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.
The morning of the race was awful. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to get in the truck. I didn’t want to eat either, but my mom forced me to choke down some oatmeal on the way to the start. There was nothing in me that wanted to get to that starting line.
My mom, (who was insanely helpful that morning) pretty much packed my sled for me while I walked around like a zombie. I was later told that it was as though I wasn’t even there, there was just nothing behind the shell I call a body. My mother and handler, Trevor, did almost everything except boot my dogs for me.
I kept moving on auto pilot, and I knew if I could just stand on the sled, I would have no choice but to leave the chute with my team. Bailing wouldn’t be an option. So I moved monotonously, going through the motions at a snails pace. And then time started to speed up and we were hooking in the team, handlers were holding my dogs and we were in the chute.
I don’t think my heart could have been pounding any harder and I was concentrating on not puking or fainting.
And then the count down was on and we were off. And I felt fine. I had trained and raced my dogs over 1,000 miles this season, this was just like our other runs.
I knew I was not going to have a competitive team going into the race. That was not the plan. The plan was to finish, and finish with a healthy team.
So I decided to start with my more ‘questionable’ dogs in lead, and to save my more driving race leaders for later in the race, when the going got tough.
One of these dogs was LeLu, a fantastic race dog that I was using from Night Runner Kennel, but a dog that didn’t know me well, and wasn’t a main leader. The other dog I chose, was Steampunk, my soft headed easygoing male. My plan was to run them the first 20-30 miles in lead, and then put a different set of leaders in.
Within the first 5 miles of the race, Steam was starting to look back at me, and trying to stop to take a break.To be clear, he was not actually tired. At all.
But this was part of what I had been having trouble with with him, and had not yet figured out what made him tick and stay focused.
I had a sinking feeling, one of two dogs I had hoped would get my team the first 20 miles, and save my race leaders for the end, was already loosing interest. I cheered him on, calling him up, and assuring him he was doing a ‘great job!’. We continued on, him faltering every once in awhile.
After a time all the Juniors were clumped together on the trail, running at a similar pace.
One would stop to snack, and we’d all stop to snack. Eventually we started to separate a little bit, forming small groups along the trail of teams that were running the same pace.
From that point on, I ran with Lara Renner and Charmayne Morrison at the back of the pack for most of the first leg. We led out, followed by Charmayne, and then Lara bringing up the back of our train.
I honestly can’t tell you what changed, because I have no idea, but what happened next changed the outcome of my team, and our run.
One minute, my soft headed boy went from having a huge lack of confidence and will, to throwing on blinders of determination and whatever genetic perfection makes up a true racing dog.
It took two seconds, and the weakest dog on my team, became my strongest.
We traveled that way for hours, going out of the swamps, into the trees, and then dropping out onto the river, all the while running in a foot of fresh snow. We crossed the river and headed up into this cluster of small hills, about thirty miles into the race.
The trail curved and dipped just enough that I was having a significant problem steering my sled. It was slowing my team down and tiring them more than I was happy with.
He is one quirky little dude, and he’s got to be the most comical dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of running.
Every time we went into a corner, I would lean really hard to the outside, then the inside, dragging my foot, attempting to make it around without crashing.
This slowed us down significantly and made for harder work for the dogs.
Of course, if I didn’t make it around the corner, I would plow through the snowbank, and either make it to the trail on the other side, or smack into a log or bush that was buried. I would then come to a halt, or crash sideways onto the trail.
Every time this would happen, Oaken, who was in wheel with his brother, Olaf, would turn and give me the stink eye like, ‘get it together lady.’.
Eventually we stopped and snacked our team’s in a small meadow, taking a short break, and then hitting the trail again. After a time, my team was wary of leading the charge, and Charmayne took the lead.
After awhile her team pulled ahead of us, and Lara and I ran together for awhile. Eventually we came into Eagle Song Checkpoint, 50 miles in, a quick stop to sign in to, drop a dog if needed, (it wasn’t) and continue on toward Yetna Station Roadhouse, at the 75 mile mark.
I still had LeLu and Steampunk in lead, though I had noticed LeLu faltering slightly in confidence and, like I planned, put her back in swing, while I brought my best and most experienced leader, Freckles, up. What I had not planned on, was leaving Steamer up front, but he was still moving like a freight train, and the world was going to end before he quit. This was not my decision, he had taken that from me. He was going to lead. And that was that.
(Believe it or not, he would go on in the race out running Freckles, and outpacing even her in determination).
The checkers gave us drinks, wished us well, and we were on our way, off into the fading light.
After heading through a small set of hills, we headed out onto what my brain refers to as The Flats.
Wide open tundra with small clumps of spruce.
The sunset was gorgeous, orange and salmon colored, with hues of peach. I decided to stop for our planned 20 minute break, and admire the view.
Lara Renner slid past us and continued down the trail, shortly followed by a snowmobiler headed for Yentna. He stopped and we chatted for awhile, keeping us company while we finished our rest. Fixing a few booties, I headed for the sled and we hit the trail again, the dogs rested and ready to roll. Waving farewell, he followed us for a ways, and then headed off on what I’ll assume was a shorter route to Yetna.
The flats we beautiful, if not daunting. The light was disappearing and the vast expanse didn’t look like it ended.
We slipped off land and onto a lake, passing through a few houses out in the middle of nowhere, their fires lit and smoking out the chimney.
I had the most peculiar sensation of rightness. Now I understand what I was feeling. The connection to something other, something very old, and different. To a time when our world was very new, and you used a dogteam to travel. It’s comforting to know that places like that still exist.
I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to get out of this frozen world and be in front of a fire. But we had other plans for the night. That would have to wait until after the race.
Their dog barking alerted the people inside to a team, and a few came out and cheered, waving. I waved back, and we disappeared around the corner, back on land, and heading away, our goal not yet reached.
I could see Lara up ahead and decided to stop and snack when she did, and then headed past her and her resting team with a sole goal in mind. Yetna.
It’s funny how it happens, the connection between Team and driver. It’s a steady process, both happening all at once, and taking forever. We became one movement, always flowing, with no ending.
“We are a circle, within a circle, with no beginning, and never ending.” – Unknown
On we flew into the night.
The dogs were doing awesome after our break, and they picked up speed. There were teams ahead of us, I could see the headlamps, and so could they, but they knew the checkpoint was coming too, they could feel it.
I flicked on my headlamp and zoned in on the dogs. The past 70 miles my brain had been consumed by nothing else. Even when the draw of the views and the awe of being in Alaska and running the Jr. Iditarod pulled me away, a corner of my brain was always connected, always on, the dogs.
Now I was looking for any stress in the team. A dog that wasn’t running right, someone who might be sore, or have any feet issues, anyone that would need extra special attention at the checkpoint.
Of course, I had been paying close attention to my dogs the entire race, but in the finale miles before the checkpoint, you start to try and wake your sleepy brain up, going through the patterns of your plan so that you know what you’re going to do when you get there. Time is not to be wasted.
Eventually, we wound through some trees, and dropped suddenly out onto the river, following the markers into the fog.
The river felt like it took ages. Each bend looked so close, yet took miles to get to, and when you came around one bend, there was another waiting up ahead. In reality, we weren’t out there very long at all, and the next morning, we would only spend five minutes on the river on the way to Willow. Sleep deprivation does strange things to ones brain.
My eyes were fixed straight ahead, switching between the dogs, and searching for that little red light that would hail us off the river and into the checkpoint.
It went on and on and on, never seeming to end. And then, there it was, around a bend, a red flashing light on a marker, the sound of people, and the lights from the roadhouse.
We took a sharp right and we went up a bank and under a banner that read,
‘Jr. Iditarod Checkpoint’
They welcomed us to the Yetna Station Roadhouse, and I signed us in. My drop bags were placed on top of my sled, and we were lead to our spot. We parked behind Charmayne, and split a bale of straw.
The checkpoint where we would spend a required 10hrs, was set up just off the river, the fog rolling by us and putting a nice chill in the air.
I honestly don’t remember much of that night, while also remembering oddly detailed things, so I’ll do my best to recount it.
I’m going to assume at this point I pulled out my list of Checkpoint ‘steps’ that I had from my mentor, Laura, and started following the list.
I went up and pet everyone, paying special attention to Steampunk. We were 75 miles in, cold, hungry, and had just completed our longest run of the season, and he brought us into Yentna. This dog had just done a zero to one-hundred and I couldn’t believe it.
I went back to my sled, grabbed a bag of dog cookies, and walked up the line giving them all a snack and a ‘good dog’ praise. Walking back towards the sled, I pulled off booties, sticking them in the empty snack bag. I got my cooker going, pulled out food for the dogs, and got the RedPaw and Chicken ready.
In between massaging dogs, I would put more snow in the cooker, and then head back to the team. Eventually, I had moderately enough water for the team, and poured it into the cooler with the chicken, mixing it up, and then ladling it out into the bowls with RedPaw.
I went back to the cooker and started it up again, heating water for a last souping before we would leave.
The dogs were glad for a meal, and once they were finished, I bed them down, put Jackets on, and settled them in for bed. It was cold enough that I moved one of my smaller dogs, Rubicon, who had been running by herself, into another group on the line, so she would have more dogs to cuddle with. I would later find out that it was -17 for our overnight, and into our run the next day.
The dogs looked really good, and content to be resting. LeLu stayed up for awhile, watching over the team and surveying her rookie Musher going about the business of taking care of the team. I think if she could have critiqued me and given me advice, she would have.
Of course, brothers Olaf, and Oaken, hadn’t camped before they had run Race to the Sky with me, and were skeptical about why I was making them sleep in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, after a seventy-five mile run Olaf was ready to lay down and doze. Oaken was a bit more indignant, and sat the entire night. At least he didn’t stand, like he insisted on doing at Race to the Sky.
I put cream on all the dogs feet, and massaged their wrists and wrapped the entire team to prevent or help any sore wrists. All my dogs looked good, so I went back to the cooker to check the water.
The series of things that happened next involved sleep deprivation, playing with cooker fuel, and… well, what happens at Jr. Iditarod, stays at Jr. Iditarod.
All you need to know is that during the rest of night I managed to choke down half a bag of REI spaghetti and chicken that was cold and kind of crunchy, call it good, grab my personal gear and sleeping bag, and head for the middle of the team.
After I got situated, I stuck four body warmers into my sleeping bag, set my alarm for 4:15 (at least, I think I did, this is all VERY hazy) and put the snooze button on the world.
Something I never expected to happen at a Dog Race happened that night. I woke up.
Because I was too hot.
I know. Thats what I was thinking.
The body warmers, that were supposed to let me sleep, were working a bit too well, even at seventeen below.
That was fine by me, I was a happy camper. As long as I could let a little cool air in every once in awhile, I was all good. On a hunch, I checked on my phone, and noting the ‘iPhone too hot’ signal, moved it too a cooler spot.
It’s safe to say I slept very happily, and woke up an hour before I was supposed to, wide awake and ready to hit the trail.
I made myself stay in my bag and chill out until a few minutes before I was supposed to get up, and then I couldn’t take it anymore. It was time to get the show on the road.
I wanted to leave the dogs alone for as long as possible so they could get as much rest as they could, so I put all my personal gear back in the sled and tried to sort through the rest of my sled gear and get it organized.
Tried would be the key word in that sentence.
I don’t know what happened, I think my organization skills need some work, because it looked like my sled exploded. Still pondering this, considering that I only brought required gear, snacks for the dogs and me, and a few choice other things, like dog jackets.
No matter, it looked like someone set off a bomb in my sled bag. After getting things a little more set up, I gave the dogs some soup, which is warm water with ground up chicken mixed in, so that they’ll drink and stay hydrated.
I then massaged and walked dogs, undoing their wrist wraps, and letting them stretch their legs and go to the bathroom. While I was doing this, the vet checked over my dogs and made sure everyone looked good.
And here you get introduced to a very special dog named Twix.
Twix belongs to my friend and mentor, Laura Daugereau, who very generously allowed me to use four of her racing dogs in the Jr. Iditarod to fill out my team. Olaf, Oaken, LeLu, and… Twix.
On the drive up we had discovered that Twix, absolutely hated have us touch his feet. That’s right, us. Not a problem with anyone else, but if we touched them? The world ended. Meaning he would give an incredibly loud shriek. Quite impressive really, I don’t think even I can shriek like Twix.
Now, I’m walking Twix through the checkpoint, and he goes through a drift of powdery snow. This snow of course, gets in between his toes. The immediate shrieking that came next scared the living bejesus out of me and most certainly woke me up.
Of course, now I’m thinking, ‘Oh gee, thanks Twix, this looks fantastic. Here I am walking my dog in the middle of a checkpoint and he’s acting like he’s dying. Don’t worry everyone, he’s just a spaz.’ Shortly followed by me whispering at him, ‘Twix, calm down, Its not me touching your feet, it’s snow. My goodness.’
After our little show, I went to check in with the vet and see what his report was on the team.
Twix was a little stiff and sore, but the vet was very confident that he would be just fine once he got moving and stretched out a bit.
Olaf had what seemed to be sore hips. After pondering for awhile, we decided it would be okay for him to continue on, and if I needed to, I could drop him at Eagle Song in twenty-five miles.
All in all, I ended up leaving the checkpoint about 6:58.
We weaved out of the camp, dodging this way and that to get out of the twists and curves they had us all camped in. It was like twelve chutes that eventually led into one, that immediately dropped you onto the river. It just, you know, had trees to get around. It was actually great fun! Plus it’s a good way to wake up all the way in the morning, in case Twix wasn’t enough.
And then a women stepped out from the path and yelled ‘take a hard left!’.
Now apparently, different Juniors hears different things, such as, ‘follow the trash bags!’.
We took a left and got maybe ten seconds down the trail when we saw Lara Renner coming back towards us maybe thirty feet to the right.
After a brief yelling conversation, it was clear my team was headed to a dead end. So, we made a hard right where Lara’s team had, and headed back the other way. At which point we saw Lara again, coming back the other way, now thirty feet to our left. Neither of us had any idea, but I was pretty sure she was going the right way, and I was going the wrong way.
We reached the trail just below Yetna, and made a hard left to follow Lara. LeLu was a little confused, so I set my hooks on the ice, praying and trusting my team, but mostly my ability to grab the sled as it flew by.
In the middle of untangling the front of my team, Cim, the race marshal, came down the hill and stood on my hook, preventing me from being left behind. (Thanks Cim).
And then off we went, the sled runners skittering and scrapping on the ice. I slowed the team, letting them warm up their muscles. Five minutes later, we hopped up off the river and headed for The Flats.
The Flats were beautiful. The sun eventually broke the horizon, and we were struck with a beautiful pink sunrise. The air was frozen. At least it felt like it. This was probably the most distinct part of the race for me, remembered very clearly with a feeling of longing. This was indeed the section of trail that froze my fingers, and frosted my dogs so much my black dogs looked like they turned white overnight. But it was were we all were very much alive. I remember trying to come up with words to describe it all.
At this point, you are so connected to the team, that there is no them, it is only Us.
Almost a collective consciousness. Time has no meaning, and you are breathing, eating, and sleeping the race, together.
You are so alive that you almost don’t exist. Which is maybe most definitely my sleep deprived brain talking.
After a time I realized we were getting close to the checkpoint, and remembered the deal I had made with myself, about eating breakfast before we got there, (I had been too nervous to eat at Yetna). I choked down a Chocolate PopTart as fast as I could, heading out along the edge of the Eagle Song field.
We pulled into the checkpoint as the sun was rising fully. They offered drinks, but I refused, knowing that I had water in my sled. I snacked the dogs and chatted with the checkers briefly, and then we were on our way.
Knowing the hills were coming up, I reached into my sled bag for my water bottle, planning on hydrating myself before I had to run up some hills, only to find all four of my drinks frozen solid.
I knew I had been really hydrated the first half of the race, and at Yetna, (I had worked extra hard to make sure I was super hydrated so my brain would function better on lack of sleep) so I knew I would make it to the finish fine, I would just be REALLY thirsty.
And the cycle began again. In we went, the sled smacking into logs, me attempting not to decapitate myself on overhanging trees, and Oaken glaring at me all the way. He got so good at his stink eye, that he would give it before we got to a corner, already anticipating his drivers faults.
He provided a comical source of amusement for me along the trail, having dubbed himself Prince and stink eye giver. His hilarious ‘holier than thou’ attitude never fails to make me smile.
Finally, we broke out of the trees and went out on the river. I decided to give Freckles a break and switched Nellie into lead next to Steam, and we traveled up river for a ways before crossing to the bank on the other side.
Now Robin Hood, one of my two year olds, had been doing good. It’s his first season of doing mid-distance, and he’s been excelling fast. His enthusiasm however, both was, and was not appreciated when we crossed the swamps, heading towards willow.
In case you didn’t know, the swamps are the most boring, slow, never ending, nonstop, endless, bottomless pit of trail. Ever.
five to ten miles of trail that feel like thirty.
They’re gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but when you go through them in the middle of the day, when the sun is at its peak, you’re sleep deprived, and incredibly thirsty because your water froze, it’s pretty miserable.
The first few miles weren’t so bad.
We broke out of the trees just after coming off the river crossing, and I stopped the team and we rested for about twenty minutes, all of us dozing in the sun about forty miles from the finish line.
After our short nap, we hit the trail again. All was fine until we turned off of the trail from the day before, onto an unpacked, soft trail to head for Willow, and the finish line. We were just far enough behind the other teams, and there were a lot of snowmobiles out, that the tracks from the other teams were nonexistent.
Our speed dropped as the dogs spirits dropped. To them, I had turned them off of the race trail.
Robin Hood did NOT like the speed change. He wanted to go FAST. This was not acceptable. So he proceeded to work on shredding my gangline. He chewed many necklines on that run. Chew, replace, chew, replace, chew, replace…
On and on the cycle went. I won’t get into more details about the swaps, I feel bored even thinking about it. However, I will say that when my dogs saw the small hill that takes you up out of the swamps, they shot for it like it was going to save them from death by boredom. Which, it probably did. Me too.
I had heard lots of things about the trail, but one thing I hadn’t heard about, was the end. For some reason, in my head, when you came out of the swamps you were five miles from the finish. I have no idea where the heck that came from our how it got into my head, because it is most certainly not the case.
I stopped the team after a little ways, and went up and we had a little heart to heart, thanking them for what they’d done, and spending a little time with them before we were surrounded by civilization and people again. I snacked them and we continued on, spirits high.
And then we kept going. And going. And WHERE THE HECK WAS THE FINISH.
We wound through the trees for awhile and it’s dawning on my that I have no clue where I am. We hit some long corridor like stretches and the miles kept stretching, all the while a slightly confused, very sleep deprived, delirious musher is hanging on the the back of the sled apologizing to her team because clearly we are not done here.
After another hour… or two… or forty minutes??? We came around a wide corner heading back out onto some lake looking swamps, and passed a tent next to the trail. As we were coming up on it, I thought ‘Oh! They must have someone out here to radio when teams are coming through so they’re ready at the finish. We must be getting close.’
At which point a woman shot out of the tent and hollered, ‘Your doing great, almost there! Eighteen more miles to go!!’
We continued on, my brain beginning to tell me sleep was necessary to live, and my body fighting it back.
We wove toward the finish, ten minutes feeling like forty, and the beat in my headphones attempting to keep me awake.
I was snacking dogs in a very ‘moose popular’ part of the trail, lots of tracks, scat, and nibbled on bushes, when the trail crew caught up to me, taking down the markers as they followed the team’s in.
I gave the dogs a short break, and then we continued on.
I’m trying to remember what happened in the next sections of trail, but my brain was so dysfunctional at this point I’m not sure if it would make sense even if I did remember it. All I can say is that I can’t tell you how many times I though for sure we had reached the finish line, and that it was just ahead.
I vaguely remember some road crossings within the last ten miles, at which Nellie tried to take us down the pavement rather than across, (thank you to all the volunteers who were watching the roads).
I remember pulling Steamer out of lead once, for ten miles, when he looked like he needed a break, but he went back in for our final march to the finish.
I also remember being three miles from the finish, and stopping to look at some markers before making a right turn. Two minutes later I was thinking back to the turn and wondering if, in my sleepy void, I had made a wrong turn. Thankfully after a few more minutes of hazy wondering, I saw another marker, assuring me I was going the right way.
Then, for the first time during the race, I saw a cow moose standing in the trail as we rounded the corner. Thankfully she trotted off, wanting little to do with us.
I do distinctly remember making another turn and thinking that this was a horrible idea. Who in their right mind runs one-hundred and fifty mile races? This is miserable. Why did I talk myself into this?
At which point we hit a trail that ran next to a road. We crossed an intersection that had a few volunteers cheering for us, and dropped down the hill and onto Willow Lake.
I could see the finish line ahead, the banner reading Jr. Iditarod Finish in big letters, and a few people waiting patiently for us to come in.
I’ll never forget the feeling of crossing that lake. I was desperately trying not to cry about how proud of my dogs I was, and in that moment, all I really wanted was to stop and be alone with my team, to not end this grand adventure that was the absolute misery that is mid-distance Sled Dog racing. To spend more time feeling the incredible connection that goes beyond just a bond between Team and driver. I did not want it to end. But I also really wanted a cheeseburger. And WATER.
So we marched across the lake together. Passing signs that had been put out for each Junior with quotes of encouragement on them.
I have an incredibly touching moving picture in my head of the few people standing by the finish line, and then the crowds of people that streamed out of the banquet hall and down the hill to welcome in the last team to Willow.
Under the banner we went, to words of welcome and congratulations.
I only had eyes for my dogs.
We had made it. The One-hundred and fifty miles from Wassila Alaska, to Willow Alaska, by dogteam.
When you hear stories of dog races and epic mushing tales, you hear of the hardships, grandeur of the trail, and thrill of the race.
My 2018 Junior Iditarod Run was not all rainbows. In fact, when you get passed the thrill of running the race, it was really quite miserable. Our world is such a fine line between heaven and absolute hell. You go from zero to one hundred and then back again more times in a single race than you can count. But the hardest part?
That comes at the end, in leaving the team to be tended by your handlers, to head inside for the end of race banquet.
Photo taken by Julia Redington
Team Whiteout coming into Eagle Song on day one
I think by your second mid-distance race the realization is there that the romance covers up for reality. Not to be negative about it at all, it’s just the truth. When you set out on your first adventure, you have no idea what you’re about to face, or you don’t understand it. But the next time you go, it’s a bit more real.
The start of race to the Sky was an odd mix between a rush, and the undeniable reality of the troubles to come. My friend Charmayne and I were the only two Mushers in the junior’s class this year, and both of us were preparing our teams for the Junior Iditarod. My mentor and friend Laura, would either give me the go ahead for Alaska, or tell me we weren’t ready.
I managed to pack my sled and get everything ready, with significant help from my handlers, and we were headed to the start.
When you rocket out of the chute, you head up and over a small hill. I am very glad that I could not see what was on the other side, for it would have made my nerves significantly worse.
You shoot over the first hill with a fresh team, rocket down the other side in a trench that’s been dug by all the other sled brakes before you, and go skidding across a road with narrow trail heads on either side, while the front of your team takes a corner.
I don’t think I took a breath until we were heading across the meadow.
We took a narrow trail through the trees and eventually came out onto a wider trail.
Within the first few hours, we came to an intersection that, oddly, had two markers. I stopped the team and studied the trail. The fork to the left had an arrow pointing down the trail, and the arrow to the right had the same thing. Both had Sled and dog tracks heading down them. I stopped stumped, but heard a stopped team barking to the right, and headed down that trail. Later I would find out that I was lucky, and chose the correct route.
Shortly after, I went over a small hill, and at the top, saw what I thought was a small dog. Confused, we headed up and over the next hill, at which point, I slammed on my brakes and set my hooks as fast as I could. There was a skunk marching up the trail straight for my team. Of course, my first thought was that I should protect my dogs, and stand at the front of my team. Then I realized how stupid that sounded. So I watched and waited as he strutted his way toward my team, my dogs flipping out about the prey that was so close to them, tugging the sled and my snowhooks forward inch by inch as I desperately stood on my brake. At the last second, he flicked his tail, and turned off the trail, and we passed without issue, my muscles relaxing.
On we traversed across meadows and up mountains. The wind had been picking up at the start, and sections of the trail were windy enough for me to bundle up and hunker over to keep my face from the wind. We ran with a few other teams for awhile, and they picked up the pace and moved on as the light started fading.
The only real landmarks that I knew, were the end of the 20 mile loop, and huckleberry pass. I don’t think I even realized I had hit huckleberry pass, until I was almost to the top. Heading up, I could see light from Mushers behind, and above me.
Around that time I started to notice a difference in the team. Sunny, who was running in wheel, was running slightly off. I spent a little while watching her gait and trying to figure out exactly what I was seeing. It looked like a front leg, and after we started heading down the other side of huckleberry pass, I decided to put her in the sled bag to ride the rest of the way to the checkpoint. She was most definitely not okay with this. Sled dogs love to run, and bagging them during a race, or anytime for that matter, can be challenging. She spent the first twenty minutes teetering inside my sled bag, braced on my handlebar, cooler, cooker, and the outer edge of my sled bag.
By the second half, she got a little more sleepy, and I managed to stuff her down in the bag and zip it up. When I peeked in five minutes later, she was fast asleep, curled up as close to me as she could get on the inside.
When we reached the bottom of the mountain, we hit a plowed road, and the sled when skittering across the sheet of ice and frozen slush. The brake made a horrible grinding noise, and of course, this was the time Sunny decided to be fully awake again. Although I don’t blame her, the sound of that brake was making my tired brain smash itself against the sides of my skull.
Sunny was immediately up and becoming an escape artist again. Despite my efforts to stop her, she shoved her nose out of the sled bag and began trying to claw her way off the sled.
I had to stop for about three minutes just outside the checkpoint to get her wrangled back in.
We pulled into Whitetail Checkpoint, and I signed in, my Handlers grabbed my leaders and took us straight to the spot they had ready with our stuff.
Dog care mode was on, and I was requesting water, things from the truck, (which my Handlers were allowed to have parked a short walking distance from the Team rest area) and going straight into our routine.
I requested my vet check as soon as possible, and got straight to giving dogs praise, a cookie, and taking their booties off. After that I got their food ready with a mix of Redpaw, Chicken, and water.
My mom, Trevor, and I, went over the dogs, messaging them and putting on their coats, giving them straw, and making sure they had everything they needed.
When the team was taken care of, I distinctly remember Laura dragging me away from my team, telling me that the team was fine and to go get something to eat ‘right now’, (for those of you who don’t know, I’m horrible at eating in checkpoints, much to Laura’s dismay).
I managed to choke down a few bites of food, and then headed to the truck to sleep.
With the heat on, I managed to sleep fairly well, and woke up feeling at least moderately awake and ready to take care of the team.
When we left the checkpoint, at the last minute, as we’re about to leave, Laura leaned over and said, ‘Just so you know, the next 7 miles are plowed so just keep the team as slow as you can, and watch for the different turns on and off the roads, most of them will have people and lights at them.” Then she patted my back and said, ‘you’ll be fine’ And then off we went into the night.
Skittering down plowed roads with a fresh team hanging on for dear life was not how I had imagined my morning going. I clung desperately to the handle bar and tried to stay upright the best that I could on the sharp corners.
At long last, we finally pulled off of the roads and up into the hills, (while doing so I was almost flung off my sled, but that’s beside the point.) hoping that dawn would come soon.
It was cold. Very cold, and both the fact that I hadn’t changed my under layers before leaving the hot truck, and that I had sweat even more during our dash through plowed roads, meant that I was starting to feel a bit chilled.
When it’s cold and you’re tired, you really don’t feel like moving. I think at some point I stopped to snack dogs, and took off my parka to put more layers on.
It was a waiting game until morning.
Moving on in the dark, the seconds started to blur and feel like hours as I fought sleep. I could see where other teams had stopped to snack every few hours, and I used it to time my stops as well.
If I remember correctly, this was also the race where I looked all through my sled bag to find my headphones, and couldn’t, (later I would find them in my parka pocket where, ironically, I had put them so they were easy to find).
Music is a life saver in those never ending seconds, and it helps fight sleep and boredom as well.
I remember coming down the open face of a mountain, and looking back to watch the Sky start to lighten just barely. I could see decently enough over the next few miles, but my brain obviously wasn’t keeping up with my eyes when I had to make a sharp right down off of the trail onto a plowed road.
My snowhook hit my knee, (facing backwards thankfully) leaving a good sized bruise, and I smacked into the ice, avoiding hitting my head on the hard surface. I vaguely remember sliding on my knees for a moment behind the tipped over Sled as the dogs continued on, and then I just kind of flopped over, hopping it would be enough for the dogs to stop and go, ‘What the heck is she doing?’.
Sure enough, there came the odd looks, and I’m very thankful for one of my leaders, Nellie, who’s my glue dog, and turned around to stare at me, wagging her tail, unsure.
In those few seconds, I managed to flip the sled up, say ‘ready? Let’s go!’ And take off, me a little more awake than five minutes ago.
We skittered along the road for a little while, me very aware of the pre race warning of the logging trucks that traveled in and out during the day. Luckily, no one was there yet, and we slide down the road with no problems. When we made it back onto the trail, travel was relatively quiet for some time.
I was having trouble finding a motivated enough dog to lead, and I was concerned about having an issue with it at Junior Iditarod. I tried to shove those thoughts from my head, I needed to focus on the here and now, but it’s hard when you’ve worked on something all season, and then a significant concern pops up.
I switched my leaders in and out for awhile, attempting to find that match. I finally settled on Nellie, and Rubicon, one of my young leaders in training.
The pair tend to be competitive with each other, and I hoped maybe that would kick in.
Though their competitive spirits decided not to show themselves on the way to the finish, they did truck the team along and keep everyone moving.
It was then that I started to focus on being happy.
Now I know that sounds odd, but when you’re exhausted, and you’ve been mentally and physically working, it can be challenging to keep your spirits up.
The whole goal of the season was not to be competitive, it was to learn to run mid-distance, and to attempt to have some fun while doing it. The sunrise had been absolutely gorgeous, and with the light came happier feelings, however, my lack of sleep did not go away. When I fell asleep on my sled, I ate a candy bar and felt more awake for the next twenty or thirty minutes, at which point, I started to fall asleep again, and ate another one.
The challenge came not from driving the team, it was when I could look out across the valley and saw a lake. Which I assumed was Seeley lake, where the finish was. When we passed it, I was confused. When you ‘know’ where the finish is, you tend to get excited, and the mental dip that came afterwards was challenging.
The dogs can pick up on your emotions, and it’s a Mushers job to stay in good spirits so that it doesn’t effect their team. The next ten miles that I didn’t think were there, became a mind game. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled out my map to try and figure out where we were.
Needless to say I was elated when we unexpectedly went past a sign that read ‘No Mans Land’ one mile from the finish.
A short ways up the trail, there was a cluster of people standing and watching teams come in. Laura and my mother were among the group, and we pulled up, stopping when we were asked to. Now, please understand that I am very tired at this point, and have little to no awareness about what’s going on. Laura walked over, hopping on the runners with me. I naturally assumed that she wanted a ride into the finish, which of course, I was totally fine with. So I asked the dogs to head out again and they immediatly began straining in their harnesses, trying to inch the sled forward, which I noticed they couldn’t, because Laura had her foot on the brake, which made absolutely no sense. If she wanted a ride into the finish, she should probably take her foot off the brake. At which point she starts laughing, and tells me that this is, in fact, the finish, and that I can go pet my dogs and she’ll hold the sled.
Oh. That makes more sense.
After praising my team, we pulled away from the finish. I was beyond proud of my dogs, and that they had continued on despite having an inexperienced Musher. I was also very ready for a nap.