Anyone that signed up for the Gin Gin 200 thinking it would be an easy race found out the hardway this past weekend that they were wrong. First, mushers and their teams found themselves having to cut through what could best be described as a winter hurricane to get to the first checkpoint 50 miles from the start. Leaving in temperatures of minus 10 (that quickly dropped to minus 20 as a cold front moved in), racers found that from mile 7 through 20 of the course, there were sustained winds of 40 mph with stronger gusts. Teams, and even a few snowmachines, were literally blown off the highway and down a 20-foot drop into the ditch along the roadway. In a few spots, more than one team was blow into another. On one occasion in one of the windiest spots, Cole passed at least seven teams off the road and all tangled together. Some other teams quit on their mushers in the storm, and of these, the lucky ones were able to turn around and return to the start-line, but a few pour souls got stuck in the teeth of the tempest for hours.
Then after the first checkpoint rest, without embellishing, the racers and their teams found themselves enduring temperatures that were minus 45 at the halfway and 10- 15 degrees colder on the river stretches of the race, which was a 112-mile loop. That’s a long way and a long time to be in that kind of cold. Cole had trained and packed to make that middle leg in one push, so she didn’t have to stop to camp thankfully, but she did face a few sections of overflow that made the run even tougher and required a lot of booty changes and even flipping the sled to de-ice the runners with the axe at one point in the race.
As she pulled into the checkpoint for a second time, the weather report was that the winds had not died down on the highway for the final stretch home. Adding to this challenge, the wind had also scoured even more of the highway snowless, making it not just difficult, but impossible to slow or stop the team in these sections. The final run would also have to be done at night if racers left on time. A few folks began talking about staying longer than their scheduled departure times to give their dogs extra rest after the long middle leg, and so that the run home could be done in the day light. However, Cole decided that resting the dogs on old straw (from the first layover) in minus 50 temps would not be much of a rest at all. Also, she always carries one extra meal in the sled, besides what is needed, just in case of an emergency, but in the extreme temps the dogs were enduring, one extra meal wouldn’t be enough to sustain the dogs through an extra night of shivering. In addition, the weather report the racers got was that the winds were not predicted to let up anytime soon, so waiting seemed mute. After carefully considering all the options, Cole made the decision to run into the storm, to get the dogs back to where they could get better rest in the warm boxes of the dog truck, and get even larger meals than she had packed for the race.
Cole made the challenging trip to finish in good time and ended up placing 2nd in the final standings. She was proud of herself and her dog team for meeting the extreme and unexpected elemental challenges of the race. Fortunately, Cole had brought two coats for each dog, and foxtails (a strip of animal fur that dangles in front of the penis) for the males to prevent frostbite, so everyone came through the cold and wind fine.
Also, Cole credited much of her success to the fact that she and the team routinely “storm train” in the high country of the Caribou Hills. In this above tree-line area, there are no landmarks to guide them. The ground becomes indistinguishable from the sky and all signs of the trail disappear. The dogs and musher get use to relying on each other. As such, Cole and the team were mentally prepared to face the storm on the highway (even though the winds were worse than any she had ever mushed in) because there were still navigational landmarks such as signs and willow bushes along the sides of the road.
And, to be completely honest, Cole made the final push because she wanted to test herself and the team to see what they were made of, but not in the bravado sense. Rather, it was with the idea that it would be better to find out in a 200-mile race (where assistance was only a few miles away) that the team wasn’t mentally and physically ready for an intense storm, as opposed to finding out they weren’t ready in the Yukon Quest, where she and the team could be challenged by a similar storm on Eagle or American summit, but where due to the lengths of the race-legs, help isn’t so close by, if even possible at all.
In the end, we felt the decisions she made were the best ones for OUR dog team. Cole finished with all 10 of the dogs she started with and they finished without frostbite or injuries, and they were still leaning into their harnesses and chirping to go at the finish. For her excellent dog care throughout the event, race officials and veterinarians gave Cole the Humanitarian Award, and to be honest, to us this was even more of an honor and an accomplishment than placing 2nd.
Archive for December, 2008
While the holiday is a time for many to relax, this Christmas day is a busy one around the kennel. Our second race of the season – the Gin Gin 200 – is on Saturday and we leave to make the long 9-hour drive north tomorrow. This is a race Cole and the team have twice competed in and done well each time. She and the team were third three years ago and second two years ago. Last season she had hoped to win, but withdraw before the race after not being in a race frame of mind as a result of a close friend being killed that Christmas Eve.
This season’s race should be a good one. The field looks talented, but also the trail reports are hinting to a bit of a challenging course. To take just a few excerpts from an email sent this morning from the race organizers: “Expect windy conditions from mile 7-20… Deep snow and overflow in spots…We had to snowshoe some of this… Several miles below the cabin you will begin a jumble ice area… to Mile 60 you will encounter as many moose as you will ever see.” Sounds fun, huh? Oh, and I forgot to mention, the temperatures are supposed to be around minus 5 to minus 15 for the daytime highs, and minus 30 or colder for the nighttime lows.
As such, our goal for this race is just to survive. Just kidding. Seriously, we would love to finally win this race, but doubt this is the year it’s going to happen. Instead we are just hoping to place in the money, which for this race means placing in the top three. This is going to be tough, though. We have had a few injuries lately, nothing major, but with the Yukon Quest still to come, we are being very cautious with some of the A-team, so a few of Cole’s most trusted and proven race veterans will ride the bench for this race. That’s not to say the 10 dogs she will be bringing up aren’t capable of capturing victory in this race. It is possible, just not probable, but I guess we’ll see what happens. To follow the race visit: http://gingin200.blogspot.com/
In other news, we recently heard from Trucker’s family back in Massachusetts. Trucker left this past summer to go to a new home. He remains the only dog we have ever moved out of the kennel, and he only left because he didn’t show a love for pulling like the other dogs do. Still, we try to keep up with him as often as possible. This is something we want to do because we love Trucker, but also because we view it as being responsible mushers. Some mushers will euthanize healthy dogs that don’t pull well – putting performance above humaneness. Some others will “place” dogs, but they don’t really look into who and where these dogs are going to, and if they will be cared for permanently. These mushers are just eager to get the dogs out of the kennel, while still being able to say they didn’t kill them. This to us is an end run, because we have had several of the owners of these “placed” dogs call us weeks to months later to say outrageous things such as “Well, so-and-so musher gave me this dog, but I live in an apartment and can’t afford it anyway since I’m unemployed. Do you want it, or should I just bring it to the pound or shoot it?”
Anyhow, the point of this post is to not to be on the soapbox about pet owners doing things wrong, it is to focus on one couple doing things right. Trucker’s new family – Ross and Tamara Morrow – have given him a better life than we could have ever hoped. Here are a few photos they sent of Trucker enjoying the holiday, and them enjoying Trucker while snowshoeing with him just days before Christmas.
The first race of the 2008-2009 season is in the bag. This past weekend Cole and the team competed in the Sheep Mountain 150, and had a great time doing it (see photo of the team leaving the chute, taken by Theresa Daily). Cole finished 13th out of the 50 mushers that started the event, which exceeded our own expectations given the talented field. Our goal was to place between 10 and 20th position, and we had expected to come in around 18th, so 13th place was a great feeling of accomplishment.
Overall, the weather and course were pretty favorable. The highs were around minus 5 most of the time, and the mercury dipped to near minus 20 during the night leg of the race, which is almost perfect for the dogs to run in. In addition the full moon was out, so the night leg was well lit, and there must have been some sort of meteor shower that night too, because there were a million shooting stars. The trail was well-marked and in pretty decent shape, all things considered. The Sheep Mountain area hadn’t had much snow this season — that is until right before the race. The organizers did an excellent job trying to groom it out, but there’s only so much you can do with fresh snow. It didn’t really have time to set up for the race, and with 50 teams going over it, the trail got a little churned up. Our dogs are pretty good at dropping down to four-low and powering through tough stuff though. We always say our team may not be fast, but they’re tough, and they got to prove it. Colleen did a lot of her passing on the up-hill sections of the race. Still, since finishing in the money (1st through 5th position) wasn’t a possibility, she largely just let put the dogs on autopilot and ran them like it was a training run for the first half of the race. That’s not to say she didn’t work hard too. You have to help the dogs up hills in races. It just means she wasn’t kicking and poling like a mad-women, and calling the dogs up, through the whole race.
Led by Penny and Oaky, she moved at a moderate pace though the first leg and it went well, with the exception of Hank, one of our two years old, who had some foot-related issues, so he had to be dropped after the first 50-mile leg. The second leg, led by Cyder and Crumb, Cole again ran the team conservatively, but still managed to slowly, but consistently, pick-off teams. She had moved quit far up in the pack, then the unbelievable happened. Cole lost one of her brakes…AGAIN.
Loyal blog readers will remember from past posts, we have been having a lot of break problems this year, but attributed it too old brakes and hard trails. Not wanting any weird stuff in the race, we purchased some carbide-tipped brakes, but waited until the night before the race to put them on. When we did, we noticed the attachment bolts were a little too short. They didn’t quite make it far enough into the nut to make a good hold. Without extra hardware, we tightened them as much as we could and hoped for the best. It wasn’t enough.
Without the brake, Cole was having a hard time slowing the team when she needed to, and on one particularly big downhill that ended in a forked trail, she couldn’t slow the team and missed the correct trail. She got the team stopped and turned around, but another musher had followed her trail and was now behind/in front of her, but when he attempted to turn his team around it didn’t go well. The musher got a massive tangle and two dogs — still breathing heavy from running — began to choke to death. One was in the front of his team, so the musher ran to try to deal with it. Cole saw the dog near wheel choking, so she attempted to help. The dog was in such a bad way, it began panicking and bit Cole several times through the gloves. Still, she managed to free it.
Her and the other musher got back on the trail, but were now about 10 teams further back in the pack from where they originally were. Cole had to re-pass them all again, so when she hit the checkpoint, she hadn’t really slid in the standings, but she had lost a lot of time. Penny had taken a bad step somewhere on the trail too, so Cole dropped her to prevent any further injury. Also, Cole’s hand where she had been bit began to swell making it painful and difficult to hold onto the sled, put on dog booties, and perform other necessary tasks.
After a break, Cole went out early to attempt to repair the brake. She always carries a 7/16” wrench for just such an occasion. She got the brake back on, but doubted if it would hold any better than it already had. On the third leg she tore it off again, as well as the other brake. She made the whole run to the finish without brakes, just riding the drag mat to slow the team down. Still, despite this mechanical issue, Cole had a solid run home, led by Zoom and Cyder. In distance racing the strategy is typically to go out slow and come home fast, and that’s exactly what Cole did. She picked off a few more teams in the last 50-mile leg, and finished 13th overall with 10 happy and healthy dogs (see photo). Everyone ate well back at the truck and then slept hard on the drive home. Now they will get a few days off to rest, then it will be back to training for our next event, the Gin Gin 200 in two weeks.
Our final run for the week (see photo) is done and now all that is left is to finish packing for our first race of the season – the Sheep Mountain 150 – which is this weekend. Most of our booties are bagged and meat cut, so there really isn’t too much left to do, especially since this isn’t a race we are trying to win.
This will be Cole’s third time competing in this race, and she has placed as high as 9th before, but our goal this year, will be much the same as the last time she ran it – to not finish higher than 10th place, but not further back than 20th. The race was cancelled last year, but in 2006 Cole came in just outside this goal, in 21st place, but all of her dogs were either one or two years old then, with the exception of Cyder and Karma, and she had just the week before raced two 70 mile legs in the Gin Gin with the same team, so we still looked at it as a success.
Not racing to win may seem like an odd concept, and in a way it is. We know many mushers that won’t even enter a race unless they are sure they can place in the money. But we race for fun and not to earn a paycheck, and in this race in particular, we are glad we’re not trying to make a few bucks. While some of the teams that will place in the money (1st through 5th position) will be skilled mushers with well-trained teams, not all of the top finishers will fit this criterion. In the past we have seen a few dog teams run faster and pushed harder than they were ready for, especially for so early in the season, and as a result we have seen some dogs come in looking wrecked.
This is not our way. In longer distances like 200 or 300 mile races, poor dog care will eventually catch up to these people who put winning over the well-being of their teams. But sadly, in a race this short, they may be able to get away with it, and since Cole won’t push her team to their breaking point, she is content to finish further back in the standings than some, but with a team that could go another 150 miles if they needed to. She has nothing to prove.
As such, Cole’s mission for this race is just to get the dogs onto a 5-on,-5-off schedule. Later in the season she will be going to a 6-on, 6-off schedule for the Yukon Quest, so getting the dogs onto a similar schedule now will be great for them. She is just looking to run the race like three consecutive training runs, and practice a few new feeding and husbandry techniques on the dogs during the breaks — things she is hoping will work for the Quest. We’ll post photos and stories from the race when we get back. You can also follow the race on the web (hopefully), by visiting the Sheep Mountain 150 site.
The past week has been good. As we turned the calendar to a new month we found we were very close to our target mileage for the season. We always set a goal of 1,000 miles by December 1 and while we have never actually reached 1,000 miles by this time, we are always within 100 miles of it, and the same was true again this year. That is the purpose of a goal. It gives you something to work toward, but that doesn’t mean you have to blindly drive toward the goal without adapting to the situation in front of you. Training a dog team is a dynamic process and you must be able to asses the needs – of each individual dog as well as the team as a cohesive unit — with each passing run. If we have set out to do a 30 mile run and the dogs look good, we may keep them going and put in 40 or even 50 miles. The same holds true if they don’t look good, and there have been many times we have set out to put in a 50 or 60 mile run, but called it quits after 30 miles due to low morale, or someone’s gait looking a little off, or countless other reasons.
Regardless of falling slightly short of our goal, training is going very well. Last year at this time we only had a fraction of the snow we have now, and there will hopefully be more on the way soon. Down low the trails remain hard and fast. Clam Gulch Trail and Centennial Trail are still a little to skinny on snow to attempt with large teams without risking wrist injuries, so we have continued to utilize Falls Creek, which we are getting very sick of since it is the only game in town. We do have trails out of the yard, and have run them with the B team a few times, but have continued to run the A team into the hills via Fall Creek, at least until after our first race, the Sheep Mountain 150 in two weeks. This is a hilly course so we have opted to continue to train on similar trails, even if it means driving a little bit (but still less than up Oil Well Road) and mushing on some of the most boring and least technical trails in the area (it’s mostly just logging roads).
We got in another camping trip this past week, which makes the fourth for the year (sorry no photos this week, but Joseph is on vacation and we can’t upload images from our home computer). Camping as much as possible this year was another goal of ours. We thought it would be good practice leading up to the Yukon Quest and with each campout we do seem to get a little better at performing our chores. Campouts are also supremely enjoyable outings, especially the last trip on which we had a remarkably clear night. Describing the starry sky as a celestial canopy would be an understatement.
We have also seen signs of other mushers camping out, although some of their campsites almost defy logic. Two weeks ago we came down a fast downhill on the Grand Prix Trail and found several snowmachiners camped out, literally in the middle of the trail, with a campfire and all. When we asked them about their choice of a location they said they didn’t think anybody was using the trails yet. This is pretty understandable for snowmachiners, since these early-birds were out weeks ahead of their other motorhead buddies. However, this past weekend it appears some mushers camped in the exact same spot. It’s hard to comprehend anyone we know being so stupid as to not only camp in the middle of the trail (as evident by the straw they left), but also to do so in a location at the bottom of two down hills. There are easily a half dozens teams going through this area some days, so why they would stop there is just bizarre. Especially when one thinks about all the fantastic places to camp in the hills, where teams could easily pull off the trail and enjoy some real solitude and beauty. But ignorance reigns supreme sometimes, as we have noticed more and more recently. We have seen signs of mushers stopping to snack their teams on narrow uphill trails, not even a quarter mile past a wide open spot that would have been a far better option. We have also had head-on passes with some mushers that seem to lack the knowledge or ability to actually step off their sleds and muscle or maneuver them to make a cleaner pass. Instead these doofuses will just ride the runners straight on in as if on autopilot, with reckless abandon for the dogs in our team they nearly run over. Oh well, I guess a bad pass with another musher is still better than a bad pass with a snowmachiner.