Tuesday, February 19, 2013

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” ―Benjamin Franklin

My hands are like fine grit sand paper. Cracks, banged up cuticles and swollen fingers. I am a beautician's nightmare; no hand lotion can penetrate this.

Four months of training culminated this past weekend in the Midnight Run. I'm still processing a lot of what happened this weekend, but felt I owed it to some to publish some of the details of our race, what I learned in the hopes that the information can help other mushers, what went wrong, what worked, and what I would change.

Part One: Marquette to Chatham 

This was our second Midnight Run, and we had trained hard from the cabin in the tiny mushing community of Deer Park in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan since October. The dogs had a solid 850 or so miles under their harnesses, and I felt confident that we could improve our standing from last year's next-to-last finish.

My friend Kathleen drove all the way from Minneapolis to mostly observe and learn as much as she could about a check point race; we met at the banquet and I introduced her to many friends I am proud to call a sort of extended family. As the race committee started the bib draw to decide the starting order for mushers, I said to Kathleen, "I just hope I am not first." Almost on cue, my name was called. I would be bib #1 for the 2013 Midnight Run - the first down the trail! Yikes.

The next morning at the vet check, I was pleased that all the dogs received a perfect score of health from the vets.

Yearling, Tosh, is checked out before the race. All the dogs receive thorough veterinary care before, during and after the race to ensure they are healthy and happy

Despite my nervousness, we had no problems heading down the starting trail in downtown Marquette. I love running along Lake Superior through the city passed the houses. People came out to support the race, camping by little campfires along the trail, wishing us good luck as we passed and it was cold as the temperature dropped and snow began falling.

I held my team back until we were out of the city and into the darkness of night. Once I let them go and took my foot off the drag pad, the Garmin Forerunner on my handlebar told me we were hitting speeds of 14-15 miles per hour. The trail was fast along the lake, and I put my foot back on the drag mat to hold them at a steady and conservative 10 or 11 miles an hour.

When we turned off into the woods to head for Chatham, the snow picked up. I could hardly see with the blinding snow in the beam of my headlamp. I love this part of the race. It's so fun to see all of my favorite people and their teams running in the woods at the same time and we chat as we pass each other. The dogs worked hard that first stretch, and I worked hard to help them, running up the hills and pedaling whenever we slowed.

I am not a "competitive" musher. All I ever strive for is a respectable middle-of-the-pack status. I beamed as we crossed under the arch into the checkpoint at Chatham far sooner than I expected, finishing the 45 mile leg at 1:58 a.m. We achieved the solid middle-of-the-pack standing I wanted. Click here for the checkpoint summary at the Chatham checkpoint.

My friend Mike Betz, Kathleen and I quickly fed the dogs and had our vet check as soon as we came in. The dogs all looked great and ate and drank well. We spread straw out, jacketed the dogs, rubbed feet and muscles and covered each fuzzy member of the team with a blanket for our five hour checkpoint. Then I quickly crawled into my sleeping bag for some rest. It was nearly 3 a.m.

It was very cold that night, and I didn't take my parka or anything off before bedding down. All the snow that fell during the first leg began to melt and drip onto my face and I suddenly shivered in the cold. I could not sleep. It seemed like I finally drifted off when Kathleen woke me at 6:30 a.m.

We walked some of the dogs to warm them before our take off time at 7:54. They again all drank well and we began bootying each foot. Everyone looked perky and ready as we headed for the chute to start the second leg.

My team leaving the Chatham checkpoint as dawn broke Saturday morning

The difference between our first leg of the race and the last are as opposite as black and white. There are many lessons the trail can teach, first and foremost is humility.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Chatham to Munising...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Musher as coach: the symbiotic relationship between sled dogs and their person

"I don't believe in team motivation.
I believe in getting a team prepared so it knows
it will have the necessary confidence when it steps on a field
and be prepared to play a good game."
    -Tom Landry

I have a very young team this season. Out of the ten dogs in training, six are two-years-old or younger. It's been really gratifying watching them transform from puppies to athletes.

For the last two months, as training runs became longer, colder, and more strenuous, an idea began to surface for me.

There were days on training runs when we were breaking trail and moving so slow that it would have been easy (for me and the dogs) to become discouraged. Wading through knee-deep snow to hook up my 10 dogs seemed to take forever.  But the stamina and enthusiasm of the dogs is admirable and catching. Watching the snow cascade over their backs as they leap into the next drift, barking and clamoring for more despite the extreme effort of breaking trail is something to behold.

They inspire me.

But during those long strenuous runs, my role was also to coach, to inspire, to encourage them.

We have a symbiotic relationship. The energy I put into coaching and encouraging them is the same as what they give back. We rely on each other.

We have spent four months training and preparing for next weekend's Midnight Run. I have chosen the team and here's the line up:

Leading will be the dynamic sisterly duo of Big Brown and Ruffian.

Big Brown, who is neither big or brown, demonstrating how a good leader holds the line tight - even a tiny 40 lb one!

To say Ruffian is intense is an understatement. She is the "get up and go" in my team - a real cheerleader, always barking to go and barking more if we don't go fast enough!

In point are two young, up and coming stars and both young. Dirk, who is an older yearling, and my rising leader, and Cinder, who is two years old; this will be Cinder's first race ever.

Dirk, rising star leader for Team Diamond Dogs; the dogs run a full mile per hour faster when Dirk is in lead. He is young, so doesn't know commands yet, but has been a great trail leader

Cinder, who I acquired late in the season, but who has jumped right into training and become a super special girl in the team. Fantastic attitude, great feet, super eater, and beautiful to watch lope!

In team are yearling brothers from the Tak x Yeti litter, Perry and Tosh.

Always gentle, well-mannered and beautiful Tosh.

Big boy, Perry, is always playful and wagging no matter how long or difficult the run is. He has lead a few times and may have a place as a leader for the team soon

Finally pulling up the rear in wheel will be the backbone, veterans Fiona, who is 5 years old and the oldest dog on the team, and Miles, who is 2.

Fiona who is tireless and just getting warmed up after 20 miles

Miles, all brawn and muscle, and always jumping and barking to go

I have done my best to get this young team prepared so it has the confidence to play a good game. Our speed had been less than stellar from slogging through three feet of snow in the Upper Peninsula during the last month of training. And with this young team, I don't expect to win anything.

But we will enter the Midnight Run on Friday with our best paw forward - entering as mostly yearlings and emerging (hopefully) as seasoned canine athletes.

See you in Marquette and as always, mush love!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Unbeing dead isn't being alive." e. e. cummings

I am in a laundromat washing clothes that I've lived in for the last three months: thermal underwear, neck gaiters, hooded sweatshirts, lots of fleece. But today, I am wearing a suit; I just left a job interview. I am trying to marry the two very different worlds: the one I have recently emerged from, and the one I am in now.

I recently watched a documentary called Happy that validated a lot of what I've been trying to put words to this season.

When we are asked the question, "what do you want from life?" often the rote response is "happiness." But what does it mean to be happy? Does happiness come from money? Status? What makes me happy might be something completely different than what makes you happy.

I've seen people I love work 60 hours a week literally making themselves sick with exhaustion and stress. They've sacrificed relationships with their families, spouses and even themselves in order to "succeed." We spend so much of our lives in positions that make us miserable simply to afford the  house, the car and the status.

When I abandoned that lifestyle to live in a tiny, one-room cabin in the northwoods for the winter, many questioned my decision. Some were critical of me; they said I was selfish, idealistic, extreme. Some were even more harsh because I am a woman - and a mother of two - who chose to take a sabbatical.

No one can fully understand my reasons for abandoning my old life for a few months of solitude in the northwoods. This time away has taught me many things, most importantly, to not waste time worrying about the naysayers, and that I am a hell of a lot stronger than I thought three months ago. Those who know me and love me understand and know the reasons I chose to leave. I will say this: sometimes the heartache that comes from leaving is less than the heartache that comes from sticking around. Sometimes it takes more strength to walk away from a situation than it does to stay and maintain status quo.

But, the heartache I felt these last three months from missing my children was overwhelming at times. At a crossroads, Sunday, I loaded everything I had in the tiny cabin, packed up the dogs and gear and drove back to the farm in Ohio.  After driving all night, I arrived at the farm just in time to wake Elise up for school.

She opened her big, brown eyes and blinked up at me.

"Mommy!" she said brightly and wrapped her pajamaed-arms around my neck. She smelled like shampoo and clean bed sheets as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.

We went outside in the pre-dawn light of 6:30 a.m. and let the dogs out of the dog boxes together. She's always been such a good helper with the farm. She wants to be a veterinarian.

Today, as I watched the fleece and thermal roll absently inside the dryer at the laundromat, I thought about these two worlds and how I have a leg in each. Do these worlds have to be in opposition to each other?

It seems I have to choose: professional vs. musher; skirt suit and panty hose vs. thermals and hooded sweatshirt; mother vs. musher. Is being a dog musher really going against the grain that much?

People have said, "why can't you just run dogs recreationally?"

For me, I am all in or all out. There's no in between. I need a goal of a race or consistent, good training miles to stay focused.

I love my daughters. More than I love anyone on earth. But am I setting a better example by being a cog in a wheel? or by teaching them that women can be strong, take a stand against what doesn't sit well with them, take risks, live in the woods alone?

Not being dead isn't synonymous with being alive

We all have to find out what we're made of and what makes us happy. Money, status, approval-seeking have never made me happy or been motivating.Watching something blossom, take shape, and come to fruition is super gratifying for me though.

The dogs and I have done a lot of work. Non-mushers cannot possibly fathom the amount of time, money, and effort that go into training a team of sled dogs. I do not intend to let the hours and training miles count for naught.

We are running our second Midnight Run on February 15, 2013 in Marquette, Michigan, though I am back in Ohio. Check it out: http://www.up200.org.

Still trying to find a balance....