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.
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?”
“Are you sure?”
…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!
Arriving at the parking lot of the Little Ski Hill, fog coated the mountain.
All morning my pre race nerves had been hitting me. I didn’t want to eat, I was exhausted from little sleep the night before, and I thought I was going to vomit behind my trailer.
I was desperately trying to remind myself that the panic was all in my head and was managing it terribly when Laura called and reminded me that it was, in fact, all in my head.
So I packed my sled, we got the dogs out, and people started to arrive, the sun started to shine through the clouds, and the yelling of excitement from the dog teams reached a crescendo as they started to take off down the trail.
My dogs and I would be headed out last, giving me plenty of time to make sure my stuff was in order.
The Idaho Challenge 100 mile race is run with two checkpoints along the trail. You leave the start at the Little Ski Hill, and head out on the trail for the first Checkpoint, Wye. Your handler drives around and drops off your drop bag, and can assist in guiding your leaders through the checkpoint, but other than that it’s an entirely unassisted race. The trail then heads back along mostly the same route, except for the last ten miles to Platt Checkpoint where our mandatory 6hr layover is. Your handler is there to the same extent they are at Wye, but still unable to assist.
After you take your mandatory rest, you can hit the trail for Cascade, the final stop and the finish line.
The sled was hooked back to a snowmobile to help us control the dogs getting down to the start line. In order to get there, we had to head out one end of the parking area, make a downhill left, head down the hill through a chute of spectators, make another turn to the right and get into the starting chute all with a team of fresh, ready to go, amped sled dogs that had just come off another hundred mile race and were raring to go, but after we made it into the start chute any nerves I had left melted away.
And off we went.
The sun was hot and the trail soft and slow and it didn’t take long after the start for the dogs to settle into a steady pace as we started climbing the ridge.
The view was gorgeous from what I could see through breaks in the fog. Eventually I started to think we had to be getting close to the top. I was getting hot helping the dogs get the sled up hills and I was stopping the dogs several times an hour to let them grab some snow and roll around to cool off.
The trail just kept going up.
We passed a few other teams and finally broke out of the fog and could see over other ridge lines covered in snow.
The trail rolled along the top of Red Ridge for a ways before dropping down again, only to start the climb up Blue Bunch.
Once we made it back up and were coming along Blue Bunch I found myself, despite the slog that we had done to get up there, having fun exploring this new and beautiful country with my dogs, (though I was trying not to think of what the elevation on the next two legs of the race was going to be like.). You could see forever and the snow capped mountains in the distance were incredible.
We were moving along at a steady pace, still going up, when I saw a section of trail ahead that looked like it started to go down. As we got closer I remember thinking that I wasn’t seeing the trail slope and had the distinct feeling of a roller coaster climbing to the top of a drop, right before my lead dogs drop over the edge of the trail. The rest of the team and the sled, (and me) following after.
We skidded down the slope my brake digging into the trench in the trail that had already been made by previous teams. And then, we started to climb the next section of ridge. Are you sensing a theme here?
Eventually after traveling the top for a few miles we dropped down in elevation a bit where I stopped in a flat section of trail to do our first planned thirty minute stop just over three hours into the race. I hooked down and snacked the dogs, giving everyone a pet and unhooking tugs for the team dogs as well as the leader neckline so Sike and Nellie could roll around in the deep snow at the edge of the trail.
I had packed water in the sled so that I could keep the dogs hydrated on the way to Platt, which would be a seventy-one mile trek.
A few dogs drank a bit, but most were uninterested, whining their displeasure that I had stopped them while they were doing what they loved most.
I tried to Ignore the noise so that it wouldn’t make me antsy and hit the trail too soon, and set to work taking off old booties, putting them in a ziplock that I could toss in my drop bin at Wye where I would pick up new ones.
I grabbed a few new bundles and re booted the dogs that needed them.
After putting extra booties away, I grabbed the massage oil and went down the line, giving a few dogs massages that I wanted to work on before we set back out.
After offering them water once more, their barking had reached a frantic pitch and as soon as I hooked them back up we took off down the trail and started the decent down to the Wye Checkpoint that would mark thirty-four miles into the race.
The light was getting lower and the Sky was turning beautiful pastel colors, outlining the mountains underneath it.
Coming down took longer than I expected, but was probably shorter than it felt.
We pulled into Wye, signing in and planning to head out in twenty minutes.
I grabbed more water for the dogs and myself, replaced some gear and put gear I didn’t need in my drop bin, snacked the dogs, and had the vets check over Farce who I had planned/expected to drop there.
During training shortly before we left home, she tweaked a back leg in deep snow, which is why I sat her off of the Eagle Cap team. She had been running great on the way to Wye, but I could tell that it wasn’t a hundred percent, and though I was glad she had the opportunity to stretch and get out with the team, I wanted to be conservative and I made the decision to drop her.
We were at Wye for longer than I planned, me still getting used to Checkpoint routines and working out the fastest way to do things, especially after two years since my last mid distance race.
Heading out of Wye, the team that left the checkpoint with us passed us within a few miles and shortly after, the light faded and stars started to peak out from the dark.
The climb back up the mountain took ages. The trail was soft, the hills were steep, and most of the thirty-seven miles to Platt was uphill. We climbed and climbed and climbed.
Some of the time I recognized bits of the trail, but going the opposite way from how we had come in, and at night, there were a few times I got confused and started to worry that maybe I had missed the turn. Especially since I hadn’t seen the turn to Platt on the way out to Wye.
We finally made it to the top of Blue Bunch after what I think was a few hours, though I honestly had a very warped sense of time during the race since I went into it on very little sleep and of course only continued to get more tired as the race went on.
I could feel the wind picking up as we started to get close to the top, and when we finally broke out onto the open ridge top the wind was blowing and the fog and snow were obscuring any of the little vision I had with my headlamp. I could barely make out my leaders at times, but trusted them to remain on the trail. We made it through one section of open trail, and I stopped to give the dogs a short break, walking up the team letting them know they were good dogs and crouching down with Nellie and Sike to play with them and give them some scratches. “Okay guys, one more windy section and then we’ll be back in cover. One more! Good dogs!”
They wagged their tails happily, content even in the wind and snow, and we launched ourselves up the same drop that we had come down earlier in the daylight, me walking behind the sled pushing against the soft snow, and the dogs out front leaping in their harnesses with heart and soul to haul the sled up the incline and straight into the sidewind. I was so proud. For four of the dogs it’s their first season running with me, and they trusted me enough to not question me when, having already asked them to climb back up the same mountain, I asked them to pull the gear filled sled up a steep section of trail right into the wind. Right back into the cold, and the fog, and the blowing snow where I could barely see.
These are some of my least, and most favorite moments running dogs. When you’re afraid and have to sit with your fear. There’s nothing more powerful than learning how to face that. Nothing that compares to facing those fears with the most loyal friends one can ask for. And there’s nothing I would rather do more.
Finally we started to come down the other side and it wasn’t long after we got out of the wind that we hit the intersection that would take us to Platt.
And I couldn’t hardly believe it but it was groomed. The last ten or so miles into Platt was GROOMED.
I was ecstatic, and so were the dogs. After several hours of soft trail and climbing we popped out onto a hard packed trail and there was nothing that could have made us happier in that moment.
I had been concerned about knowing when to make the turn to Platt, (of course, I was concerned for nothing, the intersection was clear as day and the only reason I missed it on the way out was because there was fresh snow on the trail.) so I had pushed our planned thirty minute stop at the three hour mark closer to four. I hadn’t wanted to stop the dogs on the windy sections of trail and I knew once we got through there that the turn wouldn’t be far. So I called the dogs up and let them breeze down a little bit of the fresh packed trail, and then stopped them in a nice little section of trail with tree cover and no wind.
They were much better behaved on this stop than they had been on the last since they were a little more tired, and I went through the same routine again, snacking, giving them water, re booting, waxing feet, massaging, water again.
Charmayne came by with her team while we were stopped and it was nice for both me and the dogs to see a brief sign of life on the trail after hours of seeing no one.
I packed the cooler back in the sled, hooked the dogs tuglines back up, and we headed for Platt. The trail was smooth sailing and a little over an hour later we pulled into the checkpoint.
After I signed in, mom grabbed my leaders and lead us up to where the straw and drop bags were staged. I grabbed a bale of straw and set it on top of my sled and we headed into the team parking area.
After getting the team parked I grabbed my drop bin and started my checkpoint routine, getting the dogs fed and bedded down, tending to feet and massaging the dogs that needed it.
After the dogs were taken care of I headed into the Platt warming hut to warm up, get some food, and hydrate. I managed to have a small bowl of soup and some bread, and drank a bottle of water before it was time to get some sleep.
I went back outside pulling my sleeping bag out of my sled and grabbed some extra straw and curled up in a pile of dogs.
I didn’t sleep well, maybe an hour total. The rest of the time I lay there getting damp and cold as the wet snow continued to fall. My allergies also started to act up, which usually doesn’t happen to me with straw, but it made sleeping more uncomfortable and challenging.
Eventually my alarm went off and I crawled out of my bag, packing it up and then heading back to the warming hut to grab some more water and maybe get a little something to eat, (that didn’t happen, I was already itching to get on the trail and had snacks already packed in my sled since I knew I always find it challenging to eat before I leave.).
After I warmed up a bit, I headed back out to double check my leave time before I started to wake dogs up and walk them. It was at that point of course that I discovered that my leave time was not 4:15 as I had thought, but 4:56. My sleep deprived brain had come into the checkpoint and been so sure of what it saw that I had set my alarm for earlier than necessary.
It did end up being a good thing though! I walked everyone to let them stretch out as usual, and noticed Boats walking a bit funny. The vet team helped me checked him over, ruling out different causes, and it was agreed that he had a sore right bicep tendon. Though they approved him to run the final leg of the race just fine, I didn’t want to make it any worse, especially considering that he’s a very important player on the Race to the Sky team, so I decided to drop him and finish the race with six dogs.
The dogs were barking and yelling to go and we got into line to leave the checkpoint with two other teams. After signing out we hit the trail with snow coming down and no sign of morning light.
We quickly passed another team and caught up to my good friend Charmayne Morrison and her team. For awhile we passed back and forth in the dark, one team pulling ahead a bit and then the other team catching up again. The trail was beautiful and groomed for a ways, rolling through the hills.
And then we made a turn off the groomed trail, and everything started to slow very quickly.
There had been over a foot of new snow within the past few days and despite the dedicated race trail breakers, and other teams having run over the trail, it wasn’t packed and the temps had been above ideal for the dogs for the entire race.
For a while both Charmayne and I made an effort to pull away from one another, but as the hills started to get steeper, the trail softer, and as the sun came up and it grew warmer, we quickly realized it wasn’t going to happen.
And thus began our loooooong slog up many many hills that never ended. You simply made it to the top of one and there was another waiting. We started to take turns leading, giving the team behind some spirit off of chasing another team. Instead of a race it became a run for the finish line.
I wouldn’t say our run was fun, there were too many hills and we were too tired for that, but running together made the long haul much more enjoyable, able to chat back and forth, the pressure of racing gone with the temperature high and the trail difficult.
We were crawling. It was demoralizing for both people and dogs and I knew we were both trying to keep it upbeat. We jokingly celebrated every time be hit a new speed ‘record’ climbing the hills. Charmayne, leading, would call out the stats from her gps as we desperately pedaled up the hills growing increasingly sore.
“4.2 miles per hour! 4.5! 5.2!”
And on it went. Up and up for what seemed like forever.
We hit the crest of a hill and the trail started to go down. Of course, that’s the moment that we saw a sign that said,
WARNING: Avalanche Area DO NOT STOP
Which is naturally something you want to see while out running dogs in the middle of nowhere.
But the trail was going DOWN. After what seemed like forever we were finally getting there, and we broke free of the clouds and could see down over the lake where we knew the finish line was. Whooping, we called the dogs up and they sped down the hill, passing back and fourth and having a grand time with the easy sailing. We hit 14mph (we checked) and after our long forty mile run, it felt like we were flying.
Leading our charge down the hill we slowed up as we neared some snow fencing that marked a plowed road. Skittering onto the ice we made a corner to head out onto the lake and I almost fell off my sled.
I think it might be too much to hope that none of the spectators saw.
We made a right and instead of heading across the lake as the trail typically takes you, we headed along the shore where they had rerouted the trail to avoid the overflow on the lake ice.
Coming along the lake a ways, the markers went one way with a narrow snowmobile track, and the trail hard packed trail went another. It was clear teams had taken both trails, (they both went to the same spot) but both Sike and I got confused and my leaders got tangled. Charmayne and Co. passed us, and I spent a minute getting everyone straightened out and we took off after her. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard during a race as we both were over the next four and a half miles. We were pedaling hard, and getting down behind our sleds in spots that were windy. We were both calling our dogs up and running the last stretch of the trail into the finish line like it was a 9mph sprint race and everything was riding on it.
Feeding off her team and the knowledge that the finish was getting close, my dogs slowly started to gain on them as we came around the other side of the lake.
We crossed under the finish line one after the other after a long forty miles!
I remember thinking, in the midst of pedaling up multiple hills, my feet throbbing and my legs aching, that anyone who runs these hills twice as the three hundred mile teams do, is out of their mind. I requested that if I expressed the inkling to sing up for the three hundred mile event that I should be slapped and reminded of the horrors of these hills.
And then I woke up the next morning and my first thought was, ‘That was fun! Let’s do the three hundred!’
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.