This is part 2 in a multi-part blog post on my 2016 Copper Basin 300 experience. Although you don’t need to start with my dog team overview to enjoy this series, it does help by adding another layer of depth.
Sarah’s Dog Team Overview
The volunteers released me, I pulled my snow hook, the anchor for the team, and we were off, a quiet freight train of inhalations and exhalations mixed with the pitter patter of tiny dog feet in the hard trail, and the glide of the runners on snow.
Within the first 20 yards I went to wave to a fan and nearly fell off my sled. I was mortified and pretty sure that I got more than few laughs directed my way. I hope this doesn’t bode for things to come. I thought to myself. I took a few moments to settle into this new sled and try to get a feel for how it drove.
Each sled drives a little different, depending on how it’s built: the Materials used, the weight of the sled, the size, the tightness of the joints, and even how the gang line attaches to the sled all affect how the sled itself will pull and flex down the trail. Some sleds steer with tremendous ease – others are like big wood blocks with skis attached to them.
This was a heavy sled, but had some good flexibility and also had a nice pull down seat that tucked neatly out of the way. I absolutely loved the dragmat, a type of brake on each sled. The “drag,” as it is often shortens to in musher slang, is used to control the speed of the team or to stop the team. This drag had many sharp spikes in it and was a very effective brake regardless of conditions. It proved to be a good friend on this race.
The first few miles I watched my dogs, waiting for them I settle into a smooth rhythm. I looked over my shoulder nervously for racers coming up on me. I knew I had a far greater chance of being passed then of doing any passing.
My goal was to run steady, take my time so the dogs would have fun, and enjoy the trail myself. This was a young team and a positive experience was essential to their future.
I had a few very important goals for both myself and my dogs that outlined my race and remained my top concern on the trail.
- Eat on every run as much as possible
- Stay hydrated by drinking 1-2 times per hour
- Figure out a good system for keeping liquids thawed, thawing them in checkpoints, and thawing them on the runs.
- Learn about layering when doing lots of physical exertion
- No distractions in checkpoints; go through my routine and sleep. Don’t socialize.
- Stay positive: find the good in every situation.
- Keep my sled well organized.
- Be methodical in everything
For the dogs:
- Keep hydrated and wet snack on every run
- Maintain upbeat attitudes
- Drop dogs out of caution, not necessity; keep the main event, Iditarod, in mind.
- Work with different leaders
- Keep it fun
- Rest more than you think you need to.
I opened my first Caprisun about 4 miles into the race. In previous races, even training runs, my hydration hadn’t been a top priority. It always showed.
On the trail, dehydration manifests itself in many ways: headaches, slower brain function, an inability to stay awake, and, my personal favorite, hallucinations.if you’re well hydrated, sleep deprivation isn’t nearly as bad and doesn’t overtKeyou as quickly.
I knew that if I was going to run a successful Iditarod in a few months time that I needed plenty of practice over the coming weeks at taking top notch care of myself. If you are not operating at 100% you can’t expect to make good decisions or anticipate problems. Not taking good care of yourself also makes it much more difficult to take excellent care of your dogs. I felt comfortable in my knowledge of rubbing down wrists and shoulders but was much less comfortable when I came to feeding and watering schedules for my team on the trail. I looked at the 2016 copper basin as an excellent opportunity to work on my feeding strategies.
I sucked down my Caprisun, flattened the empty container so it was paper thin and stowed it carefully in my sled. I was going to be organized on this race too. All my trash went in one spot, worn booties another. A stitch in time saves nine. I told myself again and again. Organization does not come naturally to me but is essential for a tired, sleep deprived mind.
The trail to Chistochina was as advertised. In parts hard but mostly somewhat soft. We were slow going just because in the short lives of my teammates, with all the bad snow years we’ve had, many of my dogs have never even had the opportunity to run in sugary snow.
The best analogy I can give is that it would be like a human training on a runner’s track only to get to the competition to learn you were racing on the beach. Because of the trail differences, I knew I had to be very proactive in my dog care and give lots of extra massages. In all likelihood, my dogs would be using some slightly different muscles then those they trained on and their would be slightly more resistance. A little soreness was to be expected.
I periodically glimped a team ahead of us but could never quite catch it, though to be fair to my team we never really made an effort. I looked back to see another musher flying towards me. I didn’t wait. I set my hooks and pulled my sled to the side of the trail. The team and their driver pushed past and we resumed our journey down the trail.
On the side of the trail there were paper plates that had been decorated by students in French and German classes. The plates were decorated with really cute pictures of dogs or dog teams and said things like “go dogs go!” In French or German. I wish I had been able to get a picture but I didn’t bring a camera with me on the trail. They were fun gesture from the students of the school to the racers and I smiled at each one passing. Penny, my leader, barked at a few with big dog faces and passed by then with a cautious eye – what a fruitcake!
Later on I watched my team, finally settle in. I knew we were going to have a bit of a slower race. The trail conditions started to deteriorate as we had been told and although the trail started hard and fast inspots we also began to encounter that wonderful sugary snow. It’s seem to be that many sections of the Copper basin 300 trail were put in strictly for the race and so did not have much base.
We had been told that there would be brush on many of the trails but i was still surprised at the number of sticks that my team had to pass through especially on the first run.
I was rather hesitant passing through brush like this, slowing down my team just a little. At the 2013 rCopper basin 300 Travis had seen similar conditions And saw at the start of the race, one of our dogs ended up with a severe leg injury from running into a stick. I wanted to avoid that so we were cautious in these areas.
Somewhere along the way, Nick Petite came steamrolling up from behind. I pulled my sled over to the side. I knew Nick was going to be racing relatively competitively and I didn’t want him to have to wait for me whatsoever when I knew I was just kind of having a low-key event myself. He went by without problem and called back to me about a mangled pass that had occurred a few miles back. Nick had the unusual experience of catching two teams at once. The front team pulled over but the team in the middle did not and tried to pass before Nick could. The middle team got in a tangled mess with the team in front of it and Nick had to wait. I felt bad for him. Somebody had just made a rookie mistake.
I found I was relatively surprised by the time I got to Chistochina. We knew the run was going to be short only about 30 miles, but I was still surprised when I hit the road crossing.
Chistochina is always brimming with activity. As the first checkpoint, most of the teams get somewhat stacked up here. As a hammer, I have enjoyed being able to watch so many teams come in and so many different measures to their checkpoint routine. Now in the race, I wondered how my dogs would do about bedding down. I made the decision before the race to stay fours hours, knowing that the next run was going to be difficult. It was a hilly, long 73 miles to the next checkpoint. I wanted to attack that run with a fresh team.
I have Shy leaders. They don’t like people much. As we neared the light of the checkpoint, and we saw the group of checkers emerge, I could tangibly feel the excitement drain out of the front end of my team. Their body language seem to say we ran all the way here, for this? They hesitated upfront until they heard Travis’ reassuring voice calling them in towards him.
I stop my team and signed into the checkpoint. Dwayne was there congratulating me. The vets came around and asked if I needed anything and did a quick look over my team. I let them know that everyone was doing well and that I was pretty happy with my teams progress thus far. I loaded my drop bags onto my sled and put one of my snow hooks into a bail of straw.
I had never carried drop bags like this before it was actually a very good experience for me to do. In the future, I’m going to tie my bags differently so that I can somehow secure them to my sled. I had a hell of a time managing them on top. But we made it. My leaders Penny and Midori followed Travis and we got to a camping spot. I tuned out the rest of the world, my handlers included, and said about working on my team.
I undid one of my snow hooks. And as I walked up the team, I undid the taglines on my dogs. I attach the snow hook to the front end of the team so my leaders wouldn’t have to work and so the team would be secured in place from both ends. Then I went about and gave the dog a straw. They played in it at first – digging in it and flicking it about with their feet and their nose, trying to make the perfect bed. Then, they settle down.
By this time, I had taken my my cooker and my bucket and had gone to find water for the team. He was in a nearby outbuilding a bit of a walk away. Still, much easier than melting snow. I got the water and then began heating it up and my dog food cooker so that I could melt some meat for the dogs and give them a big soupy broth with lots of kibble.
As I waited for the water to get hot, I went through my team and removed booties. For the dogs on my team that I was more predisposed to worry about, I did a lot of stretching and a lot of massage. By the time the water was hot and had had time to thaw Miami, I had been able to work through the whole dog team. I fed them, watch them eat, and then packed my backpack and went inside.
We had large shed in Chistochina as the mushing accommodations. Inside, was a barrel stove and complementary cinnamon buns. I scarfed one down almost instantaneously. They were also serving chili and hot dogs so I bought some and ate that too. I had an hour and a half before I needed to check on my team. As I looked about, It seemed most everybody was socializing. I had told myself I wouldn’t be doing that this race. I needed to practice being antisocial, focusing on myself, and sleeping when I wasn’t mushing or taking care of my team.
I curled up on some hay bales, covered myself and my parka, and blocked out the light. It wasn’t great sleep. I had to crawl myself up small and the walls in the old cabin were rather drafty. Worse, I was near the door which apparently hadn’t closed properly in over 20 years. Anytime somebody came in or out, a cold breath of air swept over me. Still, I slept.
I woke to Vern Halter and Matt Failor, neither of whom were running, talking about dog training and all sorts of things. Their conversation came in and out of my sleep till I didn’t know whether I was awake and listening or half asleep and just simply conscious of their talking. I got up at one point and said hello to both of them, dank a big glass of water, and then passed out again with another parka draped over me to help block the cool draft that kept finding the cracks in my clothing, leaving me chilled.
Eventually, I needed to leave. Travis woke me and I got up groggily. I squeezed in by the woodstove for a few moments to warm my cold bones as I put my boots on.
Then, I got water for my dogs and gave them a cool broth with kibble and packed another for the long run to Myers Lake. I booted my dog team.
Justin and Wyatt had waited for me but I told him not to, I knew my team was slow and I preferred traveling alone. But we all left within a few minutes of one another as we made our way down the trail.
I watched them take off, one after the other, the light from their headlamp bobbing in the dark. I said my goodbyes to Travis and Dwayne, told them to order me a cheeseburger in Meier’s lake, and the dogs and I took off into the night.
If you are able, please consider donating to my Iditarod fundraiser. I am woefully short on necessary gear!