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.