2018 Copper Basin 300 – The Big Climb, from a Rookies Perspective
“Trust Yourself. Trust Your Dogs. Run your own race. The only pressure you have is the pressure you put on yourself.” These are the words of advice passed on to me by fellow mushers whom I’ve admired for a long time. They became my mantra and they circled through my head every step of the Copper Basin trail. These words are what got me to the finish line.
Copper Basin is considered the toughest 300-miles in Alaska, I know now why this is a widely known fact. And this year, word on the trail was that this was the toughest Basin mushers had seen in years. That’s how my luck would have it! I’ve been preparing for this race for years, ever since I moved to Alaska in 2014 and handled for my first Copper Basin for Matt in 2015. In 2016 I somehow was convinced to sign up for the race. Two weeks before the start line, I bailed—I didn’t feel ready. Now having completed the race, I am SO thankful that I realized the seriousness of a race like this and didn’t over estimate my capabilities at that time. Had I raced it then, I never would have finished.
After handling for 3 Copper Basin’s & 3 Yukon Quests and accompanying Matt through thousands of miles of training, this year I felt “ready”. I had the tracker map memorized from sleepless nights following the Smokin’ Ace’s down the CB trail and let me tell you, the lines on the map do not correlate with the intensity of the trail! I found this thought very amusing on my last run to the finish around mile 30 of the seismic lines. That hill was a hill that never ended and we never descended. The amount of elevation gained (from my sleep deprived perspective) was not accounted for in descent. I still feel a little gipped on the elevation discrepancy. CB, you owe me some down hills, without the efforts of the up.
I felt “ready” because I’d been following races and listened intently to stories of the trail told by many knowledgeable mushers throughout the years and rookies too. I’ve read armchair musher’s critiques of races past. You learn a little something new every day. And apparently, some of those things stuck because when I was faced with decisions, I started hearing seasoned mushers voices circling through my head, “once you lose your speed you never gain it back”, “Keep your speed constant, whether you’re going up or down”. These idioms are worth their weight in gold.
The night before the race I had Matt run over every detail with me. My race schedule and routine was in my head from watching him on the trail every year. I knew it by heart, but did I have it straight? And could I execute it accordingly? I could give it my best shot. And as a rookie, what more could I offer?
Come race day I kept saying, if I leave the exit shoot in the up-right position, I think I’ll make it. As they counted down, my eyes narrowed, heart raced and the only thing I could think was, control your team. 3-2-1! I was off! Both feet on the bar brake, brake tips jarring my insides and vibrating my entire body on the trenched out frozen solid ground. We were doing it! And we weren’t dragging behind the team! As I made it down the trail, friends would ask me how I was doing--I’d say, “I’m still standing!”. Figuratively and literally, I was doing just that.
Start --> Chistochina
The run to Chistochina took you along the road so there were lots of vantage points for fans of the sport. The dogs would perk up and get excited with every group of onlookers. I would always tell them, see guys, those fans are for you! As I write this, it’s hard not to get a little teary eyed as I am bursting with pride over our dogs. This wasn’t just my first 300-miler, it was theirs too and they were the first two litters of dogs that I had raised from birth. I took them on their first 200-mile race just last year.
You’re probably realizing by now that this is going to be an incredibly long winded post. Ha, well I suppose you’re absolutely right. It’s hard to condense 300-miles of sheer awesomeness, beautiful country, stellar athleticism and life changing trail. It’s an unbelievable experience to run a race of this magnitude and the words keep flowing out. My point being-- I won’t be offended if you scroll to the end and figure out why the hell I stopped with 15-miles to go! I would too.
So, we ran down the ditch trail. I was ticking off the obstacles as went. Start shoot, check. Berms over driveways, check (minus the one that got me and I drug for a hot minute in the sugar snow behind the team). This was one of the many times my dogs showed their loyalty. I uttered out an embarrassing “whooooaaa” and they quickly stopped, I looked around to see who noticed and it was only the dogs’ whom knew I faltered. I shook it off and off we went. Beaver Creek, check! Downhill S-turn to the river, piece of cake! And then, suddenly I was on Aily’s tail and was about to pass. ***Hold up*** throw on the brakes! I told Matt if I passed either Aily, Allen or Ryne at all in this race, then I was definitely doing it wrong. I checked my GPS--I was holding an 9.3 mph pace. Ok, that’s good, I was aiming for a 5.5-hr run into Chisto. I was on course. Turns out, Aily had had an issue with her sled, though she was back up and running, I had made time on her. Regardless, it was too much pressure to have her team behind me watching my novice moves and even though she insisted she was fine traveling where she was, it had been 2-hrs and my dogs were ready for their first snack. We pulled off the trail and her team ran on-by. I never saw her on the trail again, minus at the checkpoints. That was more par for the course.
We pulled into Chisto after 5 hours and 30 minutes on the dot. And the dogs did great. They came in strong with wagging tails. Matt lead me to my first checkpoint rest spot, right alongside of Aily and Allen (typically where I place him when he’s running). Being fellow Two Rivers mushers, it’s always nice seeing them on the trail as they always offer encouraging words and are typically always smiling. I snacked, fed, unbooted, checked wrists and bedded them down. They proceeded like seasoned veteran’s and all took to resting immediately. Good dogs. I took my spot next to Bourbon on the extra leafs of straw. The wind was howling, though it was warm (20 degrees and rising), and my mind was racing about the conditions on the Hump. It didn’t sound good. Bourbon pawed at me as if to say, “Hey, don’t worry about it, let’s play.” Not now Bourbon, it’s time for sleep.
4-hrs went by fast. I woke up after getting about 40-min of rest, got some coffee and watched the black and red team of SP Kennel leave. Allen left first and you could tell he wasn’t too excited about being out front, breaking trail over what was expected (and confirmed) to be a completely wind swept trail in 40-mph winds. I was grateful that I would have his trail to follow.
Chisto --> Mieir’s Lake
It was time to go. I packed the sled, snacked and booted the team. They were screaming to go telling me they were ready. I pulled the hook, Matt jogged in front to guide me out of the dark checkpoint and off we went towards the leering Hump. The 30-miles to the Hump went by fast on the cat trails. I was passed by Ed Hopkins, but didn’t see any other team until we started climbing. The night was dark & cloudy with a lot of moisture in the air. It had warmed up significantly to at least 30 degrees. By the time we reached the open climbs luck was on my side and the wind that had been whistling through the trees at Chisto, had completely diminished. We had a trail to follow but you could see that the wind had wreaked havoc in those hills and the landscape was completely windswept with huge drifts. My young rookie team learned quickly how to stay on the packed trail after falling off into poofs of deep snow. With Anchor and Hamlet at lead, we had no problem charging forward. From marker to marker we traveled forward, hitting the steep incline before it flattened out through what was described to me as a mountain pass, but even though my head lamp light was 750 lumens bright, it was dispersed through the millions of water particles floating in the air and I couldn’t see anything of my surroundings. All I knew was that we were above treelike. The team snacked beautifully as I prepped them for the next 2-hrs of hard trail. We kept it slow to minimize the chances of getting a shoulder in this deep snow—I was not carrying a dog up this god forsaken hill.
At the base of the incline you could see a skyline of headlamps forming constellations as teams marched up the infamous Hump, one after another. So, we followed suit. There’s one thing about our Critter’s and Bugger’s that has always puzzled me since last year. These guys love hills. They literally charge right up them. What befuddles me is that we really don’t have hills in the valley, minus the firebreak trail, so I surmise they love the challenge of new terrain. Thus, I never worry about them in the hills. My glitch with these types of vertical ascents is the fact that, what goes up, must come down. And the back side of the Hump was likened to the descent from Eagle Summit by a couple of mushers (I did NOT like this). This comparison had me tight chested and white knuckled. Off I marched to my immanent fast drop out of the sky as I kept asking myself, what have you gotten yourself into?
Once we reached the summit, we couldn’t see anything because of the fog and darkness of the night. Matt advised me, “once you get up there, don’t stop; The dogs will catch their breath then pull you down the hill. Keep them winded so they walk down.” Ok, just keep going. I kept waiting for the headlamp in front of me to drop out of sight, but it never came. It turns out, the downhill portion wasn’t so steep after all and the drifted snow played in our favor as it gave me the upmost control down the long decent. I understand the hype however and in years past mushers have experienced the exact opposite for snow cover, with a barren rocky backside. That would make for one hairy ride down. We walked down the hill and thanked our lucky stars for the snow laden trail.
I’ve heard many mushers talk about descents down “The Steps” and through the Dalzell Gorge and the Burn in the Iditarod. They tell you to gear down your dogs in these areas because there’s typically little to no snow which grants the musher minimal control, alternately they’re twisty steep and turn-y and you’re liable to wreck your sled. These “puppies” (2.5 year olds) of ours practiced this throughout the race and it was remarkable to watch them learn.
Next up, our first water crossing. And……it was non-existent!! The Basin gods were on my side! Our feet stayed dry and we cruised down the river onto our next leg of the race—The droning pipelines.
Up until this point we had been moving and snaking downhill. There was a short couple mile dog leg to the pipeline. We were moving well and the dogs looked perfect. All of a sudden Bolt must’ve leaned out too far to dip snow or stepped in a post hole and she came up with a little head bob. Darn, she must’ve tweaked her wrist that we had just nursed back to health before the race. I stopped to check that it wasn’t a shoulder and then watched her closely for a distance to see if she would shake it off. Once we reached the pipeline, I decided I might as well carry her and give her an extended rest including our long 7-hr rest at Mieir’s Lake, in hopes of keeping her in the team. So, I bagged her and we started our journey of never ending rolling hills paralleling the pipeline. Surprise, more hills.
I’ve never worked so hard in my life, so I thought. Kicking and pedaling up every hill so not to put all the responsibility of carrying a dog on the team. The snow at this point was blinding and wet and the air hot and thick. I ditched my parka and over boots to make my body lighter for running. My light bibs that I’ve grown to love presented their one downfall here—Where are the vents?! I was sweating profusely. Oh well, the butt flap works for ventilation, I just hoped a poor sap wouldn’t sneak up behind me and look at my glowing pink thermal bottom as a rude “kiss my butt” challenge.
Well, Matt, Ryne, Tom & Jessica and everyone who has run this race before me were right. Those hills never ceased. They just kept rolling and rolling and rolling along like a sea after a storm. Finally, the monotony was over, there were two glowing markers signaling a right-hand turn--DOGS, we made it! Gee!!!
We turned and to my dismay, the trail didn’t go down! It rudely and uncompromisingly traveled up! The trail had no base and the corners had deeeep soft shoulders. This was part of the trail when we were supposed to drop "down" to Mieir’s lake. Where is my damn downhill that Matt promised?! So, for the last few miles I cursed Matt’s name for the first time, but not the last. He had a tendency to downplay the hills on this race, but I surmise that was his way of keeping me optimistic about the trail ahead. Tricky, tricky Quest musher. I put Bolt back in the team as we made our last trek “down” to Mieir’s Lake, as she was kicking and screaming to be let back in the team and I wasn’t going to argue.
We arrived at Mieir’s Lake tired, wet and hot but with happy wagging tails. We made the 75-mile grueling run in 8 hours and 48 minutes, not bad for carrying a 55-lb dog on a soft hot trail. For the first time since I have been involved with the Basin, Mieir’s Lake was calm. Matt preemptively had dug me a trench on the exposed lake to protect the team from the typical unyielding winds. Fortunately, we didn’t need it. I took care of the team with a snack and a meal, wrapped Bolt’s wrist, then bedded them down for their long 6-hr and 50-min rest. Everyone was still in prime condition. They all ate beautifully and happily curled up next to each other in their beds of straw.
The Hump, check.
Onward. We woke up refreshed and ready to tackle our next leg of the race. Sourdough, here we come! I had a vet check Bolt’s wrist after her collective 10-hrs of rest, massage and wrap. She looked good. She was charged up and ready to roll. The vet and I agreed that if Bolt didn’t work through it, to bag her and drop her in Sourdough. The next leg was a short 35-miles and I was warned it was a steep climb off the lake. I was confident that Bolt would make this trek with no problems and she did it with flying colors.
I signed out, jumped on the sled and pulled the hook. They had been screaming to go as I ran down to the team and it made me sing with pride, “Let’s Go”! My team was off instantaneously and I struggled momentarily to keep my balance. I was doing something right.
Off we went into the ensuing blizzard. We blazed up the hill and got our first glimpse of the surrounding wilderness in the day light. It was beautiful and white. I stopped after a couple miles to let the dogs T-Swift it (shake it off)--A trick Matt taught me, under a different nomenclature, but all the same a good way to let the dogs settle into their harness and prepare themselves for the trail ahead. We climbed, we dropped and we climbed some more. Finally we started to wind down from the hills towards the river section of the trail. It was twisty and tight amongst big trees challenging your driving skills and urging you to test their strength against your sled. The dogs and I were able to maneuver through them and escape unscathed. They all snacked well and seemed to pick up pace once they sensed my enthusiasm from knowing we were close to the next rest stop.
We had a great run into Sourdough doing the 35 miles in 4 hours and 39 minutes. I ran up the hills and the dogs walked down them. I was persistent with this manner of running. I promised the dogs we’d never try to make up time on the downhills and we held true to the method of running for the extent of the race. We dropped down on the river and could see our checkpoint. We made it to the 3rd checkpoint and we were “Still Standing!”.
This first half of the race consisted of mostly highs. We had tough trail conditions over the hump, yes. The trail was blown in, but we had teams in front of us and had something to follow. It was snowing and hot, sure. But everyone was going through the same blizzard and heat. We bagged a dog over the pipeline and were moving at what felt like a snail’s pace, yes. But we took it in stride, and we didn’t let that take away from our conquest over the hump. The trip over to Sourdough wasn’t the hardest trail, no. But it also wasn’t the softest trail we’d seen thus far. If I learned anything from running dogs, it’s that your mood trickles into them. If you’re happy, they’re happy. If you have a crappy attitude, it’s going to manifest itself in the team and they soon will have a crappy attitude. So far we were running the race we had set out to run and I coined my new phrase, adding it to my inner dialogue of echoing mantra’s, “Run with no regrets.” We were ready for our next rest.
Matt & Marinell met us at the checkers and guided us to our next resting place. I had taken the front booties off the dogs’ half-way through our last run because of the high temps. So I first took to removing the back boots and unsnapping their tugs so they could continue to cool down in the snow, before the straw and before their meal. I snacked then later fed. Not everyone ate their dinner, so with a couple tricks and waiting a while longer, I managed to get everyone to eat. Before I left, I had a hunch that they’d be thirsty for their next leg, the longest leg of the race at 79-miles. I prepped them a wet snack for the trail. Before settling in myself, I covered them with straw. Though it wasn’t cold, I wanted to try and keep them dry.
The snow was coming down and getting everything soaked. I was excited to don my new pair of heatlok gloves, but they instantly soaked up the moisture of everything I touched. This fact would affect me down the trail. This checkpoint is typically known for its extreme cold temps because of it’s low elevation along the river, but not this year. It was 35 degrees and wet. There was only one small warming hut for the mushers, nowhere to really sleep and no warm meals. So, I resorted to my bag of jerky and a squeeze pouch of baby food (strawberry banna, oats, and kale). I laid down on the extra straw next to my sled and threw my parka over my head to protect myself from the torture of falling snow landing on my face while attempting to sleep. I was tired and had the next run leering in my mind. I knew it was going to be long, hard and slow.
We left the checkpoint per usual. Dogs chirping and assuring me that they were ready for their next conquest. Matt assured me this was a “flat” trail, though it would be long. I soon found out that it was anything but flat. We dropped down to the river, then started our “quick” ascent up the river bank. The dogs were hot and dipping like crazy. There was a fresh 2-3’’ of snow on the trail between myself and the team ahead. We chugged along at a respectable speed for these conditions (6.5 mph) and stopped just shy of our 2-hr mark for their first snack. The dogs didn’t want my wet snack I had prepared, though I didn’t blame them for not wanting to eat in this heat, it still hurt my feelings and I wondered what I was doing wrong. I let them roll around and munch on snow, then continued. It was here that I noticed Bolt was showing signs of her wrist bothering her. Crap….we had only gone 18 miles into our 79-mile run! I couldn’t carry her this entire leg! I watched closely and resigned to the fact that I had made a rookie mistake--Bolt should’ve been left behind in Sourdough and I was going to have to carry her. Hind sight is 20-20 however and I’m not sure if I would’ve left her behind if I could re-live the race. I think back to how she looked coming into Sourdough. Her gait was smooth and seamless. She pulled up every hill and had a tight tug coming in. Either way I had miscalculated her abilities.
So the dogs and I chugged along. We stopped and snacked and trotted through sloughs and on and off lakes. The dogs didn’t seem to mind we were carrying Bolt again, as I tried my hardest to pick up the slack by running alongside the team. Eventually we made it to a lake where we saw a musher camping their dogs. I stopped to make sure they were alright then started our ascent up. And up and up we went! Where is this climb coming from? I wasn’t expecting this on our run and man could I feel it in my legs. I ran up every hill with those dogs and those dogs just kept charging. I was so proud watching them climb, never second guessing why I led them there.
As we continued to gain in elevation I started looking at my gps. We were still holding steady at 6 mph, but I foresaw that speed dropping. We were just about half-way and had been on the trail for 5-hrs carrying a dog. We had been breaking trail since Sourdough. Did I want to make this run in one push? The dogs were still moving strong, but what would they look like in 3-hrs? 5-hrs? 7-hrs? Could they maintain this speed? Should I, a rookie, attempt to make a projected 12-hr monster run at this pace with my young 2-year olds? Did I have the mental capacity to guide them for those 12-hrs with the leadership skills they required? Again, words from seasoned mushers circled through my head. “Trust yourself, trust your dogs.” And my new one, run with no regrets. What would Matt do? Well Matt isn’t a rookie, but I very much was. He would probably keep going, but we were going to camp. I pulled them off the trail into the waist high snow and got some barks of disapproval from the veteran’s. Eira still very much wanted to go and the Critter’s were wagging their tails and burrowing in the snow. I thought to myself, well that’s a good sign. I removed booties and snacked. Set my cooker up to make another wet snack for when they woke up and perched myself on my sled for a 2-hr cat nap.
As I layed on my sled, sopping wet for the unrelenting blizzard, I contemplated the race. At this point I had been entertaining the idea of getting Rookie of the Year, awarded to the top placed rookie in the race. We had been holding our fellow rookies at bay and were doing very well. Before the race started I had been asked a handful of times if I was going for rookie of the year. The idea made me anxious and I pushed it to the back of my brain. I told myself that we’d race the race the dogs and I were capable of. Regardless of where that might land us in rank, I’d be proud of them and myself for finishing 300-miles of tough trail. THREE HUNDRED MILES! So, I braced myself to watch my fellow rookies-- Ben, Jason & Vebjørn-- cruise by soon. Surprisingly, it was about an hour before I saw those teams and I thought to myself, I must’ve been holding a decent speed if I kept these guys off for this long. That’s good. I’m not going to lose anything from the rest and we’ll maintain our speed. Up ahead, Vebjørn pulled off for a rest as well.
When I got the dogs up, my spirits were immediately rekindled. Sleep most likely had a big part in my refreshed outlook, as up to this point I had only accumulated 4-hrs of rest over 2 days. The dogs perked up, jumped back on the trail and started making their reassuring chirps and squeaks. I doled out their wet snack and everyone ate. Nothing makes a musher smile more than seeing a team scarf down food. My dog team was solid. I gained nothing but experience from that rest and set my team up for success. Here we go!
We pulled the hook and started our last half of our run to Mendeltna. We continued to climb up hills and drop back down them. We crossed Lake Louise—A deathly quiet foggy frozen wastehole that went on for what seemed like days. Here I struggled to stay awake, falling asleep and catching my grip on the handlebar. I started experiencing what mushers call trail hallucinations and I realized they were very much like lucid dreaming. STAY AWAKE. I’d stop and snack and look around to see if I could see any headlamps. I was alone and I was famished. My snacks didn’t have enough calories to keep me awake after all the energy expended in the hills. I wanted a burger.
The temps started to drop and everything started to freeze. My sled bag and parka harnened and froze stiff. My mukluks, which had no overboot, had completely sucked up the moisture from the many miles of wet snow and were now permanently fixed to my feet as inflexible bricks. My “new” fleece gloves were frozen solid from using them to do my chores in Sourdough. My beaver mitts had water spilt on them and were completely drenched. All I had for my hands were my wristies and my dying hothand packets. My handle bar had a thick layer of ice on it which made it very hard to grip with my bare hands. This was going to be a long 20 some odd miles.
Finally we started making some headway onto trails that I recognized as being close to the highway and checkpoint. We were 10-miles out. I caught up to Vebjørn, passed him then realized I needed to snack and we played leap frog. I noticed Bourbon was getting soft in the head and reassured him we were almost there. Chance needed a break, so I switched him out with Bolt. She once again, looked strong in the team. We were close. Finally, we passed the checkpoint and looped under the road and back again to check in. Bourbon thought I was playing a cruel trick on him and insisted we go back to the checkpoint as we were rolling to a stop. He was pleased to realize I was being earnest and we were actually, finally here. I checked in and bedded the dogs down. We had just had the longest run of my life and I was mentally and physically exhausted.
Matt parked me next to Ryne, Sven and Aily. I was happy to see their faces and hear their recounts of the trail, which were very similar to mine in respects to the slowness—“That was hell!” “Miserable” “SO SLOW….” “The hills never ended!”, all mushers were grinning. We laughed and joked why we put ourselves through such pain and agony. Already we were forgetting the hardships of the trail and I was feeling another high. People say that musher’s have the worst memory and I was starting to see that first hand. The dogs all ate their food and I smiled. Their metabolism was kicking into high gear and was at a turning point in the race. Soon they’d eat everything I’d throw at them and that’s a warm fuzzy feeling.
I grabbed a vet and dropped Chance. Because Chance had been picky with his food early on, I didn’t like his weight and wanted him to be left behind. I dropped Bolt, though the vet didn’t quite know why because she was being her typical bouncy self, eating and alert and came in strong. But there was no way in hell I was going to make that mistake again. Lastly, I dropped Bourbon, though he was a good weight and ate his food and had no ailments to be concerned about, he was getting soft headed. I decided that he needed more time to mentally mature, so rather risk him having to be bagged on the next leg, he would end his race here in Mendeltna on a happy note. Overall, he did a wonderful job and he’ll try again next year.
Once I packed my sled and bedded down the dogs, I was ready for sleep. I decided I wanted these guys to have an additional hour of rest, so we’d stay 5-hrs total. I wanted a strong run to the finish line. Matt led me to the food and I devoured handfuls of sandwich meat without bothering with the fluffy bread stuff, chugged some water and found the bunk house. My feet were burning and wet. I had trench foot. My ankles, calves and quads burned. My gear was completely drenched. Matt looked at me and said again how incredibly proud he was of me. He was beaming. I hung up my gear, kicked up my feet, laid my head on the warm pillow and was out cold.
Mendeltna --> Finish
I woke up refreshed and feeling more confident about the last push to the finish. Over the next course of 65-miles I kept shaking my head thinking about the mushers that do this every year, thinking how crazy you must be to sign up again. I would also reflect on how fast the front runners were running and just bask in awe of the athleticism of their dogs and their mental fortitude. This race, is not for the faint of heart and the humans and canines that compete in these races are some of the toughest, most resourceful people I have ever met. They have nerves of steel and survival skills to boot. And here I was, trying to follow their trail! I laughed. What madness.
We took off after Jason and passed him a few miles out of the checkpoint. My team was feeling good, I was feeling good. I was noticing that my big boy Anchor was dipping and he was dipping a lot. I didn’t like it. I stopped and snacked. Out of the 9 dogs he was the only one who wouldn’t snack, he was hot and panting. I took him out of lead for the first time and moved him to team so I could get a better look at was going on. Man, he is big and was weird seeing him anywhere else besides lead. At 70-lbs, he towers over his team mates. I stopped and checked his gums and they were nice and pink. I pulled at his scruff and his skin poked up but quickly dropped back down. Slightly dehydrated, but nothing concerning. His pee was the perfect shade of yellow. His poops, like the rest of the team, were solid. ANCHOR, what is wrong with you? We kept going, he started to act stiff in his hind end. Immediately I dropped the hook—NOPE!! We’re not playing this game! At 70-lbs he is the last dog I EVER wanted to carry, but he’s Matt’s golden child and our ticket in the Quest. Whatever was going on with him, we weren’t risking further injury. Anchor was catching his first ride in the sled.
We saw two markers on the left-hand side of the trail and we went haw. We were starting our last loop around Glenallen! And to my shock it was…all…up…hill. Perfect. Hold fast Anchor, this is going to be a sludge.
Luckily, like I’ve stated before, our young guns for whatever reason unbeknownst to me love the hills. Hamlet, at single lead, put it into high gear and we charged up that one long 14-mile hill. I could see the head lamp behind be, but the distance between us seemed constant. Surprisingly, this 70-lb dog wasn’t holding us back, too much. We were holding a 6 mph pace. I looked down at my little Cougar in wheel, she was one of the strongest dogs on the team, muscles flexed and her tug so tight you could play music off it. I glowed with pride. After 2-hrs, I stopped and snacked. Anchor snacked in the bag, he was hungry so I gave him two.
The dogs looked great and I was impatiently waiting to start our descent. We saw our right-hand turn. We went gee and looked forward anxiously for the downhill. It never came. Instead we slinked up and down through eerie dark trails, over sloughs in the dead of the night. It was slow and boring with scraggly snowcapped black spruce & moose tracks and bunnies galore. I thought to myself, this is wolf country and at one point I heard a growl that literally almost jumped me off my sled. Thinking back it was most likely Carhartt snapping at his brother Costello for relieving himself, like he likes to do. On a side note, those two boys, including their sister, are top notch dogs. If given the chance, I think they would’ve led us home. But at this point, Hamlet was being a rockstar up at single lead and this veteran didn’t need any help from these pups. Anyhow, the dogs weren’t impressed with the trail and neither was I. So we’d stop every hour for a T-swift, a snack or a reboot for dogs that had lost their booties in the deep snow.
I started thinking about the last stretch of trail along the roadside. From experience as a handler, I knew that rolling section of trail and sugar snow had taken many mushers and forced them to scratch. Though it’s so close to the finish line, it’s mentally exhausting. We were rolling down the trail at 5.5 mph. Did I have it in me to lead with confidence? I wasn’t sure if I had the mental fortitude. I looked at the team and I thought back at what we had just accomplished. They looked good, but they had been carrying an extra 70-lbs through relentless HILLS. I thought about it long and hard. Matt probably would look at this team and say, “You have a bunch of fuel in the tank, they look great!” Everyone was snacking like pigs, which meant their tanks were indeed full. I decided that the Critter’s could make the push with Hamlet leading the way. But then I hit a section of wide trail that was perfect for camping. We had 15-miles to go, but realistically that would take another 3+ hrs. I was feeling pretty low and exhausted. This was the TOUGHEST thing I had ever done in my life and it was draining both physically, but mostly mentally. I thought about what my goals were...My goals were simple, bring a happy healthy team of young dogs over the finish line. We were camping.
I stopped, unbooted and snacked. Everyone ate which again makes you want to dance. They looked happy and the Critter’s sat there expecting more food as they heard me preparing their wet snack that wasn’t going to be ready for a while. So, they resorted to bedding down and taking another quick cat nap along the trail. I looked at Cocoa who was looking at me with his goofy side ways look. That damn dog always puts a smile on my face. His brother Cash, my mama’s boy, looked pretty happy about my decision. I got the cooker out and melted down snow for their food, sat on my sled and fell asleep. A half hour later, Ed passed me. The dogs perked up their ears and heads and watched them go by. They seemed alert and interested. Good. I went back to sleep. More teams passed but I held strong to my 2-hr rest. I slept some more. I woke up and felt a revived sense of accomplishment and determination. We were going to cross that finish line.
I took out our trail bowls and dished out their meaty kibble stew. Again, everyone gobbled it down. I had to keep my eye on Costello because that little pig had been stealing his partners food since Sourdough. Just like our trail rest before, these guys chirped and sang rearing to go, re-instilling the confidence I needed as a leader. Trust your dogs. Trust yourself. We had made the right decision. We pulled back on the trail, with Anchor in team. I wanted to see how he looked after all that rest. After a short distance I bagged him again, he wasn’t as convincing as I had hoped. We made it to the highway.
The last 10 miles were long and slow. And we trudged along at 6 mph. Finally, we saw the lights of town and knew…we had made it. We crossed the finish line @ 4:41 am. It took us 14 hrs and 7 minutes, including the 2-hr rest. The total elapsed time was 66 hours and 14 minutes and we still had wagging tails. The dogs tugs were tight and it looked like they could keep going. I had accomplished what I wanted to do—Cross the finish line with a happy team. My eyes teared up. I signed the check in sheet, gave Matt a hug, breathed a long sigh of relief, laughed at the outrageousness of what had just unfolded, then ran the team to the truck. They all ate beautifully and it was a sight to see.
I had two vets look over Anchor who couldn’t discern anything wrong with him specifically but could see his tight hind end. They prescribed him some rymadyl and let him sleep it off. Hours later he was walking like nothing was ever wrong with him and today he’s perfectly normal.
Chance is well and rested and regaining his weight. He’s still as happy as can be giving kisses and wagging his tail.
Bourbon looks like he never set out on a race, though he traveled 235 miles of it. He too is back to his happy-go-lucky self.
Bolt will continue getting TLC for her wrist and it seems like she has inherited her mama’s gene—She definitely gained weight on this race.
As for the other amazing finishers (front to back)--Hamlet, Costello, Carhartt, Ace, Cash, Cocoa, Cougar and Eira—They were amazing and I’m so proud for their unfaltering loyalty and determination. They are hands down a gals’ best friend. Thank you.
As for me, my skin is a little thicker, my hands and feet feel a bit like leather and my life a little fuller. I’ve been on cloud-9 and I can honestly look back at that race and say that I have no regrets. I trusted myself and my dogs and I ran my own race. Will I do it again? Ha. I swore up and down at the finish that would be the first and last. A couple days later, sitting at the hot springs with my fiancé, rehashing the race over mimosa’s, I feel a change of heart. We’ll see. I hear that mushers are inclined to forget the low points and chase the highs and have an affinity for pain. You know, it really was beautiful country and the hills really weren’t that bad.
As of right now, all the dogs are back in harness and looking great. Yukon Quest, here we come!
Thank you for reading. Until next time, happy trails!