Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Midnight Run: the arrival

There is something so precious and beautiful about waiting until the perfect moment to arrive at a goal and then meeting that goal.

Every musher thinks their dogs are wonderful. And I'm no different. I'm in awe of my dogs.

Freya freight train hugs a volunteer at the vet check the day before race day

Maybe it's the lack of sleep catching up to me, but I have been an emotional roller coaster this morning, overwhelmed with gratitude and humility about my awesome dogs and our most memorable journey. So I decided to brew a big pot of coffee, sit down, and write about it.

I signed up for the Midnight Run in 2009, but withdrew on the advice of several "elder mushers"who said I wasn't ready. At that time it was a bitter pill to swallow, but in hindsight, they were correct.

A reoccurring thought I had while on the Midnight Run trail this past weekend was how sweet it is to arrive at the perfect moment in time to reach a goal: capable, confident and relaxed. I used to worry and stress about getting to goals, to the point where I almost forced things, and the Universe always had a way of smacking me down and reminding me that the time wasn't right. Similarly, the Universe rose to meet me this weekend with blessings and a clean run. Now the Midnight Run - our first 90 mile checkpoint race - is under our harnesses, and I am savoring with gratitude its arrival.

Here are some thoughts (and photos) from the race trail and the experience.

The Race: "That was pure wild animal craziness!" Mr. Fox
For once, there is no harrowing story to tell. We arrived downtown in Marquette, MI at our designated time of 5 p.m. to prepare for the ceremonial start, set to kick off at 7:10 p.m. We had plenty of time for our bag check, set up, and to mingle and talk with friends. The ceremonial start was an amazing experience that I will never forget, and I was honored to see hundreds of people lined up along the start to watch the teams in their sled dogger procession down Washington Street.

My awesome handler, Emily Wade,  rockin' her infamous sock monkey hat at the ceremonial start

Friends and mentors, Larry and Joann Fortier of Coyote Run Kennel at the ceremonial start

My friend, fellow writer and sister from another mother, Michelle Hogan (right) and me before the ceremonial start
We then had to drive to Chatham for the real start, and this was a bit intense. After the drive, parking, and getting my gear ready and new runner plastic on (thanks to the volunteers who helped), we literally made it to the starting chute in the nick of time! It was quite intense.

We headed out into the night at 10:27 p.m., bib #107 (seventh out of the chute): alone with my eight best friends, and I thought to myself, "okay, this is it."
 I didn't feel nervous like I thought I would, however; I felt completely ready. The trail was super well-marked, fast, but packed enough to hook down, and we had a totally clean run for the most part. I decided to run Yeti, my main leader, and I am sure glad I did: we didn't miss a single turn, and my three-year old female, Big Brown, led with Yeti the entire 90 miles!

The dogs were on fire and held their pace well on the first leg. Larry Fortier, husband to my main mentor Joann, tried once to pass us, but couldn't quite make it. Then about 20 miles in, I slowed a bit and let him pass; then he couldn't shake us! My GPS clocked our fastest speed at 15.9 mph. Around 2:30 a.m. we hit a very slick flat patch, and I was amazed when I called the dogs up, after running for four hours, and they hiked up, all loping beautiful through the night.

Midnight Riders: my team loping along around 2:30 a.m. on the Midnight Run trail

We arrived to the checkpoint back at Chatham at 3:28 a.m. - almost exactly five hours after leaving. The checkpoint summary is here

Emily, my other handler Ron, and I quickly and quietly fed the dogs, checked feet, massaged, rubbed, jacketed and blanketed the dogs. Yeti literally melted in his straw bed, he was so tired. We then all climbed into my truck and I was amazed at how quickly I fell asleep. I had worried the whole time about the lack of sleep more than anything, but after three hours of hard sleep, the alarm went off at 7 a.m. and I awoke feeling surprisingly good!

As we emerged, shaking sleep from our hair, Larry Fortier called me over to his truck.

"Wow, your dogs looked great last night!" he said. "First I couldn't pass you, and then I couldn't shake you!"

I beamed with pride at this compliment from my friend and a musher I admire. "Thank you, Larry! I was as surprised as you were!"

There was only one spot where I had problems that first leg and had to stop the team.  It was a very sharp left turn where the trail began to loop back to Chatham. A musher before me had apparently taken a left turn too soon and cut into the trees just a hair before the actual turn. I saw someone lost their lead dog's blinky light in the deep snow here.

My dogs followed this trail, and it was nearly a 180 degree left turn; I dumped the sled here, and it was a doozy of a dump. I was dragged briefly before landing on my knees and righting the sled, and then I lost time trying to right my hooks, which had flown somehow under the runners and were tangled. It was here that several mushers finally caught up to me and passed me. I was bummed.

It was here I also received my race war wound.

Not the greatest picture, but this is my left knee after the race
Regardless, the dogs came in tired but strong. We were set to depart the next morning at 9:14, and I didn't know what to expect of the dogs since I had never asked them to run a second leg after running 48 miles before.

The first mile of the second leg: a vast white expanse that reminded me of a photo that could have come from the Iditarod

Almost immediately, I noticed they were off. Yeti, my leader, stopped to poop right away, and had awful diarrhea. Then Ruffian, my other leader, stopped and had the same thing. Then Miles, then Freya...

My worst suspicions were confirmed when Yeti stopped dead and promptly projectile vomited his breakfast all over the trail.

My dogs had caught a virus. We struggled on the second leg. Our average speed was only 7.5 mph, and we stopped frequently for the effects of this virus to work itself out. We were down to a march rather than a run; still, we marched on.

Aside from the virus, we had a flawless run. No tangles, chewed necklines or escapees (see the previous post about Aspen's get away here). The last five or six miles of this leg was quite intense and was the most technically challenging of my racing career thus far. Hair-pin turns wound around trees and down moguls left by snowmobiles. I literally saw the imprint of a musher's body and sled in a snow bank along these hills. Still, we had a clean run.

My friend and fabulous photographer and supporter, Dino, shot this photo of us running along the railroad bed. I was munching on a Cliff bar :)
We finished our rookie Midnight Run in 27th place out of an original starting line up of 31 teams. Two people scratched. And we didn't get the red lantern.

Coming over the finish!

I have so much gratitude for everyone that helped to make this season happen. Yesterday, as I walked outside to check the mail, I teared up thinking of what an incredible season we had, and how lucky I am to have such amazing canine athletes to share my life with. My dogs inspire me to reach higher, run stronger, do more. I have an overwhelming amount of love and patience for them - really, I am in awe of them. They are the best bunch of doggers ever!

A special Mush Love Call Out: I want to say a special "mush love" to my sponsors this season, to my parents for helping out with keeping things moving at home while I was away training and racing, and to Chris. Without all of you, this season would not have happened. I also want to recognize my amazing handler, Emily Wade, without whose help during this weekend I would have surely crumbled. I also want to say thank you to Jodi Bailey, David Gill, and Joann Fortier for their friendship and mentoring along the way.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In 48 hours, I will embark on my first 100 mile dog race

Well, 90 miles, but who's counting. I'm sure the dogs won't care about 10 miles either way. And, last night, my cooker pot was born...

My cooker burning bright in all her blue flame, 400 degree glory

A cooker pot is what we mushers use to melt snow and boil water for making the dogs' soup: meat, kibble and water slopped together into a warm stew. It provides all the nutrients and hydration needed by canine athletes during their races. 

My handler, Ron (right) and friend Larry (left) measure out air vents for my cooker

In my mind, a cooker pot is a rite of passage for a distance musher.

Having a cooker pot means you're gonna be out there awhile with your dogs. It means you're about to set off on an adventure.

I can't believe in 48 hours, I will finally set off on this adventure. I can't wait! I spent the day prepping for the race, filling my sled bag with the necessary gear for our trek: compass, dog food, snowshoes, axe, first aid kit, cable cutters, survival kit....

One of my handlers, Ron, has never had a chance to sight see Michigan's eastern Upper Peninsula before, so we took some time out to visit Tahquamenon Falls State Park and the Tahquamenon Falls Brew Pub

The Falls is something no one should miss whose never visited this area.

Tahquamenon Falls
Ron and me at Tahquamenon Falls

After hiking around the Falls, we stopped in for a little pre-race celebratory dinner at the Brew Pub. I learned just how much my handler appreciates a good micro-brew.

Ron with two jugs of beer :)

It's been fun having Ron around and teaching him lots of things any musher should know, like how to make necklines...


And how to chop up venison for the dogs...


Tomorrow our mushers' meeting is at 4 p.m. in Marquette, MI; our vet check is the following morning, and we leave for the ceremonial start at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 17! We'll be mushing all night long, wrapping up about 11 a.m. Saturday morning. The next few days are going to be busy, but stay tuned and hang on!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Checkpoint practice

We finally got out on a beautiful checkpoint practice run today! I didn't want to do too long of a checkpoint run this close to our race - just long enough for the dogs to get the idea that they have to relax on the checkpoint. We did a total of 38 miles today, and I was really happy with them!

My team at the "checkpoint" - the dogs are rubbed down with muscle liniment, bedded down on straw, and covered with jackets and blankets. The idea is to keep them as warm as possible so their joints don't get stiff while they rest. 
The dogs did really well. I have some experienced mid-distance dogs on my team. Freya did the U.P. 200 as a yearling, Tak ran the Midnight Run previously for Joann Fortier and Gwennie is a Junior Iditarod finisher. It was yearling, Miles', first experience with a checkpoint, though, but he learned to settle down quickly. 
Miles on our campout today
If you have to bootie a dog, this is the way to do it :)

Gwennie is the easiest dog to bootie: she just lays down

Tonight on the second leg of our run, the sunset was the most amazing array of lavender and mauve. The U.P. really offers some of the best sunsets - especially when it's cold.

After the sun set, the sky was cold and clear, and there were a zillian stars in the sky. I turned off my headlamp and watched the stars zoom by in the cold night sky, and thought of how ready I am for the Midnight Run.

It also is bittersweet.  We've been training for months toward this goal, and now that it's here, it will be hard to see it pass, like post-amusement park blues as a kid. I don't want the season to end.

Happy trails from the trail!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


In just about 12 hours, nine of my best friends - the Diamond Dogs - and I will pack up and depart for the Upper Peninsula for one last hurray. And what a hurray it will be: the Midnight Run sled dog race, a 90-mile wintry trek from Marquette to Munising, Michigan. This will be my first checkpoint race. I have been building toward this for the last six years.

I am excited and nervous as I corral all of my gear in the corner of my kitchen and make the checklist. Booties: check. Axe: check. Headlamp: check. The list is long and involved and would bore any non-musher.

My slightly ADD mind wanders and I think "I'm probably the only woman in northeast Ohio with an axe in her kitchen..."

No. Must focus. 

My point is, there's so much that goes into this, and this - a 90 mile race - is nothing compared to 200-mile, 300-mile or longer races.

But this is a start. This is my start. Kinda.

My start was long ago, when I first set foot on the grounds of Jackson Hole Iditarod and met those crazy mutts for the first time. They had the same effect on me then as they do now: they ground me, and make it all better.

It started with the purchase of my first sled dogs, Foxie and Mandy.

It started the first time I took a silent ride through a beautiful forest of white on the runners, the dogs' breath like tiny clouds of vapor chugging out of a small locomotive, chugga-chugga-chugga, as their collars move in a rhythmic jingle.

It started with my very first race, the Tahquamenon 28 mile six dog race.

It's started, and my appetite and love for this sport only grows deeper.

I think it's safe to say, I'm hooked.

My friend and fellow musher/writer, Michelle Hogan and I were talking just the other day about what it is that makes us love this so. It's kinda ...um, an odd thing for a 30-something mother to fall in love with.

"Do you ever go out on a run and wonder what a strange fricking thing it is to run dogs?" Michelle asks me. "I mean - how did I get so addicted to such a thing? It's rather odd. Not like a normal mom/40 year old thing to do."

Indeed. And really, sometimes it's rather surreal. We put hundreds of miles on a bunch of dogs over a few months, spend oodles of money and time devoting ourselves to this, only to drive said dogs to a place likely hours away just to put them on the ground and see whose dogs can run the fastest.

Kinda weird, init?


I’m doomed to love you, I’ve been rolling through stormy weather
I’m thinking of you and all the places we could roam together    -- Bob Dylan "Can't Wait"

Nonetheless, here we go!

I will try to post updates as much as possible. Until then, as always...

Friday, February 3, 2012

Old dogs

We have an obligation to care for elderly dogs.

Puppies are cute. Young dogs are speedy. They eat good. They generally have no health problems. They're hearty and have a voracious stamina. They run hundreds and hundreds of miles for us - sometimes thousands; take Foxie, our sixteen year old retired Yukon Quest leader.

Foxie's favorite place now is right here, on a blanket in my house. After sixteen years and thousands of miles, she's earned her right to rest peacefully on my blanket.

In Foxie's lifetime, she has literally run thousands of miles, first as a trap line leader for a trapper named Wayne Hall, in Eagle, Alaska, then in the Yukon Quest, the 1,000 mile sled dog marathon between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska, for Hall.

Foxie came to live in Ohio first with fellow Ohio musher, Tom Roig. I purchased Foxie from Roig in 2006. Already nearly 10 years old at that time, Foxie was shortly done with running.

But she quickly found an alternate job in my kennel as the educational ambassador for my dog sledding education program, Backyard Iditarod. She loved her job and excelled at it, eating up all the attention from the people who attended.

Foxie getting some love from an participant at the Ellet library in Akron, Ohio

Elderly dogs still have a place in our lives. Just because they might be done with running doesn't mean they're done working. I get sad when I see older dogs cast aside or not seen as worthwhile in society. 

Given the amazing service and dedication sled dogs - and dogs in general - give to us throughout their lives, we have an obligation to care for them in their later days, when they are no longer speedy, hearty or voracious. An obligation.

Older dogs need special advocates. Sadly, at animal shelters, older dogs are often the last to be adopted. Taking on or adopting an older dog is a lot of responsibility, but it also has its perks. Older dogs are perfect for people who want an easy-going, mellow pet. Older dogs usually don't come with the obnoxious or destructive habits of puppies, like chewing. There are tough decisions that have to be made, however; end of life decisions are particularly important.

I will never be so driven to competition that I turn over perfectly good dogs when they're past their prime. There are always jobs working dogs can do.

The Yukon Quest starts tomorrow, February 4, 2012 in Fairbanks, Alaska.