Saturday, November 14, 2015

Eagle Cap Extreme 2015 - Part 4

    Leaving Ollokot for the final leg of the race is perhaps the most memorable exit from a checkpoint I've had...although definitely not my proudest moment. Let me give you some background first...
    Summer is the oldest female in the kennel (except for Mouse, of course) and has been here the longest. She bears a grudge to all other females and lives in the boys yard because of it. I can only run her with other females occasionally, but never with Belle or Sweetwater (these two hate her and will gang up on her in a fight if they have a chance). Summer also happens to be the biggest dog in the team.
    Because I dropped 4 dogs, I shortened my lines and this put Summer ahead of Belle. When we stopped for the final bag check the dogs were barking and excited (even the remaining yearling on the team, Frost), but when we were ready to leave, they wanted to turn the wrong way and got tangled. Summer took the opportunity to seize Belle by the throat. She had a mouthful of fur and refused to let go. It took several of us and a multi-tool to pry her mouth open (I wonder if Swingley dogs have Pit Bull in their background somewhere?) and free poor Belle, who was turning blue...fortunately Summer only got skin and there were no bite wounds.
    It really freaked me out. I don't think I've been so worried before, even when Belle shook herself off and told me she was ready to go (after I moved Summer to wheel, behind Frost and Legolas). I kept thinking about what I would've done if I hadn't had help...probably the wrong time to think such thoughts - as you're heading out into the dark with a team of excited dogs!
    But I calmed with the cool night air and the dogs were moving better than in years past. Frost was nervous about Summer behind him and, I think, wondering why we were leaving his brother behind (he and Jingle have never been separated - they even live right next to each other in the kennel). He was excited to go but not sure if he should pull or look back. But he didn't neckline and was loping, so I ignored him for the ten mile climb off the river.
    Needless to say, I was having some flashbacks about climbing out of a similar checkpoint in the 2014 Race to the Sky and getting stuck on the mountainside. After letting myself worry too long, I pulled myself together - reminding myself that I was tired, I had two awesome girls up front - Rowdy and Sweetwater - and plugged in some goofy music to lift my spirits (Veggie Tales soundtrack). Needless to say, as we started the steepest part of the mountain the dogs and I were much happier.
    As we went up, I kept thinking I saw a headlamp above us (with the switchbacks you can see who's in front or behind very well). The dogs sensed something and really picked up speed. I later found out from a friend that she'd heard wolves howling in the area - and since we never caught anyone I think they might've still been hanging around.
    When we came to our first downhill, Frost started pulling again. He seemed to be coming out of his daze and realizing we were on the way home - and that he could do it! He did better and better from that point on.
    We stopped to snack in the place we always snack on the way to the finish - and the run went smoothly from there. It was a beautiful night, although the last ten miles seemed to drag on forever!
    The end, even with the new start/finish course, remained a white-knuckle ride until we came to the flatter, straighter finish line. The dogs were animated and you could tell Frost had grown with this accomplishment. Over the next day, he remained super proud of himself, as if he had finally become "one of the big dogs." This has remained with him; just like it changed Belle on her first race - the Eagle Cap in 2014.
    We beat the dropped dogs back to Joseph and were reunited the following day, which gave us the day to unwind together on a grassy parking area - visiting with other mushers.
    But the highlight of the race was the honor of being selected for the Best Cared for Team award again...Every musher I know takes amazing care of their athletes and it's a privilege getting to work with so many dedicated dog folks and veterinarians.
    I can't finish this without a shout out to my handlers - my mom and little brother (who was 5 at the time of the race and thrilled that "his" Jingle was racing, and that I drew the #5 bib and placed 5th) - and my sponsors for the race - Jim at Chandler's Inn and Scheffelmaier Meats for the custom race meat mix. The longer I run dogs, the more I realize I can't do it alone; it takes a tremendous amount of support in so many ways. I also have to thank the crew (my sister and family) back home who cared for the rest of the team while I was racing. When everything is said and done, the people you meet through mushing are the best!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Eagle Cap Extreme 2015 - Part 3

    I left Ollokot after the 6 hour layover with a very happy, excited team. I was thrilled to still have the 11 dogs I started with. It was warm, but I reminded myself that everyone was going through the same slush and it was exciting to pass a team several miles into the run. The dogs moved well, but I had to ride the drag mat for Nibbs and Mambo. They are both big boys with thick coats and having to work harder to keep up, were working very hard.
    We stopped many times in the shade and I let the dogs cool off by rolling in the snow. We found a great spot to snack in the coolness of the mountain side before going over the wide-open top of the mountain. It's always encouraging to see other teams on the out and back because you can gage how you're doing and if you've made time.
    Still, it was frustrating to have to move Mambo to wheel as he kept holding up the team. He did better out of lead, and we made better time down the mountain and started the last ascent.
    Suddenly, Urchin started limping...badly. I stopped immediately and tried to put him in the bag. He wanted none of it! He struggled and made quite a mess of the bag. I had to lean over the handle bar and hold him down. As we descended into Ollokot I was struggling to keep him in the bag when my drag mat broke. At almost the same moment, we came upon two of the trail breaking snowmobiles. They asked if everything was ok and I smiled and said yes....everything was under control, but I couldn't help laughing. It was all rather comical (not that Urchin was limping, of course, but that the typically laid back boy was being so difficult).
    We made it into the checkpoint and the to our camping spot, where I fed the dogs. They ate well and bedded down. I had only intended to stop for a few minutes, but with Urchin needing to be dropped and Nibbs, Mambo and Jingle needing looked at, I probably wasted time there. I should've dropped the dogs and gone but I was rather distraught at the thought of having to drop so many dogs.
    I forgot to mention that during the 6 hour layover I had a successful treatment of a wrist injury. I am very conservative with injuries and prefer to drop a dog, but since I had 6 hours I treated the writs with heat, algyval, ice (snow) and walking which helped two of my dogs tremendously.
    In the end I stopped at Ollokot for over an hour, which lost me a placing as another team came and went...and I dropped Urchin, Nibbs, Mambo and Jingle. The last three, looking back, I should've kept in the team - I later learned from talking with Scott that Nibbs and Mambo always look terrible when it's hot, but since the last leg was heading into the cool of the evening they would've been fine.
    Every race I learn so much - it's all about your decisions and every year I come to a new understanding of how tough sled dogs are and how to better read them. As we'll see in the conclusion of Eagle Cap 2015, the dogs grow tremendously when they finish a race...

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

November Training Update

    Lots of adventures on the trail thus far. We've got about 400 miles of training now and are having the same problem we had last year - worn out feet. We have a lot of rock in our trails and until recently it's been hard and dry. The rain is nice because it softens the trail, but we're backing off to let some of feet heal up - until we get snow.
    I've noticed it's the larger, hardest working dogs that have the most trouble...and it's almost entirely rear feet affected. But foot ointment and booties work wonders, so I'm optimistic they'll be back to normal by the time we hit snow. A little extra care now means tougher feet down the road. The dogs that had the worst trouble last year are not the worst this year.
   Regarding foot ointment - a while back I shared the ointment recipe I've used. It's been quite a process rounding up the ingredients for batch number 2. Apparently Iodine Ointment is no longer made, which means I have to mix it up myself. Hopefully it'll turn out ok this time...
    It's hunting season and we've had few encounters with live animals. However, the other day we saw our first bull moose. I don't think I've seen a bull move so fast before. It was a rainy day and I looked up to see him standing on the edge of the road halfway in the thick pine trees. He trotted down the trail and I paused for a few seconds to give him room, of course the were dogs barking and lunging in their harnesses. But when we rounded the bend, he decided not to go up the steep mountain and dashed in front of us to the river. Boy did he move fast! He was a pretty guy - but I'm glad he had the sense to get out of the way.
    One day we came to the trailhead to find a pile of deer trimmings. I had to clean them up because I've been letting the dogs loose after the run to unwind before getting into the box (all but Saxon, that is - he had me chasing him for an hour one day).
    The next time, we arrived to find folks shooting their Halloween pumpkin. The .22 didn't make enough noise to scare the dogs at all, but they were thrilled to come back from the run and find a bunch of muskrat carcasses. As you can imagine, the dogs lucky enough to find them were very proud of themselves. Let's just say it was rather messy cleaning up...

    In other news, I'm excited to announce some up and coming leaders. As part of training, I try every dog in lead. So, one morning I put Frost up front. He is NOT a leader and made it about 4 miles before I swapped him for Odysseus...who didn't make it a mile. I think Odysseus will eventually lead, he's just very submissive with the older dogs still. Time will tell...
   Just for kicks, I thought I'd put Saxon up front with Legolas before trying out the puppies. He cranked out the rest of the run like a pro! I put him up the next night with Urchin and again, he did excellent. It also happened to be our fastest 14 mile run yet (not impressive speed wise, since we train very slow right now, but I found out who can trot at 12 mph comfortably).
    Last weekend was the yearlings turn to shine. Owl gave poor Urchin quite a time of it. He wanted to go on the left side of the road and even tried to go into the river. But he didn't balk and kept a tight line. Sunday I put mother and daughter - Rowdy and Bea - in front. What a team! They kept the team animated and insisted on bursting into a lope two miles from the truck. I love the bloodlines drive and general happiness...I'm sure you'll be hearing more about them as the season progresses.

    Snow is in the forecast...happy training!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Eagle Cap Extreme 2015 - Part 2

    Part of my plan was to rotate leaders for each run this year. So for the night run I switched to Rowdy and Urchin. My plan was to use conservative Legolas for the first leg, since he knows the trail so well, and then get some speed for the cool night run. It worked as planned.
    Everything is in the dark, so there's not much to do but relax and enjoy the ride. This year I was well equipped with coffee and food, so although I was tired I felt great!
    I'm always relieved when I drop my tag at the half-way turn around and start down the mountain. Somehow I always worry I'll forget to drop my tag or it'll get lost.
    It's also fun to high-five the other mushers and see where everyone is at as we head-on pass. It seemed a pretty tight field on the second run and I tried not to let it worry me. After all, we had the same tough trail to do the next day - in the heat.

    Although I'd tried to work out a schedule to keep me out of the heat of the day, there's no way to avoid it. We came into Ollokot for the mandatory 6 hour rest and I knew it'd be hot later when we left. But we were into the checkpoint for the dogs to rest in the cool morning and they ate like champions. I was very happy to see no injuries at the vet check and everyone ate and drank well. I think I might've gotten an hour of sleep - but I'm always afraid of oversleeping (even though I set an alarm). Either way, the teams were still bunched pretty close.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Eagle Cap Extreme 2015 - Part 1

    I'm determined to get the racing blog posts caught up by the end of this year, so without further ado, here's the first leg of the Eagle Cap 200 - 2015!

    It's always hot at the start, and this year was no exception. However, they changed to starting route and I really liked that - it is still steep but not like going up the ski hill! The dogs settled down into their typical pace and I was impressed by how far we got before the sun went down (as opposed to years previous). Part of this is due to the fact that the race changed the course to remove a loop at the beginning - and tack it on at the end.
    I started with Legolas and Sweetwater in lead:

    I remember several teams passed us. When they go loping by I always figure we'll see them later...which turns out true most of the time in distance racing. What is frustrating is when they pass you on the downhill and you keep passing on the uphill or flat sections. But the dogs are pretty happy to run with another team.
    I planned to snack once on the trip out, but shortly before I planned to stop a team passed us and then had trouble taking a turn. So we waited for them and I went a bit further after that break, because they were rearing to go.
    With the miles and miles of training on the dogs at this point in the season, the first leg is really just about settling into the race. There's no need to push them - just get them through safely.
    I always like watching the lights above and below as we go down the 10 mile hill into Ollokot...and then it seems like a really long run by the river into camp - when it's only a couple miles.
    But there's something very special about coming up out of the darkness and into the checkpoint - hearing the river water, seeing the bright lights and hearing dogs barking.
    My dogs know the drill at the checkpoint and don't need much help getting past the checkers and into place. Ollokot is extremely well manned - with people to point you in the right direction. I had a good spot - with a tree to tie off to (very nice, because of the low snow). We also were about halfway between the water and the tents.
    I planned to stay two and a half hours, so I fed the dogs the wet cooler when we got in and got foot ointment and coats on in my planned time frame. I also boiled water then - since it's not very cold in the lower 48 I figure I can fill the cooker with water from the creek, put two bottles of heet in the cooker and leave it - it'll be perfect to fill my cooler before I head out again.
    This year my sponsor, Scheffelmaier Meats, had ground up an amazing blend of meat for me to use - so the dogs were wolfing down their food. I'd also agonized over the calories for each meal, because I always over feed (mainly because the dog food I feed - First Mate - is extremely high in calories; you feed very little compared to other feeds).
    Once the dogs were bedded down I headed in for some food and then forced myself to lay down for 45 minutes or an hour. I didn't sleep, but lay still and rested - listening to the patter of feet and soft panting of teams coming in.