Archive for March 12th, 2012

Can’t Win to Lose

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Who’s ready for their daily dose of bad news. Seriously, I don’t know how else to describe what is going on now, because just when I think it can’t get any worse, it gets way worse.
Cole made it to Shaktoolik where she called to tell me what I had already known from watching the weather. The winds came up…in a major way. The mushers just ahead of her slipped up to Koyuk just before it got really bad, but Cole came in to sustained winds of 30 mph, and they were expected to keep howling through the night.
This would be dangerous at any time, but when combined with the temperatures which on the sea ice were already hovering at minus 20 to minus 30, well, this comes together to make a windchill factor that is somewhere around minus 50 to minus 60.
This is the danger zone for sure, but now Cole is faced with several tough decisions. If she waits it out, she doesn’t know how long that wait will be. A few years ago teams pulled over to wait out winds, and they built up to 50 mph and lasted for 2-3 days.
However, if Cole tries to drive into them, she is risking that the team may not be able to handle it. Mostly because her main leader at this time is pint-sized Penny, who while she still isn’t lacking in heart, just doesn’t have the body size to handle winds that strong. I have seen her literally picked up off the ground and thrown in winds this speed.
Cole has faced worse wind and colder temperatures, but it was with a much fresher dog team in 200-300 mile races, and with her full battery of leaders. Sadly, Cyder, Quigley and Keno, her largest and most powerful leaders, are all already home with me due to various maladies.
Again, adding to this situation is the fact the Cole is still on next to no sleep, so while these situations are dangerous to anyone who finds themselves in them, my fear is Cole may not have the mental faculties at this point to do what she would normally do if she were better rested.
The worst part, for me personally, is I fly out tomorrow to hopefully see her in Nome. I have to be up and on the road to the airport before she will even get into Koyuk (based on the times it took people who weren’t driving into the wind), so I won’t know until Acnhorage if she made it, or is out there fighting for her life and her dogs lives.
The only thing keeping me from completely peeling my skin of with worry is that Cole has been moving with four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey and his handler of several years Braxton Peterson. They are old neighbors of ours who Cole knows well. She said they talked in the checkpoint and agreed they all stood the best chances of making it safely if they moved together through the storm in a caravan.
Lance is no stranger to finding his way though way worse storms on the coast than this. He clawed his way through the one I already mentioned that pinned everyone down in Shaktoolik two years ago to earn a win, so if there is one guy in this race I’d like to see her move though this storm with, its him.
That being said, this is still the Iditarod and not Cole or Lance or anybody is unstoppable, as we already saw on the way to Unalakleet when four-time champion Jeff King scratched for the first time in his 22 year Iditarod career.
So, anyway, that’s all I have. I am literally terrified for my wife and canine family. If any of you are the religious types, please pray for her. If you’re the non-religious types, please keep your fingers crossed for her, because she and the team are going to need every ounce of luck they can get tonight.
All for now, and until I get to Nome tomorrow evening.

No Good News

Monday, March 12th, 2012

The title of this post says it all. Despite her fairly phenomenal run time compared to those around her, Cole’s run to Unalakleet was one of the longest of her life. She did stop for rest for a few hours along the trail. She was heading to a cabin between the two checkpoint, but in her sleep deprived state, she wasn’t able to tell how far she had gone so she stopped and camped along the trail, only to later learn what all of us watching her GPS blip knew, she had stopped just a few miles before the cabin.
Still, the dogs got some much need rest and she began to push on, but it seemed like everything was against her and the other mushers out there. The trail is said to be very soft, so the dogs could go more than about 6 miles per hour though it. It was around minus 30-40, and there was a bit of wind roiling over her, not a terrible wind as it can get in this area, but enough to further slow them all down by blowing the trail in and chilling her to the bone.
As most people following the race closely know, even four-time champion Jeff King’s dogs stopped on him on this leg. This is a guy who has mushed for more than 30 years and run this trail enough times to have seen it all in terms of weather and fussy dogs, but this run to Unalakleet even became dangerous for him as you can tell from this picture below I pulled from the web.

He and the dogs had to curl up in the snow, no insulating straw to keep them warm (although thankfully he had coats for them as you can see), while they waited for help from a snowmachiner. To those who know how tough King is, this picture should send shivers of fear down your spine for the other people in the race who don’t have the lifetime of experience that King does. This photo is also telling because if you look closely by the dogs closest to the sled, you can see the 3-4 inches of snow that have blown into the trail. Like running in soft sand at the beach, this is the stuff that is slowing the teams to a walking pace.
Cole didn’t see King out there, but she did see another musher whose team had quit on him, but she said she was hallucinating so badly from sleep deprivation, she wasn’t sure she was really seeing who it was, where they were. Another sign Cole is really struggling. Managing sleep deprivation has always been one of her greatest strengths as a distance musher, and this is the first time, I can remember, her ever talking about her mind playing tricks on her.
Adding to Cole’s situation, Dunkel (the howling dog in the restart pic at the top of this post) finally got worn out and had to be carried in the bag for the last 40 miles. Dunkel is the youngest dog on the team at this point, he’s only two years old, and like any youngster – human or dog—he has a super high metabolism. It seemed that no matter how much food Cole pumped into him through the race, he was still getting leaner and leaner with each run. Cole had even been giving him extra food. She sent out ziplocked McDonalds double cheeseburgers to all the checkpoints because they are high calorie and easy drop into the cook pot when boiling water for dog broth to heat them up. She said Dunkel has even been getting these treats the last few hundred miles, but it still wasn’t enough calories to keep his strength up.
In Unalakleet, Cole plan was to rest them for 8-10 hours before making the push to Shaktoolik. These next two runs should be two of the tougher ones for her as well since she and the team will be on the Bering Sea Coast. Not only is this are prone to intense and sudden windstorms, but for teams that come from heavily forested areas like ours, the lack of landmarks on the sea ice which is flat and featureless for miles can really mentally take its toll on the musher and team. No matter how fast they are going it just seems like they aren’t moving, which can slow them down even further.
Here’s to hoping she can just get this thing finished up and in good fashion. I know a lot of you have asked how Cole could be having such a bad race, yet be doing so well in the standings, and all I can say is it is a testament to her perseverance as a person and her extreme savvy with being in tune with her team.
Mushing, if it is about one thing, is about overcoming obstacles. The better you are at that, the better you do in this sport, and that’s what Cole has been displaying for the last few hundred miles. This hasn’t been the magic carpet ride, it’s been headaches and hurdles at every step, but she is doing the best she can and that’s all anybody can really do out there.