Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sixteen Dog Team

   I was reminiscing the other day and came upon some pictures of my first team. A four dog team. Gradually my team has grown bigger, but I always thought 12 was the limit to safely run down my driveway...until this spring. I hate to leave dogs behind and in order to run all the puppies-yearlings and adults, I had to start running a slightly bigger team - first 14 and then 16. What is pretty awesome is that many of these dogs I hope to take to the Iditarod in a few years...Could a few of these yapping puppies end up leading me into Nome? I hope so and can't wait to find out!

A 14-dog Team in March

A 16-dog string in May:

Monday, May 13, 2013

Meet the Dogs: Razz

    Looking over my previous posts, I realized I never introduced Razz, so here is a belated introduction! As summer gets underway, I'll be sure to introduce the little puppies, Mouse and the two new arrivals from Alaska...and we'll catch up with those puppies from last year, that aren't so little anymore!
Razz was a gift from Scott Smith and is one of the yearlings I ran in Alaska. He completed the Two Rivers 200 in Alaska as a yearling. The smoothest moving dog in the kennel, he makes up for his size with an always tight tugline. He's a clown, always playing with a bowl or a bone - whichever he can get! He's done a fair share of leading in training and I hope to see him mature into a steady lead dog someday.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Iditarod Qualifer #2: Race to the Sky

    Right after the Eagle Cap I was offered a chance to add to my nine-dog team from both Laura Dangereau and Billy Snodgrass. At first I was going to say no to both, preferring to work with my own dogs, although I was honored that both these experienced mushers would trust me to run their dogs through a 350 mile race.
    However, as I thought about it and ran the idea by Scott, I decided that it would be wiser to have two or three extra dogs. Even if they didn't work out, they would help for the first bit of the race and because the first 50 mile leg of the race is not continuous, there was a lot less pressure about dropping a dog.
    Then came the hard part: deciding who's dogs to accept. In the end I decided to accept the dogs from Billy because our training was extremely similar - down to the length of the last few runs! It was an encouragement to me as well, because if someone so experienced was training the same then I must be on the right track!
    Going to Alaska really boosted my confidence, but since few teams down here "train slow", it can be hard to stay focused.
    Between Eagle Cap and Race to the Sky my team peaked - they moved smoothly and punched out a seventy mile run like it was nothing...really picking up the pace.

    The Race to the Sky is handler assisted, which means that you can have a handler or two to help you in the checkpoints. I don't think my mom or I realized how big a job it was for one person - I believe she got less sleep than I did.
    This year the race started in Helena, with the first 50 mile leg starting at Camp Rimini and going to Elk Park (outside of Butte). The vet check was in downtown Helena and there I met Soggy Bottom, a huge black dog, and Lander, a nice sized cream female, who would race with me.
    Afterwards, there was a mushers meeting and spaghetti dinner before we went to our host family's home. I can't thank the Njos' enough for opening their home to us - it was good to get to know them and have a home for the weekend!
    Snow is, apparently, always a problem in Helena and this year was no exception. The parking lot was icy and the first mile was so bare (gravel in many spots) that the race marshal required handlers to ride on the sled for the first mile. And we were first out...

    I think it confused the dogs, having someone else on the sled, but perhaps Legolas remembered all the miles my mom used to run with me in years past. We survived the mile. I'm so thankful for my amazing leaders - at one point there was a switchback down to the road and a dead deer right on the trail which tempted the dogs to turn off the trail. Of course there would have been no stopping them if they went, but Mambo and Legolas heard my panicked "gee, gee!" and kept moving in the right direction. For a glimpse of the trail, there is a video on youtube -

    We started a pretty good climb into snow and for some time the trail was wide and well groomed - much like our home trails. But then we got onto some more alaskan-style trails - narrow, tree-lined and punchy. I hit a tree at least once and my wheel dog ran headfirst into one, but no injuries. Then, at the end, there was a steep, steep climb of the same narrow width and soft (warm!) snow. I just remember thinking that next year it was going to be fun coming down because on even years the race starts in Butte.
    I stopped and snacked the dogs when we were back on wide road and then got to enjoy the scenery for a few miles. The view was very pretty and I actually wasn't paying attention and drove right off the side of the road and dumped my sled...I'm sure my dogs were laughing to themselves, while Soggy and Lander probably wondered who the crazy girl on the sled was. Fortunately no one caught us while I was getting the sled back up.
    We saw a herd of elk on a sparsely snowed/icy section of downhill, but the rest of the run was pretty uneventful. I, however, was feeling pretty sick and the dogs picked up on it and weren't at their best when we finished - with a much slower time than I'd hoped. Still, I was glad the new dogs looked good and seemed happy and comfortable with my team.

    I had planned on running the Race to the Sky on what I considered a "yearling" schedule - what I would have done with the yearlings I trained in Alaska. The reason for this was not only that due to the shortened Eagle Cap we were going much farther than some of my dogs had ever gone, but also because it was going to set me up for faster run times. But my long run on the first day made me change my plan: not only did I have 40 minutes of additional start differential to take somewhere along the trail, I now had another two hours (if I remember correctly) of differential from the first leg - meaning that was extra time I had to take at Seeley Lake or Owl Creek along with the mandatory 4 hour rest.
    The dogs moved nicely on the first leg up Huckleberry. From the Jr Race to the Sky I'd remembered the first half of the run being much longer and the pass much shorter, but we made good time. I fed the dogs and rested short in Whitetail, meaning to be the first out of the checkpoint. Jessie Royer and Alea Robinson left right ahead of me and we never saw them again, but it was a nice night run. I was very happy with the dogs and although I knew the next leg was going to be tough - I'd now have to start that leg in the heat of the day - the dogs would have a nice rest to go off of.
    In my opinion the leg into Owl Creek was the toughest. The trail was great, but the mountains seemed never-ending. Perhaps it was because I could look back and see a team chasing us (who never caught us), perhaps it was because I got tired of counting the sets of cougar tracks...either way,  the dogs just chugged along. It had taken them a while to get into their groove and they were tired when we pulled into Owl Creek.
    I'd dropped Duke in Seeley Lake and I thought a short rest in Owl Creek, based on how they looked, would be fine - knowing we'd be taking a 6 hour in Seeley before the final 70 miles to the finish. At this point some of the dogs weren't eating so well and I figured it'd be best to keep them moving and let them eat in Seeley...and it might even widen the gap between us and the teams behind.
    My first mistake was probably changing leaders; but Zoomey finally got us out of the checkpoint and then I ended up putting my trusty pair - Mambo and Legolas - back in front (Legolas had single-led the leg from Lincoln to Whitetail). At least they enjoyed a little snack on the way out - someone had left dogfood scattered on their hay.
    It was dark soon and we worked our way up out of Owl Creek and had a nice run. For as long as my MP3 player battery lasted, I sang to the dogs and we just chugged along. I was very proud of them, especially when we pulled into Seeley Lake and no one had passed us.
    At Seeley Lake they instantly hit the straw and although a few didn't eat both meals, I knew everyone would make it back to Lincoln. I think Jersey and one or two others were a little sore, but I was more concerned about the bad diarhea we'd been battling. I think that was why we were having appetite problems and each leg more of the dogs seemed to come down with it.
    Something I'll do in the future is get the dogs up and walked around before leaving - otherwise their stiff and don't want to leave. I had a lot of trouble leaving Seeley, until we got about an hour into the run - then they looked awesome - and made the mistake of not booting all the dogs - something I'd kick myself for later when I saw the beautiful feet I'd maintaned all season with so many nicks in them. I had figured on it being hot and thought the dogs would enjoy some time without booties; not to mention that the dogs usually run a little faster without booties. 
    It's nice to see your dogs looking so great when they get warmed up. We had a rough patch a few hours in - I stopped to snack in a bad spot and the dogs weren't hungry and wanted to mess around - but we got moving again and I stopped for quite a few short breaks (not all on purpose - because Soggy wasn't pulling and I wanted to make sure he was just tired and not injured).
    Coming into Whitetail, which we would bypass, I was so proud of the dogs listening to my commands and running along the snowmobile trail off the plowed (and gravelled) road. The trail had been very hard the entire race and I noticed Mambo limping. The softer snow almost hid it, but not quite and before we reached Whitetail I bagged him and moved Razz, the youngest dog on the team, to lead with Legolas.
    It turned out that I was needlessly worried about passing Whitetail. The dogs didn't even balk and when we started the climb up Huckleberry they were a little surprised to find Mambo's extra weight in the sled but I helped them the whole way and with the wind and snow I think the temperatures dropped a bit and we didn't stop all the way up. I think it took us abotu 50 minutes to climb Huckleberry - and even poor, tired Soggy pulled in spots.
    At the top, in the blowing saddle, I stopped and praised the dogs. Jersey was jumping and the dogs followed suit - barking and ready to go. At this point we didn't set any records for speed, but their steady, indefatiguable pace kept us moving nicely.
    I realized, as we came to the last few miles, that I really shouldn't have worried about Billy catching us on Huckleberry (I thought I saw him behind us several times) - to have a team moving so comfortably is much more important. At that moment I didn't want the race to end.
    We came into a windblown field and the dogs navigated at my command, zigzagging across the punchy snow until they felt the trail. I was listening to the Peter Pan soundtrack just then and it brought tears to my eyes - it was a magical moment. Maybe it sounds silly, but I'll remember that moment when I forget the other details of the race...the bond of trust the team and I share, and the dog's amazing abilites made me realize, once again, that I'm the weakest part of the team and how God has blessed me to be able to enjoy a life with sled dog athletes. Again, I didn't want it to end.
    We finished, I said goodbye to Lander and Soggy - who both finished their first distance race with me and whom I hoped would make Billy's Canadian Challenge team - and returned to the Njos' for some rest. I don't know if I was very coherant...I was pretty sleep deprived.
    By the next day, the dogs were eating well and most of the soreness was gone. I felt pretty beat myself, but it must be miserable for them - having to sit in a dog box for so long, unable to stretch out. Needless to say, I took them on a few short walks.
    I mention the walks because there is something very special that I noticed while walking the dogs. Legolas led all of Eagle Cap and all but a mile or two leaving Seeley and Owl Creek for Race to the Sky. I've had him since he was a yearling and this year he led over 50 runs and probably the majority of the mileage we ran. While the other dogs wanted to drag me here or there (they are sled dogs, after all), Legolas walked with me and is focused on me. It's very special and it's not like Mambo or the other dogs aren't great leaders, but I think every musher has a special leader at one time or another and Legolas just might be mine...and if so, it will be fun to watch him get even better!
    Of course there was a race banquet and it was good to meet old friends and make new, as well as hear stories from the trail. I was surprised at how few and hard-working are the people that make the Race to the Sky possible. It is amazing and I'm so thankful for their hard work and enthusiasm.
    Finishing 6th out of 10 in the Race to the Sky was a good place to end the season, although I wished I had the time off work to do more races this season. The more I run dogs, the more I enjoy distance racing and am continually amazed by what our canine athletes can do. One of my favorite quotes from my Alaskan winter is from Scott Smith, "I know my dogs aren't the best in the world, I just treat them like they are." That seems to be a good philosophy for training and racing sleddogs.