At the end of January, I embarked on my first long distance sled dog race: The Tustumena 200. At 200 miles long and over some of the hilliest terrain out there, I knew I was up for a challenge. The race experience was nothing short of amazing. The race started on a cold Saturday morning at mile 112 of the Sterling Highway. The temperature was supposedly -25 but it felt warm and I worked barehanded with the dogs before the start of the race putting harnesses and booties on. Susie (Travis’ mom) and Mikey (Travis’ step-dad) were on hand to help me get ready and to help me get rid of those last minute pre-race jitters. Boy! Was I nervous!
Not only was this my first time ever hooking up a twelve dog team but I was also heading out on what many mushers have called the toughest 200 mile dog sled race. I tried to look confident but I didn’t feel it. I wished Travis was there. I knew he’d know what to say and, more importantly, what to do. As I finished putting the dogs into the team, a snowmachine came over and I hooked myself to its front right ski… Off to the startling line.
Mushers depart in two minute intervals. The musher before me had just taken off so I had a full two minutes to wait in the starting chute. It seemed to last an eternity. Susie called back to me that we needed a neckline — a dog had chewed through one in her excitement — so I took one off my handlebar. Oh no I thought the chaos has already begun.
I took a few deep breaths and my nerves seemed to settle. Then it was three, two, one — and I was off. I had two feet on the drag but the team was screaming with excitement and speed. The drag is a break that a musher can stand on, typically made out of an old snow machine track, and uses friction as well as studs to slow the team down. Why slow down, you might ask? Well, for one thing, the dogs are terrible at pacing themselves. They come screaming out rearing to go at 14 or 15 mile per hour. In the long haul, this simply isn’t sustainable. So, what do we do? We slow them off from the beginning. The ideal pace for a distance race depends on conditions but because I had young dogs and knew the course would be tough I was hoping to go somewhere between 8-10mph for the duration of the race.
I nervously looked over my shoulder. Any minute, I knew, Jeff King — 4 time Iditarod Champion and sled dog racing legend — would want to pass me. He started right after me and I knew he was going to try and win this thing. I certainly did not want to get in his way. I’d heard from other mushers that sometimes he could be grumpy and the last thing I wanted to do was upset this mushing icon on my first big race!
He came, eventually, dog team roaring by and passed with ease. My dogs continued gracefully behind him but not for long. I knew that if I was keeping up with Jeff that I was going too fast and really tried to put the brakes on the team. In the next half hour I was passed by several more teams.
We left an open, swampy area and then headed for the hills. The dogs seemed to eat the first hills up with ease, much to my relief. Several of my dogs had never seen a hill before and I feared that they would get to the hill and simply balk at it. But they charged on. We crossed several roads and spectators and had a marvelous time. The dogs slowly settled into a comfortable pace — though looking back it was still too fast — and I felt like I had a good grip on the situation.
The trail, which I had been so nervous about, was wonderfully wide, hard, and fast. This was, I thought to myself, going to be simply awesome. I was relieved at how happy I was because the last several weeks I lagged whenever the word “mush” or “dogsledding” was uttered. I’d grown tired of the trail near our house and busy road we had to carefully maneuever (which, on more than one occasion I didn’t) to get the trail. Seeing new trails, though I knew: this is what I want to do the rest of my life — run and travel with dogs.
I settled in and at one point looked behind me only to see a dog running straight at us in a bright pink harness. Ophelia, as it turned out her name was, somehow had gotten loose from Dee Dee Jonrowe’s team. I stopped my dogs, unsure of what I would do if I actually caught the dog, and watched as the dog sped up closer and closer to me. I reached out a hand to try and grab the dog and BAM it turned around with lightening speed and shot back down the trail. Oh well, I thought, not my problem.
I continued travelling and was soon passed by Dee Dee Jonrowe, a mushing legend, and several other mushers. I was surprised at how frequently Dee Dee, the winner of last years T-200, had to stop to do things with her dogs. I fell behind her numerous times but because of her stopping caught back up to her. While I was (and still am!) very much a rookie, I knew one thing — stopping like that, was no way to win a dog race.I kept a mental note not to let myself fall into that pattern on this race or any other and, to my credit, I kept my stops minimal and to the point.
The first checkpoint, really just a place we ran through and shouted out our name and bib number, was 28 miles away. I started getting nervous at the relentless uphill battle the dogs and I were facing. Little did I know just how relentless it was: from the start of the race to the checkpoint there is 2200 feet of elevation gain but this doesn’t include all the dips and swirls the trail seemed so abundant with. We got to the checkpoint and by this time I was very hot. I took off my big mitts in favor for liners and continued onward.
That was when my team began slowing down. I wasn’t sure why but we slowed considerably and the dogs began wondering what the mountains that now lay in front of them were. I reassured them and we continued onward. The trail meandered over hill after countless hill for what seemed like ever. The tops of the hills gave way to spectacular views and I in the quietness of our travel we seemed to be absorbed into the landscape. We mushed on. And on and on and on.
Why was it taking so long? It was, I thought, a thirty mile run from the oil pad to Homer. But for some reason the run just didn’t end. My dogs began looking tired so we stopped and snacked along the side of the trail. I’d made several packages of cut up fish for them to eat along the run which they devoured enthusiastically. The sun began to set over the hills casting a strawberry glow over the snow and I pulled my headlamp out of my bag and put it on.
I could see lights off in the distance but was unsure at what I was seeing. Was it the checkpoint? Or was it simply more cabins? I’d past about a dozen so far — little safe havens hidden up in the Caribou hills for hunters and snow machiners alike. Thankfully, it was the checkpoint. We pulled into Homer and parked.
I got out straw for the dogs and begin preparing a meal for them and looking over their feet. We were to have a two hour mandatory layover here. Looking at the state of my dogteam however, I did not feel confident about continuing onwards with just two hours of rest and made the decision to stay longer. This was, by far, my toughest run of the race. But I didn’t know that then. I began have fears that this was something too big for my dogs to accomplish and started losing faith in my team and myself.
I made a few phone calls and, in my tiredness, I embarrassedly shed a few tears but managed to pull myself back together. Whether I could or my dogs could do this simply wasn’t a question we could be asking at this point: Come hell or high-water, we would finish this race no matter how long it took. While this revelation should have inspired me with newfound confidence, I felt anything but. Almost all the other teams in the race were pulling out of the checkpoint by the time I got in and I was ashamed of how slow I had gone. Remember, Sarah, I tried telling myself your just taking the pups out for a walk. Still, it was hard to keep things in perspective. I tried reminding myself that I was in a field with some pretty steep competition: Jeff King, Cym Smyth, Paul Gebhardt, and Dee Dee Jonrowe to name a few. But, Dee Dee actually, had scratched so that she could find her dog.
Jane Adkins, another more experienced musher on the trail, took me under her wing and gave me some advice: “The Race is over. Whoever it is, they’re somewhere long gone ahead of us. Now, we train.” With that as a guiding light, I prepared my dogs to hit the trail again. I knew this would be a tough leg but once the dogs made it to the half-way layover they would be rewarded with a 6 hour rest. A 6 hour rest for a dog team was like hitting the restart button. They would be just fine.
I geared myself up and we began our way down the trail. The night folded in around me and the dogs and I took comfort in the dark. The quiet made me think of home. Here I was, with twelve of my best friends, traveling along one of the most beautiful segments of trail I had ever been on. Above, the stars shone bright with the enthusiasm that only the cold can bring. I hoped the Northernlight would come out to entertain us, but they didn’t.
Instead, the dogs entertained me with their graceful cadence and unending desire to simply keep moving. I couldn’t help but think of Travis who was hundreds of miles away but out on his own journey beneath the stars. I worried for him and hoped that I was running the dogs well. Perhaps the biggest reason I was so afraid was that I knew no matter how good I did with the dogs (and good to me was simply finishing) that he’d do better. I tried to remember that he’d grown up with dogs and had done lots of junior races before stepping up to the big leagues, but it did’t work.
I remembered places along the trail from my way into Homer and so had a better idea of the time I was making as I headed back to the Oil Well checkpoint. I was relieved when I saw it’s lights but mistook it for the actual checkpoint. Fortunately, the real checkpoint was only 10 miles from where I was.
The next 10 miles we jolted up and down hills, made frantically sharp turns, and had an incredibly wild ride. It was awesome. I could see the checkpoint well before I was there and was dismayed when I learned that to pull into the checkpoint we had one last final hill. The dogs looked at it and I could see their collective groan. They had never run a 100 miles before and I’d asked them to do it over some of the most difficult terrain imaginable. “Come on guys!” I said and we charged the hill slowly, but enthusiastically.
We crested the hill and were soon greeted by the checkers. They helped me get the dogs to our parking spot and directed me to my drop bag. I went and grabbed my straw which seemed unbearably heavy for my tired arms and carried back to my sled some fifty yards away. I then repeated the process for my drop bag. After getting the dogs situated with straw and with a nice warm meal I went through their feet once more. Weiser, one of the two males on my team, had developed a swollen wrist. I immediately massaged it and wrapped it. When I knew the dogs were taken care of, I let out a sigh of relief and went inside for my own rest.
END OF PART I