You have heard the saying, a fish out of water, haven’t you?
That was me this weekend. I signed up for the South Central Challenge. “A stage race for speed racers,” it said on the website. I was a distance musher training for the Iditarod and MY dogs are slow by distance team’s standards. Oh, well you only live once and why not have fun doing it?
I am not necessarily a novice to sprint mushing. I had done quite a bit of sprint racing in Colorado in 2000-2001 with my rag-tag team of Siberians. We usually finished in the middle of the pack so I knew the fundamentals to a successful race.
The South Central Challenge is new to Alaska. It is a event that is held in four different locations by four different clubs. They all came together and put on a great weekend of races. The clubs, in the order of the event are: Montana Creek Dog Mushing Club, the Aurora Dog Mushers Club, the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association, and the Alaskan Sled Dog & Racing Association.
Friday: Montana Creek
The first day’s races were held at Montana Creek just north of Willow, about 35 miles of our kennel. We got up early, did the kennel chores and loaded up the dogs and minimal gear that we would need. That would be a sled, a snow hook, a meal for the dogs after the race, some booties and my checkbook. Nothing compared to the hours and hundreds of pounds of gear needed for longer race like the Knik 200.
We were allowed to choose from a pool of 12 dogs in the 10-dog class I was running in. What that means is I could run dogs in day 2-4 that I didn’t run in a different day and so on.
I tried to choose some of the fastest dogs in the kennel. Our average speed is usually about 8 mph so “fast” is relative.
The team: TyTy, Vela, Gabby, Shock, Rasp, Barrel, Spencer, Sidney, Zero, Seabreeze, and Cession. It was the first race ever for Barrel, Cession, Zero and Seabreeze.
We arrived at Montana Creek early and paid our entry fee for the four days of racing: $209.00. In mushing it is customary that you must sign up or be members of the host clubs so that you can be covered under their insurance.
Our race didn’t start until 2 pm so we had a couple hours wait. We watched the 6-dog teams go out and chatted with several people. One of our friends, James Wheeler was there. He was who we got the Kasilof Crew from a couple summers ago. We chatted about the dogs–four of who would be racing on my team.
At 1 pm we had our drivers meeting and were told about the trail and any hazards. We were running 12 miles on a flat course. I drew bib 2 so I would be going out second.
We quickly dropped the dogs, let them stretch before we harnessed them up and put booties on those who needed them.
I was running TyTy-Rasp in lead, Shock-Gabby, Barrel-Cession, Sidney-Spencer, Zero-Seabreeze in wheel.
As soon as we left the chute I could immediately tell that the team was too fast for Seabreeze. His tug was loose and he kept getting his feet tangled in the lines. We started off strong and didn’t get passed by any teams for the first couple miles. After the first two teams passed us Rasp started slowing down and looking back. I set my hook and switched her out with Sidney. At about the halfway point all the teams had passed us and we were on our own. No matter the team was still chasing those dogs in front of them, albeit an ever-increasing distance.
We finished strong in last place in a time of 72 minutes. Not too bad on a punchy trail and warm weather.
By 4:30 we had fed the team, loaded the truck and on our way home to race another day.
On Saturday we headed to the Aurora Dog Mushing Club’s track in Big Lake. After getting lost we arrived just in time to see the skijorring competition. The weather was warm and it was raining. Not anywhere near ideal for a sprint race. We had our drivers meeting and were told that the trail was in decent shape but we would only be running eight miles.
Nicole and I watched the 6-dog class come and go while we talked to Dan and his son from Sled Dog Systems. They are the company that provided me with my super lightweight sprint/smaller type mid-distance sled with a trail dragger system last year. This was only the third time using the sled in a race and I love it! It’s not the fancy-dancy hi-tech sleds that many of the mushers were using this weekend with the ski-type runners but compared to our loaded down 90 pound mid-distance sled that we mainly use, Sled Dog Systems sled was like running on roller blades.
The race started at 2 pm and I was seventh out, the last team. Our run was good. We left Seabreeze at home and I ran Vela in lead for half of the race and switched her with Sidney. Lately she has been my “closer”. Sort of like in baseball when the manager comes to the mound and takes the ball from the pitcher. “Good game, kid but let’s let someone else finish this thing out.”
The trail wasn’t too bad by my standards. The trails we normally train on are usually punchy with thick snow, overflow and the occasional open water. A sprint trail by comparison is usually super fast, expertly groomed and like a super highway.
There were plenty of volunteers at all the crucial turns and crossings and they all cheered us on as we went by.
We finished the race still in last but with a good time of 39 minutes. Not too bad!
We were home before dark just in time for a three hour shoveling job to remove three feet of melting snow from the kennel barn roof. We were worried the weight might cave in the roof and we have puppies in there!
It was still warm on Sunday morning but cooler than the last two days as we pulled up to the Chugiak trails. These are the same trails In ran on the week before in the Eagle River Classic. My friend and one of our top sponsors, Dale Campbell showed up to help us out and Michele came out after her dog training appointments in Anchorage.
We had our drivers meeting and we were told that today we were only running 10 miles but the trails were in excellent shape. I was going out seventh and we were to leave at 2pm again. I had been contemplating putting Cession in lead but was a little worried about the culverts that we would be passing under about 2 miles down the trail.
I started the race with tried and true leaders, Vela and TyTy but as soon as we went under the culvert I set the hook and switched out Vela and Cession. She had never ran in a race before much less in lead. As I clasped her neckline she turned around and started walking back to the sled with me. “Line out, Cession,” I said. And she did!
Cession is by far the fastest dog on the team and outpaced TyTy by a step or two. The team finished the race strong. Oh, I didn’t mention that Cession was in heat too and made the young intact boys in the team run a little faster trying to catch her.
A little side note about Cession.
About a year ago we arrived home to find Cession in horrible shape. The dog next to her had gotten ahold of her backside and practically ripped off the skin and fur on a third of her back. Huge puncture wounds and bites and a lot of blood. You could literally put your full hand under the skin flap.
Our vet, Dr. Susan Dent of Wildwood Mobile Vet Clinic was in Trapper Creek giving vaccines that night. We jumped in the truck and drove 50+ miles to get Cession the care she needed. Three hours later Cession was all fixed up and we headed home. Without Dr. Dent that night, Cession might not have made it. Three months of good nursing care Cession was all healed up. She didn’t run at all last season and this fall she really proved herself.
Back to the race…
We finished in 51 minutes (I believe) and loaded up the truck and grabbed a pizza at Pizza Hut before heading home. Three days down, one to go.
Monday: Tozier Track
Monday would to prove to be the most challenging and most fun of the weekend. We were racing at the historic Tozier Track in downtown Anchorage. When you enter the clubhouse a who’s who of mushing greats pictures lined the walls.
This was going to be urban mushing at its finest. Tozier Track is right off one of the busiest roads in town, right next to the police station and a Mexican restaurant was across the street. Not what we are used to at all! We usually run on trails were we seldom see people and it’s usually dark.
The day started with a huge pack of teams in the 3-dog class. Being in town just about anyone can be a musher if you want to. The city allows up to three dogs. We saw several minivans with sleds strapped to the roof and the sled dogs in crates in the back. Nothing wrong with that at all!
The 6-dog teams made quick runs on their eight mile course and by 1:30 we were having our drivers meeting. We were told that we were running 12 miles. On the trail we might encounter a moose or two, several culverts, a few bridges, a major road crossing, an active airstrip, a gas line, people, skiers, swamps, hills, and ice bridges.
I went out last. This time with Cession in her new spot in lead with TyTy joining her. We took off on the trail at a pretty fast pace. We passed through the culverts, over a bridge and barely noticed the road crossing. At about mile 6 there was a couple people on snow machines at a trail crossing. TyTy wanted to go over and say hello and caused a heck of a tangle. I lined them all out and it was time for TyTy to hand off the ball. Sidney was now in lead.
We scooted down the trail for the next four miles or so and I saw out of the corner of my eye what looked like the turn onto the gas line trail. We kept going for about a quarter of a mile and ahead a saw a group of people. To the left of me were several people, a few with skis, and a loose dog was on my right. My team separated the dog from his owners. Within seconds the loose dog was tangled in my team and it could have gotten ugly really quick. 10 dogs against one tangled in a gangline doesn’t always end well for a dog that is not part of “the pack”.
I whipped my head to the left to see a lady with her mouth agape, her hands on her cheeks and the look of absolute horror on her face. I yelled at her, “lady get your dog!” She just stood there, not moving, and so did everyone else around me.
Within seconds I got the pet dog free and he quickly ran to his mommy unhurt. My dogs whipped me and the sled around and proceeded to follow the dog into the parking lot to my (now) right. I wedged my sled into a tree, got the team turned around and on the trail again and off we went. Whew…. It was a close one!
I checked my GPS and could see we were on the wrong trail and we had already done 11.75 of our 12 miles. We had at least a mile to go.
We finished strong, actually our fastest run of the weekend.
We had just 15 minutes before the awards ceremony in the clubhouse. We hurriedly got the team taken care of and I headed up to the ceremony as Nicole finished up.
The ceremony was your normal thanks and congrats to the mushers and the teams. Being that it was such a small field of teams, all of us got a portion of the $10,000.00 purse. I got a nice payday. The first check I have gotten as a musher in a long time!
I thanked my daughter for the awesome job as my handler, my great team of dogs and all the mushers for putting up with the slowest team.
We stopped at the Lucky Wishbone to grab some take out. If you are ever in Anchorage and like fried chicken you have to check this place out.
We were home by 6 and the chores done by 7.
What we learned
1. What a great event. I can’t thank enough all the folks and the four clubs that put this on. It was a pleasure and am honor to be able to take part in such a great weekend of racing.
2. I am proud of my dogs, especially the ones that had never raced before and a big hug to my girl Cession. What a firecracker!
3. I really got a chance to bond with these dogs over the weekend. It is amazing how much quality time and what you learn about each of them spending four days together.
4. While not fast by a long shot, my team showed me that they had what it takes to get the job done on such varied trails and conditions. All my dogs remained healthy and tail waggin’ happy the whole time. That’s what matters most to me.
5. My daughter Nicole, is an awesome handler. She handled this like a true pro. She has come such a long way from those days of running behind mom and dads sled as we headed into the starting chute at sprint races when she was three years old. It’s hard to believe in just about a year and a half she will be heading to college and starting out life on her own. I just hope that we taught her well and that no matter what she is an awesome young lady with a strong work ethic, good morals and a great personality. I am so proud of her!
6. Confession…. If I wasn’t so determined to chase that elusive Iditarod dream I really could get into this sprint mushing thing. As I have said before it sure is nice to sleep in your bed at night. Wait a minute, it’s nice to sleep out under the northern lights too.
Again thanks to all the clubs. I don’t know if we will be back next year but this year was a blast!