Thursday, January 23, 2014
A Long Story about the K300 (no illustrations yet...)
The K300 Banquet on Monday evening, about 24 hours after most mushers completed the race, revealed a few very common themes. First, the trail conditions were the 2nd worst ever witnessed by K300 racers, being ousted only by the 2008 race now nicknamed the ‘KuskoSwim’. Even the 2014 champion, Rohn Buser, highlighted that this might have been worse than 2008 considering that the outbound portion was where the ‘swimming’ was forcing mushers and dogs to continue for 200 miles further while being soaked and having ice blocks for boots. Secondly, most mushers seemed capable of admitting to swearing to themselves that they would never come to race this course again and it certainly was not really super fun. However, on the next breath those same mushers admitted that in hind sight it wasn’t all that bad and that they would likely be here next year. The ability of people to have this type of selective amnesia amazes me. The challenge that the trail conditions posed made this race- simply put-crazy hard and slightly scary for a newbie like myself.
I left Bethel with bib #2 which allowed me to run first on the trail for at least three hours. It was spectacular feeling so alone while watching the K300 fireworks go off over Bethel as we departed. It was clear immediately that the trail was not going to be easy. The race committee chose to go on an overland route due to dangerous river ice conditions. Only two days ago this trail had snow cover which promised a smooth ride. However, the two days of 40F weather and rain washed away the snow and left bare tundra, glare ice, and water. The first leg to Tuluksak is fast as the dogs are excited and full of energy. In going overland, the teams must still cross ponds and standing bodies of frozen water. The most dangerous ice is that which is smooth with a fresh shine of water on the top. The dogs have no traction-and neither does the sled. Crossing these lakes becomes a circus as the dogs try desperately to cling onto the ice with some ending up sprawled out knocking over other dogs. Meanwhile the sled slides back and forth perpendicular to the team so that any bump in the ice can easily tip over the sled. After doing this a couple times you begin to wonder how much more of this can the dogs take-yet the ice skating rinks continued for dozens of miles.
My favorite incident was when my big wheel dog Deuce slipped on the ice and he froze up sliding backward. At the same time the sled became unstable and tipped over, along with myself, over and in front of Deuce. So we are sliding along the ice, Deuce, my sled, and me. The hook ripped into my pants with my left leg under the sled and I began to worry about how to get out of this jam! Being dragged by the sled often seems to last a very long time but it all elapsed in probably 10 seconds. I eventually was able to free my leg, right the sled, and get poor Deuce back on his feet to attack the next ice rink 100 yards ahead. On and on.
At Tuiuksak we cut down to the Kuskokwim River and head north to Lower Kalskag which is approximately 50 miles. The night was warm just above freezing. The rain that previously fell combined with abnormally high temperatures created standing pools of water on the ice along with slush. The trail was mostly visible with the water being knee high at times. At one point, snow mixed with rain fell making it difficult to see where the next trail markers were. Some mushers went along an ice road for part of this portion while others stayed on the dog trail. Upon arrival in Kalskag teams were piled up and parking was quite interesting because the lot was glare ice, it was dark, raining, and no one could really walk let alone guide the leaders to a good spot. I arrived right behind two other mushers and the poor checkers where doing their best to help everyone. I felt quite sorry because I was snapping at them. Joar’s team was stopped directly in front of mine but perpendicular to my team. I expected at any moment that the dogs would take off and get super tangled with his! So I kept yelling to the checkers to please grab the leaders and tell me where to park. They really weren’t able to help much so my team went in a couple circles at one point almost going across Jeff King’s parked team! We finally just grabbed a spot where the dogs happily rested on piles of straw that I spread out for them after taking off their icicle booties which protect their feet from cuts. They ate well and I proceeded to get myself sorted out. Rohn Buser, jokingly (or maybe not joking) asked if maybe we should take a vote on this becoming the Kuskokwim 200. At this point, I was actually scared of the trail ahead. I had really no idea how in the world we were going to make it up to Aniak. Furthermore, how were we supposed to get the dogs home?? I had planned for a 4 hour rest here so I grabbed my sleeping bag to go inside to catch 1 hour of sleep. I remember thinking that is was now about 4 am Saturday morning and was considering if it was too early to call my Mom in Minnesota. Instead of waking her up, I texted a request for a weather update. She stated that Aniak was still going to be warm and raining. Super! I had to drop Ripple, one of the 2 main gee/haw leaders that I was running. She stopped pulling on the way to Kalskag and her left hind wrist was causing her pain when I examined her. She is a critical dog for Iditarod and we couldn’t afford to risk her minor injury turning into a massive problem for her.
Before crawling into the sleeping bag, I took off my boots which had about 1” of water. I made the mistake of not putting garbage bags in my boots to help protect them from water. While my feet were warm-it could be a scary situation if the temperature dropped. I did what I could to dry them out and found a new pair of socks.
Upon waking, I was still full of dread for the upcoming trail. I sat their momentarily and watched the other mushers getting prepared and realized that indeed the race must go on. Secretly, I might have been hoping that the race would be stalled pending further conditions but I quickly realized that this race is the real deal and not for pansy mushers. I bucked up, got dressed for more water, went out to feed the dogs, put their booties on, and headed up towards Aniak.
The route around Whitefish Lake was the reverse of what it usually is so that more mushers might take advantage of Aniak as a rest stop. Typically, Aniak is only 30 miles from Kalskag so there is no need to stop there and rest. Now, the run to Aniak was 50 miles and so stopping there was logical and ideal. Aniak is a beautiful and welcoming community surrounded by trees. The trail starts on the river, then crosses many miles of tundra and frozen lakes. Once again the tundra was bare and the snow slushy. That being said, it was a gorgeous day. It was dark leaving Kalskag and we were able to watch the sunrise over the mountains. It is in moments like that I realize just how lucky I am to be there. I thought about John and wondered if he was seeing the same thing as I was. \
I began having trouble again with Deuce. He is a very large dog (100 lbs) with black hair. As a 2 year old, he lacks experience, and was very stressed out from the crazy conditions of the previous run. He stopped pulling and soon decided he couldn’t run anymore. So with 30 more miles to go, the other dogs had to carry Deuce through the bare tundra and slushy snow/water. The problem with this is that the heavier the sled, the greater the drag, and the other dogs became tired quickly in the heat to which they are not accustomed to. In addition, having Deuce in the sled near the top created a sled that could not steer and it kept falling into the snow banks. I realized that I needed to repack the sled so that Deuce’s weight was as low as possible on the sled. This change made it marginally better but still really slowed us down. The trail improved greatly as we got closer to Aniak. The trail reminded me of the ones leading into Ambler with the beautiful rolling hills and trees. We lost a couple hours of time on this run and I realized that the team was not going to be capable of finishing in the time that I had expected. I was looking forward to the two hours in Aniak and hoped that the rest would energize the dogs. I had the vet thoroughly examine Deuce to make sure he wasn’t sick. However, as soon as Deuce got out of the sled, he was happy, refreshing, and eating well. Figures! Deuce will be a great dog but just needs a bit more confidence and experience. (Me too maybe!)
With a two hour break, there really is not much time to sleep. So I focused on snacking the dogs. I put a soothing foot ointment on their paws to help reduce any swelling and to cool them off. After getting booties put on-we took off back towards Kalskag for 30 miles. I was feeling slightly encouraged by this run because it appeared that the dogs had a bit of their ‘snap back’. The river had frozen over to some degree and the trail was slightly better than we expected. My plan was to pass through Kalskag and continue on until Tuluksak where there is a 4 hour mandatory rest. I was really second guessing my plan. I knew the dogs were exhausted, they were stressed out, and could perhaps benefit from the rest. However, I also knew that if we stopped go rest 3-4 hours we would drop a considerable number of places. The dogs could certainly run the 50 miles-physically we run long run all the time at home. However, mentally they are young, inexperienced and wondering what they got themselves into! So was I!
After much deliberation, I stopped long enough to refresh their booties, snack them and go. I decided that resting them for a short while would create further soreness. I had the confidence that they could do very well in the next segment but I don’t think they did. I made a kissing sound for the leaders, Swift and Ears, to go and they instantly got up and left the checkpoint with little hesitation. After about a mile-they decided to change their mind. They simply moved off the trail and sat down. I was flabbergasted-never having had a team just decide to quit! I sat there on the trail and continued to second guess my decision. I decided that I better just take them back to Kalskag and rest them for that 4-5 hours and see where things were at then. We turned around and went back through all the deep pools of water to about 100 yards from the checkpoint turnoff. Interestingly enough-upon turning around they could all suddenly pull and suddenly put the pace up to over 9 mph. Outbound from Kalskag they were barely moving at 7 mph. So, I became stubborn! I stopped the team and thought about all the long training runs we had and how great of a team they are. I switched out one of the leaders with a fresh dog and I made them turn back around and head in the right direction. We don’t give up! It took some time but we got going in the right direction. Once I stopped second guessing myself and portrayed that confidence to the dogs-they sensed it and just accepted the situation. Their pace became steady at about 8.5 mph and we made our way to Tulusak. It wasn’t fast but we were moving. More importantly, we were a team that didn’t quit.
John arrived in Tuluksak a couple hours ahead of me and I was very glad to see him there. His dogs were looking great and had wonderful spunk. They are a young and inexperienced team which caused him quite a bit of frustration, as well, but the promise of a record breaking team is evident.
I slept for two hours in Tuluksak at the school. The teachers there even made a gluten free macaroni pasta that I could eat! I put my socks and liners in the dryer hoping to dry out my feet a bit. Regardless, there was now only 50 miles left until we would make it to Bethel. There were many dogs that I considered dropping. Most of them were having a hard time and not pulling as they usually do. We brought these dogs to the Kusko to give them experience and to understand how they would do in the Iditarod team. Dropping them, in my mind, meant giving up on them and their Iditarod potential. So I kept them all which turned out to be a pretty large error.
The trail to Bethel was dramatically improved. Cooler temperature froze the previously standing water and the trail was solid. The tundra was still bare and now had glare ice to content with. I crashed numerous times on this route. The funniest time was when we were traversing this 45 degree angle ice bank and because the wheel dogs weren’t pulling the sled just slides down the bank. Usually, I can counterbalance this without an issue, but the sled caught on something and we did a double summersault. Two dogs became overly tired and I put them in the sled. Joy, being a small dog around 40 lbs, was not a big deal. Adding Spook, close to 90 pounds, was a big deal! I definitely wondered if we would finish or end up camping out 5 miles to Bethel. At long last Bethel came into view and the finish was in sight. I breathed a sigh of relief and felt huge pride for the dogs who saw this race through to the finish.
A race like this teaches new mushers, like myself, many things. I realized I have so much to learn about dealing with changing trail conditions, knowing the difference between a tired dog and a dog ready to quit, and how my level of confidence passes on the dogs for better or for worse. Now onto Iditarod!