” The more difficult it is to reach your destination, the more you’ll remember the journey…” ~Brad Sugars
On January 4th I was on Knik Lake prepared to run in a 200 mile qualifier on some of the most historic trails in mushing. The trails that the great Joe Redington ran on and where the Iditarod once started.
One can say that the pieces are what make up a whole. And this weekend’s race experience is true testament to that!
This post is in no way complaining. I learned a lot and I am glad that we entered the race. A good friend of mine, Dave Scheer, always says, “there’s no shortcut to Nome.” Boy, is that the truth.
On Friday, the night before the race, our electricity at the house was out for more than 13 hours. True it was out for most of Willow, but when you depend on an electric well pump to feed your dogs it compounds the problem just a bit.
Our drop bags were due at the Eaglequest Lodge and we were told in our musher packet that if we wanted one bag to stay at Eaglequest then mark it as such. I did and the other one was headed to Yentna Station, some 100 miles down the trail.
I met Michele for a quick dinner and then we headed over to the pre-race musher/handler meeting at the Menard Center. What was supposed to be a quick meeting turned into a two hour affair of mostly banter between the trail boss and the mushers trying to figure out the trail.
The trail boss assured us that the trail was in “great shape” and “well marked.” Okay…
After all of this back-and-forth it was time for the musher draw for starting position. Since I was second to sign up, I was second to pick. I would be going out 15th (out of 41 teams) just behind my good friend Hugh Neff and defending 2012 Knik 200 champ Jake Berkowitz.
I was happy with my starting position. Pretty much right in the middle of the pack.
We got home about 10 pm just as my daughter, Nicole was finishing up the nightly kennel chores. She was awesome and really stepped up by melting snow on the wood stove so that the dogs could be fed. The electric finally came on about this time. We all headed to bed as we would be up early to get loaded up and on the lake by 9.
We were up by 6am and the dogs were fed, the team and gear was loaded and we were on the road by 7:30. We were one of the first teams to arrive and were told to park on the close end of the lake on the south side.
Shortly after we got all of our gear unpacked and on the ground, the Race Marshall came over and told us and another team that we were parked in the wrong spot and we had to move. Great! Luckily we were moving just about 50 yards away and it was a better spot for our launch into the starting chute. About this time, Dale, one of our biggest sponsors, good friend, and someone we are teaching how to run dogs showed up to give us a hand.
The race was supposed to start at 11:00am. Leaving 15th, I should be on the starting line at 11:30 sharp. It wasn’t until 10:30 that the volunteers finally came around for gear checks and to attach a Spot Tracker to the my sled. About this time the chief veterinarian came over and looked at the team. He expressed concern about a couple of the dogs being thin and I agreed with him. Aussie and Trapper have a hard time keeping on weight and we feed them like crazy. I just hoped that these two wouldn’t be a problem down the trail.
About this time Michele and I were getting ready to feed the team a beef snack. As we were taking them out of the package, Burton, the youngest dog on the team and in his first race jumped up and grabbed the snack out of my hand. As he did he got my ring finger on my right hand and it immediately started bleeding profusely through my glove. Of course we didn’t have any first aid supplies so Michele ran across the lake jumped into her car and ran to the gas station to buy some Band-Aids. By the time she made it back we were five minutes from the first team going out and 20 minutes before I was to leave. Blood was all over everything at this point: my parka, my sweatshirt, a couple of the dogs and my sled bag. The cut was pretty deep and I could have used a stitch or two. We wrapped it as best as we could with some gauze and medical tape and I put on two pairs of knit gloves.
We headed to the starting line. Nicole and Dale lead the team out and Michele was on the runners with me. at 11:30 she kissed me good bye and off we went on the trail!
The trail off the lake winds through houses and dog yards as well as the Mushing Hall of Fame and the Redington homestead before reaching a few lakes and some rolling hills on the way to the Nome Sign.
Our first 25 miles on the trail was un-eventful and just a few teams passed us. The trail was well marked and well groomed. I knew this trail well from the Goose Bay 150 and the Nome 40 race last season. At the Nome Sign we turned right heading into the Big Swamp on our way to Willow and the first checkpoint, Eaglequest Lodge.
Then before we hit the swamp there were a few hills to contend with and by this time people were beginning to snack their teams. One of my biggest problems in racing, and it comes from lack of experience of my team comes from when mushers snack their teams on the trail with kibble. My dogs immediately stop almost every time to gorge on the left overs and usually a tangle ensues.
The Big Swamp trail was punchy, slow, and not very well marked. It was beginning to get very warm and I would later find out it was almost 40 degrees. way too hot to be running a race with my team who is used to running at night and much colder temperatures.
I could immediately tell when we came upon the trails that are maintained by the Willow Trails Committee. They were well groomed and well marked. As we headed into the Willow Swamp Loop we had to first run parallel to the Nancy Creek Recreation Area. This section of the trail was the most fun of the race with several switch backs, ice bridges and up and over a few up and down hills.
As we came into the Willow Swamp it was now dark and I could see the familiar sight of the flashing red lights that were near the checkpoint. The dogs were running very good. We had stopped a couple times to snack with beef and salmon.
I arrived at the checkpoint at about 6:30 as the snow began to fall. Nicole and Michele were there to cheer me on and Michele was able to snap a quick picture and wished me luck.
I had planned to stop here for a couple hours and feed the dogs. We were lead to the airstrip about a quarter mile from the lodge.
I parked my team, took off their booties, gave them a quick rub down and walked with my cooler to the lodge to grab my drop bag and some hot water. I grabbed the water and looked all over for my drop bag. It was not there! Only the Knik 100 drop bags were there. My bag, that I clearly indicated to stay at Eaglequest was taken 50 miles down the trail to Yentna Station. Great.
I added two packages of fish and a package of beef snacks to the water and let it soak for about 45 minutes. I fed the dogs, bootied them up and was back on the trail at exactly 8:30 on the way to the halfway point on the Yentna River.
I have run this trail many times. My dogs knew it like it was their home trail and I had no problems making my way down the river. It was snowing pretty good by this time and by the time we saw the sign that we were 10 miles from Yentna Station I knew we were making decent time.
We arrived at Yentna about 1:30. Just about a five hour run for 45 miles. That is, what, about 9 miles and hour? Not bad. We were told to park right behind another team, whom I would later learn was Jamaican Musher Newton Marshall and parked next to me was Tim Osmar. I thought to myself, man we are all parked pretty close together and what happens if a team that is parked behind me wants to leave before I did?
I was told that I could leave a 7:55 am. This was a mandatory 6 hour stop plus time differential. I had planned to stay about 8 hours but with the team directly behind me I knew I would have to leave at my appointed time.
Over the next several hours I melted snow in the cooker, fed the dogs a good meal and tended to my chores. All the dogs looked good except I could tell they were tired. We ran close to 100 miles with about an hour and a half rest. I was proud of them.
Nobody in the team had any injuries, and all their feet looked good.
About 5:00 am I had just finished heating up some soup for myself and I laid down in some straw and covered my head with my parka. It was snowing very hard by now and we got at least 3 inches of wet snow through the night.
I headed to the warming hut at 6:30 and talked for a bit to the volunteers. It sounded like several people had taken wrong turns and three had scratched so far.
By 7:00 I had given my dogs a snack, and prepared to leave at 7:55. Booties were on the dogs that needed them and we hit the trail right on time.
The sunrise was slow as we worked our way down river and the snow eventually stopped around 10:30. Several teams passed me but we were making decent time.
As we reached Corral Hill coming into Eaglequest, Scarlet started hesitating and her tug went slack. I knew she was tired. She is the oldest dog on the team, 9 years old, and by far the smallest. I knew I was going to drop her at Eaglequest.
We made it to the checkpoint at 12:30, a little faster than the run the night before. I planned to camp here again for a couple hours but the volunteer said that they were wrapping up the checkpoint. I signed in and out and dropped Scarlet and asked the vet to call Michele to pick her up.
A few miles after we left Eaglequest I began seeing teams camped out along the trail in the Willow Swamp. I found a spot to pull over and gave the dogs a snack. I could tell the dogs were pretty tired. We stayed about 25 minutes and hit the trail. As we were running through Nancy Creek Recreation Area Trapper started to limp. I stopped the team. It looked like a sore shoulder.
This is were the proverbial wheels fell off and our race was coming to an end. I couldn’t get Trapper to stay in the bag, he had never been in there before, and I decided to have him sit on the drag. Shortly thereafter the team got slower and slower and I began to see them pulling over to the side to want to rest. This is exactly what happened last year on the Tustumena 200 and I knew that they need to rest.
We pulled off the trail, somewhere in the middle of the Big Swamp and I let them rest. They looked exhausted. They could barely keep their eyes open. It was about 3:30pm and the sun was beginning to set. I fired up the cooker and used my last bit of fuel and made the dogs a meal. Trapper’s sore shoulder was not getting any better. I massaged it and placed a heat wrap on it. After the meal I walked him around and he was still limping pretty bad. Trapper is the biggest dog in the team, weighing at least 65 pounds.
At about 5:30 I got the dogs up and tried to get them going. They didn’t want to budge. We would go for a half mile and they would want to lay down again. The scariest thing in mushing is your team quitting on you. I switched every dog around trying to get them to go down the trail. Nobody wanted to lead.
I knew that at least four teams were behind me and it would be several hours before I saw anyone because they couldn’t leave Yentna till at least 10:30 plus a four to five hour run up the river and then here. I knew I was at least 25 miles from the finish and ahead of me was the punchy trail of the Big Swamp and the big hills after the Nome sign. I decided I would turn around. The trail back to Eaglequest was relatively flat and groomed. But if I turned around my race would be over and I would have to scratch.
Even after turning around the team didn’t want to go. I finally fashioned a leash out of necklines and hooked it up to the first section of the gang line behind the leaders and started walking back to Willow.
Trapper was in the sled bag at this time and I had tied my sleeping bag and dog coats (which I shouldn’t have brought because it was so hot) to the top of my sled using extra necklines. I walked for more than two hours. My feet were soaking wet by this time from all the overflow on the river and sweat and I had developed pretty bad blisters by this time.
Finally something clicked and the dogs started to pick up speed! I had Sidney and Aussie in lead by this time and they practically ran me over. I jumped on my sled and away we went heading back to Eaglequest! As we hit Nancy Creek we passed the teams and one called out, “where are you going?”
“I have to scratch,” I said.
We ran all the way back to Eaglequest, slow, but we were moving and made it in at about 9:30. There was nobody there with the race and I knocked on the door to the lodge. I called Michele, told her where I was and what happened. She and Nicole were already at Knik Lake waiting for me to finish.
It took them almost an hour to bring the truck to Eaglequest. While I waited for her I spent time with each dog and gave them a hug and told them I was proud of them. They had no idea we didn’t finish. They were just happy to be done, I think. All the dogs seem to be injury free and Trapper even seemed to be getting better. He was walking around without much of a limp at all as we waited for Michele and Nicole.
Michele and Nicole finally arrived and we loaded up the team and the gear. We had to drive all the way back to Knik to get Michele’s car. We handed off my Spot Tracker and officially scratched on the lake.
We were home by 12:30. 37 hours after I started. We put the dogs back at their houses and headed to bed.
I awoke Monday morning frustrated and wanting to throw in the towel on the season. I spoke to my friends Hugh and Tim on Facebook and they encouraged me to not give up. Many of my fans on our Facebook page said the same thing. I decided I would think about it over the next couple days and decide what I was going to do.
As I always do after a training run and a race I debrief and try to figure out what I learned on the trail.
This is it:
1. There is a saying in sports: Race as you train and train as you race. This was my biggest downfall on the Knik. I was suffering from a major case of kennel blindness. I thought my dogs were ready. We had plenty of miles, over 500 in December alone and lots of time on the sled. But all but one run was on our home trails. Any dog will perform if it knows where it is and how far it is from home.
2. My dogs were underweight. I could tell that immediately when I saw some of the other teams on the trail. This is another case of kennel blindness. When you see the same dogs every day they look the same each day. You seldom notice if a dog loses a few pounds when they are in a group of 30 where they have lost a few pounds too. I don’t know what am doing wrong on my feeding schedule. I thought I was doing what everyone else was doing. We were and are feeding an appropriate amount of kibble and meat.
3. I did not give my dogs enough rest. I should have stayed at Yentna for 10 hours. It’s what they needed. Instead I let others influence my trail schedule. One of the biggest mistakes in mushing.
4. I should not have trusted the race crew to keep my drop bag at Eaglequest. By doing so I did not feed my team properly on my outbound stop at Eaglequest.
5. At some point on the trail I lost my Nalgene water bottle. I did not hydrate my body enough and I knew I was getting dehydrated.
6. I should have let the team rest on the Big Swamp for at least 4 hours instead of trying to coax them to go. In hindsight if I would have done that my team probably could have finished even with Trapper in the sled.
7. I was carrying way too much gear. I should not have brought along the dog coats, my parka and I should have worn different boots.
8. It was way too hot to run this race. I know my team does not perform well in temperatures over 30 degrees. Any team, mine especially does best when it is minus 20 degrees or below.
9. I probably should have withdrawn when Burton bit my finger. While I was able to use my hand, I did lose quite a bit of blood.
What went well:
I am so proud of my dogs. They gained experience on the trail. Burton really became a sled dog on this run. I am proud of Denali. Just a couple weeks ago he had been getting laser treatments for a sore back and during this race he didn’t show one sign of soreness.
Even though we didn’t finish we ran over 200 miles over the weekend.
I had so much support from my family, friends and fans. Their words of encouragement were so uplifting.
This weekend we are going to run a fun sprint race with some of our fastest dogs and then concentrate on Nicole’s races in February, the Willow Junior 100 and the Junior Iditarod. I plan to also run the Goose Bay 150, our little Independence Mine race and the Don Bowers 300 (if it happens) in March.
I don’t know if we will meet our original goal of qualifying for the Iditarod this year or not. If we don’t our plan is to travel to the Lower 48 next season and run in some of the races down there that have been on my mushing bucket list for a long time: The Race to the Sky, The Beargrease, and the UP200. Anyone want to be a handler??
True we have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get where we are today, including buying our home here but, do you know what? I am proud of where we are. We are a family run kennel that works hard and we love what we do. We are not rich and we don’t have big name sponsors but that’s okay. To some people they are just sled dogs but to us our dogs are our friends. We do what ever we can to provide for our team. We are not done for a long shot.
See you on the trail and see you in February!