Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Red Lantern

Young dogs. Tangles. Lack of brake. Snowhook in hand. Chair lift. Everything that could have possibly been a factor in this red lantern was.

Ruffian, my yearling leader, with a worried look on her face. Photo by Dino Mandoli

My first clue was before I even left the starting chute when my drag mat broke in the parking lot before the race even started! It was half attached on one side, so I figured I'd go for it. My name was called to the chute, and we zoomed out of it, drag brake or no. The team looked awesome coming out of the chute, and I was very happy with the way Ruffian and Yeti, both young, fearlessly led the team over terrain they'd never seen before.

My team flying out of the starting chute at the Jack Pine 30

I stepped on the drag mat to slow them down a bit. Despite having several hundred miles of training on the dogs this season since September, they don't know how to pace themselves very well having run sprint races all this season. Soon after I stepped on the drag, it fell off completely! With almost the full 30 mile race to go, I braced myself. This would be an interesting ride.

Suddenly, the team decided to try to turn left on a short crossroad to a little shed! I yelled "straight ahead" over and over to tell Yeti to keep on the same trail, and I could see the wheels turning in his head, but he was determined to go down that short turn off! Eventually, after about four minutes, Yeti got it, but by the time we were back on the trail, my leaders were hopelessly tangled. They were still hot (wound up) so I was hesitant to stop them and hook down for fear they'd pop my snow hook and I'd be left in the dust. So I ran them a bit. In that time, my friend Jon who started behind me, caught up to me. I let him pass and he yelled back, "Your leaders are tangled!"

"No shit!" I yelled back.

He stopped his team so mine would (hopefully) stay behind him and I quickly hooked down and ran up to untangle my leaders. In a swoosh, we were off.

Only to encounter another tangle. I hooked down again. This time a musher from Lloyd Gilbertson's super fast kennel was coming up behind my team. I knew if she passed, my dogs would want to give chase. Translation: I better hurry up! Just as this musher started to pass me on the left, the dogs started to pound in their harnesses and popped the snowhook, which came flying toward me. I caught it, but it stuck into my right hand between my thumb and index finger. I caught the sled and jumped on the runners just as it came by. There was no time to think about the snowhook or my hand, which was bleeding. The dogs were off again.

During this stretch, where the trail turns away from a major highway and runs along a railroad track, I had an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful day! It was a little warm at right around 30 degrees, but sunny clear blue skies stretched on for miles. The run along the train tracks was beautiful. A train went by, but the dogs handled it fine. Things were uneventful for about 8 miles or so until we hit the "gravel pit" - a winding trail that goes through a gravel yard. There's a sharp 90 degree turn that drops abruptly down a sharp hill along this part of the trail, and apparently some mushers had several wipe outs here, because in addition to the huge drop off, there was a three foot ditch within the hill. My right runner fell into the ditch and I wiped out briefly, but quickly bounced back. The dogs were still going strong and I was happy so far despite a couple set backs. I thought we still had a good chance at placing with good time.

But as we climbed the steep hills behind "Marquette Mountain," the dogs started to tire.

Coming down one of the steep hills behind Marquette Mountain. Photo by Dino Mandoli

It was difficult to navigate the downhill slopes without a drag mat; I used my heel a lot and the bar brake so I wouldn't run over the wheel dogs. I stopped to give them a break a couple times and to encourage them a bit. But they were growing tired climbing those big hills, despite my running behind the sled.

And then, finally, we made it to the top of Marquette ski hill. This is my favorite part of the race trail on the Jack Pine. It's so cool to run along the ski hill with skiers whizzing past. The skiers and snowboarders always get a kick out of the dogs, and it's a lot of fun to come flying down that hill.

If it weren't for the chair lift overhead.

You ain't goin' no where! My team stopped dead at the bottom of Marquette ski hill because of the chair lift. Photo by Lina Blair

Several dogs in my team are young. Two, Big Brown and Ruffian, are yearlings who are only 20 months old; Yeti, my main leader, is only 28 months old. My main concern was giving my young dogs a good experience and helping encourage them to keep moving. They were quite nervous about the chair lift, however, and just stopped dead near the bottom of the hill. I decided to give them a break. What else could I do?

Several people came up to talk to me and encourage the dogs while we were stopped. One person, photographer and academic advisor from Northern Michigan University, Lina Blair, shot several funny photos of my team stopped at this point. Lina was instrumental in helping my team have the confidence to go under that chair lift. I owe her tons of thanks!

Once we got past the chair lift, I called the team up, and away we went. The break gave the team a chance to collect their energy for the final five miles.

Finally, we went under the bridge and turned the corner headed back for town. It was a rough 30 miles.

Grabbing for the hard-earned red lantern

The red lantern is a symbol of perseverance and teamwork. In the first serum run in 1925, the red lantern was kept lit until the last musher returned home safely. It was a beacon guiding wayward mushers home.

But it is so much more. The red lantern says you've met struggles and adversity on the trail and had the wherewithal to deal with it and still meet your goal. It's a symbol of teamwork.

I am so proud of my dogs. And I am thankful for the people who have stood behind me along the rocky road the last six months have been. There was a point in time, last September, I didn't think I'd even be back on the runners, much less racing. This little red lantern symbolizes triumph over so many struggles.

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