbeing will always come before any race.
Dogs first. Always.
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.
Every time I go to type this blog post, I can’t make myself finish it. I realize that may be hard to understand. When you go through an intense experience like I did with my team, you change. I can say with confidence that I was a completely different person when I crossed the 2018 Junior Iditarod finish line than I was When I started the race.
For most, the excitement of my team running the race has faded, not from memory, but from thought.
I still think of it every single day. My heart longs to be back there, and it breaks that I can’t. The Junior Iditarod cutoff age is 17, and I will be 18 by the time the race begins.
Coming back from something like Junior Iditarod is really hard, I’m not going to lie. When you put all of everything towards one thing, and you go out and accomplish that goal, and then its just over. Just under 31 hours. Thats how long it took for a years worth of work to be put to the test and completed.
Most of the drive back was me reflecting, and sleeping. The accumulation of mental exhaustion of the entire season was finally coming to an end, and I no longer had to charge through, ignoring it and continuing on. The first person I told the story of Jr. Iditarod to was my grandmother. What was meant to be a five minute phone call to let her know I was okay and heading home, turned into two and a half hours of reliving the race.
We drove back down through Canada and into Montana, heading for Laura’s house to pick up the dogs that hadn’t made my Jr. Iditarod team and stayed with her, and return the four dogs I had used for the race. We spent a little less than a week there.
It was after we left Laura’s, and returned home that it hit harder. Laura had warned me, while I was still in Alaska, just after finishing the race, what actually finishing would be like.
I called the very next morning after our finish, and after a year of two hour long phone conversations with at least fifteen to twenty questions each, the only one on my mind was, “What now?”.
It was a strange feeling. Like I was so full and happy and proud and ecstatic because oh my god we made it, but I was also empty, and confused, because it was just over.
“Everyone tells you how to run the race, but no one tells you how to finish it.”
That was probably the most helpful thing she could have said in that moment. She told me that it was hard, coming off a race that you’ve put so much into, that I might feel a little depressed, that coming home might be challenging.
You’ve just put your soul into this race, and now you’ll return home, and everyone is still just going about like life hasn’t changed forever.
And so we returned home. And sure enough life was moving, and I was in a whole other world.
It was a struggle, but I took comfort in knowing I was not the only musher that had gone through it, nor would I be the last. I took comfort with the dogs and the solace they gave me.
Sometimes I still feel myself slip back into that other world. When I hear a song that was on my playlist for that race, or look at a certain photo, or when I look at a dog that was on that trail with me.
Summer has come and gone. Fall is fast upon us and Winter is not far behind. Olaf, one of the dogs that ran Jr. Iditarod with me has joined the kennel, and it brings me happiness every single day when i look out the window and he’s there with the others.
I’ve made some decisions about this season after looking at the bigger picture.
I know there was some question on why I decided to run Stage Stop’s 8-dog class this year, since it is not a mid-distance race. That is exactly why I decided to run it. I want to go more seriously into running longer races, but I’ve also wanted to run Stage Stop for awhile now. The opportunity it will give me to watch top teams competing, and to learn from them, will be invaluable in the years to come. So if I’m going to do it, now is my self proclaimed chance. Because after this season, I have my eyes set on much bigger and different races. Though I’m not yet ready to reveal what those races and plans may be, I have confidence in saying that I want a slightly more ‘relaxed’ year before we once again bite the bullet. Its not that Stage Stop will be relaxing. Its a highly competitive event, but its a very different type of event than what I’m pursuing, so I’ll feel less pressure in that regard.
The Race to the Sky 100 will be my first race as an adult, which feels fitting and I look forward to seeing how much better mentally I can handle a mid-distance race.
Hang on, its always a wild ride. After all, Junior Iditarod was just the beginning. We are not done here.