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.
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.