Monday, June 29, 2015

A Milestone - Over 125 Posts!

    This is the 126th post on this blog! That's exciting...I hope you've enjoyed the glimpse into my adventures, I sure enjoy sharing them with you all.
    In commemoration of this milestone (well, the 125th post was actually the milestone but I wanted to wrap up the 2014 Race to the Sky first), I found an incomplete post I started and never finished...I can't remember exactly where I was going to go with it, but maybe you can figure it out...I may have said it before, but I think life is one great adventure, so regardless of where I meant to take the post in 2012, the quotes are inspiring...

Post started on 3-12-12 
(started in Alaska, shortly before I left)

    How different are real-life adventures from those one reads about in books! It's probably a good thing. Since coming here I've realized I put my written characters through scenarios I wouldn't actually want to be in...
    I think the conversation between Frodo and Sam in the Lord of the Rings, about their own adventure and what people reading it would say, is worth remembering.

    "Yes, that's so," said Sam. "And we shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folks of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually - their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on - and not all to a good end, mind you, at least not to what those inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home and finding things all right, though not quite the same - like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of tale we've fallen into?"
Pg 696 - 697

    "What a tale we have been in, Mr Frodo, haven't we?" he said. "I wish I could hear it told! Do you think they'll say: now comes the story of nine-fingured Frodo and the Ring of Doom?"
Pg 929

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Race to the Sky 2014 - Five Things I Learned

So we scratched. It was not the best of circumstances and, yet, I learned so much. Here’s five things I learned:

Number 1 – Leaders
    Since seeing what a good leader can do in Alaska (i.e. lead the entire Iditarod), I relied on three dogs all season. I trained others, but not enough to make them reliable. This was a mistake – I expected too much of dogs who weren’t ready for it. Not all dogs are able to lead an entire race and some will do it, but need a special “partner-in-lead”.
    The only way to train a leader is by letting them spend lots of miles up front. I cut some potential dogs short in this respect and over ran dogs like Urchin and Legolas.
    Also, in the race, I failed to rotate dogs each leg. I hadn’t done it the year before but the team and conditions are different every year. Going in and out of two checkpoints, when we’d never done it before, is mentally draining on dogs conditioned to stop at the checkpoint. We didn’t train going through our campsite and being far enough into the race that the dogs are tired, a break up front would’ve been beneficial for them.

Number 2 – Over-training
    Right before Race to the Sky we did a heavy 3-day training set of 70 miles, 60 miles and 50 miles – in tough conditions on our steepest trails. The dogs did really well but it left them drained for the race – mentally and physically. I noticed this in the lack of speed for the first “stage” leg.
    I’ve done it before (and I’ll probably do it again) – I get so worried the dogs will be under-trained and get caught up in “racking up the miles”. It’s a fine balance of miles and hours on the trail…and rest. In 2015 I only ran more than 3 days in a row once in December – when I did a 5 day set – and the dogs had much better attitudes.      

Number 3 – Respect
    There is a fine balance of respect and trust between musher and dogs. The dogs are gifted athletes but they are also animals – you have to learn how they think and gain their respect. Each dog is different, so you have to tailor your style to them individually and, then again, as a team. Every year the team is different. My team in 2014 seemed disjointed (looking back) compared to the team I have now…some of it is the blending of different styles of dogs and some of it is teaching manners. But the dogs should obey the command, when you give it; regardless of what they want to do (the dog’s trust in you comes in here).
    The time to teach dogs manners and respect is in the early fall training, in the spring (harness breaking time!) and in the yard…and even to puppies you raise. By the time you’re on the sled it’s too late – the dogs need to be focusing on other things.
    After the team quit I never thought I’d be able to trust them again. But trust is built over time – and it can be repaired! The dogs haven’t let me down since and some of the dogs who camped on the mountain with me are more confident than before.
    I need to confess that, as far as respect goes, I tend to “baby” my dogs more often than I should. I tend to think something’s wrong when they just need to be pushed. It’s something I’m working on…I need to command them, not ask them. If you think about it, it’s the same thing I do to myself when I’m running: I don’t ask myself to keep running – I make myself keep going!
    I believe a key to building trust is spending time with your dogs, getting to know them…and letting them be dogs. If you have dogs, you have to accept that they will jump on you and get excited at feeding time and bark if you’re not out to feed on time. They have squabbles that need to be broken up and some are such good friends they need to be next to each other to play.
    I go through the yard 4-5 times a day. I may not pet each dog every time, but they all get attention in the course of the day. You learn small tidbits about each dog which come in handy – like how Mambo likes brief attention, Sweetwater likes to be made much of (she things she’s the queen of the yard), Eagle likes to wiggle between your legs and stand there for petting (he likes to be close to you) and Razz needs to be told he’s special with a hug every day (or else he’ll hug you, and you’ll be much dustier for it). It’s getting this special time with each dog which keeps me from ever getting too large of a kennel…

Number 4
    I’ve said it before and continue to realize this in new ways each year: a dog team feeds off the musher! If you’re upset with one dog, the other dogs know it and if you’re feeling depressed, they get depressed. The dogs didn’t get up and going again in 2014 because I didn’t show them the way – my running ahead of them would’ve gotten them going again; but I didn’t so they took a nap too. Essentially, I’m the weak link in the team. I don’t blame the dogs much at all; it’s my fault.

Number 5

    I overfed the dogs in Race to the Sky. WAY too much! Since 2014 I sat down and listed out calories for each meal to balance snacks/meals better…it helped a lot (as we’ll see in 2015). Also, don’t let your soaking food get too hot – the kibble spoils in the cooler and gives the dogs trouble. And then, if the dogs aren’t ready to eat it might be good just to let them rest first or skip a meal – once you overfeed and their stomachs go sour they won’t want to eat for a while. That’s about all I’ll say about feeding for now – I don’t want to spoil future “food” posts!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Race to the Sky 2014 – Stuck on the side of the mountain

   I stopped to snack and the dogs didn’t eat. Not worried, knowing they could miss a meal and be ready to eat later, I went back to the sled and said, “Alright.” They didn’t budge. They’d been moving really, really well when I stopped so I was surprised. I gave the command again. Some of my team and wheel dogs jumped, but two of my older females lay down. Legolas and Urchin just looked back at me.
    Something no one had ever talked to me about, even in Alaska, is what to do if your team quits. I guess I’d heard vague stories of musher’s having trouble on a couple notorious Yukon Quest passes, but I’d never thought about what to do – and hence, had never asked what to do – and didn’t realize what it looked like. My first thought was they were all overheated or all dehydrated or something terrible like that. My first thought was to make sure they were ok; and they all seemed fine.
    Still, on the side of the mountain in the blowing snow my leaders told me they’d had enough. And I didn’t know what to do. Mambo had always driven the team; dragging them out of the straw at a word. Legolas and Urchin detested each other and were not cheerleaders themselves. The challenge with dogs is they are not like a human athlete – since I’ve taken up running myself I understand the desire to quit. But I can tell myself to keep going, because I know what’s ahead or how far it is…when the dogs get tired and want to quit you have to motivate them.
    I tried leading them. They followed me eagerly enough; but would get all bunched up in a tangle because the wheel dogs overtook the lead dogs. I didn’t realize I should take off my layers and run ahead of them as long as it took so I tried changing leaders.
    I’m sure my indecision didn’t help. I had a yearling who was jumping to go; as well as Nibbs and Summer in wheel, but rather than listening to them I tried some of the “cheerleader” females. No go – the wheel dogs kept balling up the team. Looking back, knowing how Summer and Nibbs CAN lead; I kick myself for not giving them and the yearling a chance to show their quality…after all, Nibbs had all the experience Mambo had.
    But I didn’t and noticing how warm it was (I was sweaty now) and that the dogs were still panting, I decided to camp out with them. This, I later learned, can be another option to get a team to go again – you just camp until they’re ready to go again (for however long it takes). However, it’s usually best to walk with them until they go on their own (which they will, eventually). Since the dogs are weary, this is not the time to use discipline – keeping an upbeat, happy attitude is key.
    I wasn’t worried about time at this point. I knew there had to be a team or two behind me, so hoped my team would go with them when they came along. It was snowing harder now and I camped out under a tarp. The dogs had their coats on and we waited. I was tired but, having gotten sweaty, I got cold. Again, if I’d have been smart I should’ve just walked…but I didn’t.
    After a couple attempts to get them to go on their own; I tried turning them around without any success. I was very tired now and decided to see if I had any cell service. I had almost no battery and texted my mom that I was stuck. Then I laid down and waited. Again, I did not realize the camping or hiking options would work – I thought I couldn’t get them to go.
    Hours later Bryce passed us and snowmobiles came close behind. My dogs wouldn’t follow Bryce or follow the snowmobiles back to Owl Creek, so we had to tie them to the snowmobile at first. After a few miles, sure enough, they started trotting along just fine. Sweetwater was in lead. Legolas was rather grumpy at having to follow a snowmobile and I let him trot by me at the sled.

    We made it to Owl Creek where everything was loaded up and I had the hard experience of scratching. Looking back, I’m thankful for the learning experience but I wish it’d ended differently. In the next post we’ll look at what I learned and what I should’ve done differently.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Dog Bowls...a picture story of true devotion

    We take a break from the 2014 races to bring you a special saga of four dogs and their devotion to their food bowls. Sled dogs love food, but some have a special bond with the stainless steel that holds it. This just might be the biggest and best kept secret of sled dogs: many sled dogs excel at a game that is a one-dog version of soccer, rugby and quidditch combined. Professional "bowl wrangling" skill may even have to do with bloodlines, since the dogs with an affinity to dishes are related (at least here at There & Back Again). Without further ado, here is the tale:

Razz (see the backstory of his bowl fascination in previous posts):

 It almost got away, but Razz made an expert save...the mark of a true professional.

 STAY, I said!!!

Frost - Razz's younger brother, quickly honing his skills...

 Hey, it's hard work. Maybe you'd like to FEED me?

 A snack, pretty please??

Sure, I can sign some autographs...

Achilles, half-brother to Frost, declined to show his skills.

Although he is a dignified Siberian, Urchin was happy to show how he has perfected the "chomp down."

Ok, ok...I admit, the dogs and I sometimes get carried away in the fun.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Race to the Sky 2014 - Leg 3

    Now we come to the third leg of the 2014 Race to the Sky. I’d like to note that I’m trying to write these races “as it happened” (by this point in the race I suffered from sleep deprivation) – being wide awake now, I can see my mistakes quite clearly looking back. When I look back on the race I see things I would’ve done differently, but one thing I’m learning in mushing is to learn from the mistakes and let them go. The dogs don’t hold anything against you and you’ll never make the same mistake twice (hopefully!). As Scott told me after the race, “The best thing [after having a bad run] is to get back out there and run dogs.” And it’s true – for both the dogs and the musher.

    But let’s get back to the race…

    The first leg through Whitetail and the second leg to Seeley is my favorite part of the Race to the Sky. Huckleberry Pass is really not that bad, compared to what we train on, and it’s always cold and beautiful leaving Whitetail.
    I left towards the end of the pack, due to my long rest, but the team moved well. I knew we were making good time until I bumped my watch…this cost me dearly because I’d planned on doing a 9 hour run through Seeley Lake to a camping spot on the trail to Owl Creek and being sleep deprived doesn’t help estimates! I don’t know how long I really ran and I also think I might’ve messed up because I never changed my watch to Montana time.
    I gave the dogs a wet cooler around my guestimate of 6 hours, coming into Seeley Lake. They didn’t really eat, it was starting to warm up and several teams had left Seeley after their 4 hour rest, so my dogs were pumped to know we were getting near other teams and the checkpoint (for the dogs who’d run it before). But when I asked, they whirled in and out of the checkpoint without any hesitation. My handlers had everything ready for me so it was a quick turnaround (I had another wet cooler ready for my camp out – so they just handed me the bags and we left).
    Blowing through Seeley Lake is tough because that year you had 7 miles of going down into Seeley and, leaving, the same 7 miles up to get back to the race trail to Owl Creek. Then, after a while, you start zigzagging up a steep mountainside, only to go back down the other side. By this time my time was way off and I stopped to give the dogs another good snack; which they ate pretty well. I knew it was probably too much, but I was under the illusion that I needed to keep rigidly to my schedule of feeding like I had in training (the week before I did a 3 day set of grueling, trail breaking – windblown trail – training runs on our toughest hills – 70, 60, 50) Note: as great as the dogs did in training, I now realize it was WAY too much for that time in training…it broke down too much muscle and the older dogs didn’t need that type of training.
    Anyway, we went on another half hour or so to a camping spot I thought was half way…boy, I was way off! Having only run the trail once, I forgot how many times it goes in and out and around the mountain. But it was a nice spot with a view of the trail and somewhat out of the wind. I didn’t see anyone ahead or behind; but settled the dogs down with straw and melted snow. They didn’t really eat so I left them with food in the bowls and snuggled next to Legolas to get some sleep. I was toasty and warm…they best sleep I’ve ever had at a race.
    Garrett Warren passed me at some point and then, to my surprise, Chris Miller from the 8-dog race came up; he’d take a wrong turn – he should’ve ended in Seeley. I helped him turn around and gave him some food and water. I felt really bad – like I should go back with him – because his dogs were tired (and both of us were), but he didn’t want to camp out with me and headed back. The dogs moved away well…Chris has one of the best looking dog teams I’ve seen down here, in my opinion. I love watching his cookie-cutter team!
    Well, after a rest – which I cut short, I think? I don’t really know because I was still sleep deprived. I think I cut the 4 hour rest to 3 and ½… Anyway, some of the dogs were still tired but they moved on well; although looking back I know they’re stomachs weren’t feeling so well because I’d overfed at the camp. We were moving into the afternoon, so I knew they’d perk up as darkness fell.
    I thought we did well down the mountain, but the last 10 miles into Owl Creek take FOREVER! Every single time I’ve run into Owl Creek, it seems like the last few mile markers are wrong. But the dogs are usually moving just fine.
    I head-on passed several teams as we got close to Owl Creek, which was a morale booster – we’d made up a lot of time and I didn’t stop at the checkpoint. The trail was good, night was setting in and it had started to snow (and blow). Again, the dogs left Owl Creek without any balking, I was so proud of them! By now I was back on track to snack 3 hours into the run and I decided to lengthen it as the climb out of Owl Creek is very tough and I thought it’d be nice to give them a break near the top.
    By this time it was really snowing but we didn’t have to break through too much snow, so I figured we would go past our camping spot and straight into Seeley for a long rest…no use camping and having to break more trail on the way back! Besides, we weren’t too far behind the last couple teams.

    What happened on the way out of Owl Creek? There’s so much to tell that it’ll have to wait for a later post…