Monday, February 24, 2014

"We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they're called memories. Some take us forward, they're called dreams." Jeremy Irons

We leave Thursday for our final race of the season, the Copper Dog, in Calumet, Michigan - a gorgeous part of Michigan known as "Copper Country." It was once a hub for copper mining; at one time, this area produced over half of the nation's copper. It is part of the Keweenaw Peninsula, which is a beautiful and remote area of Michigan that juts out into Lake Superior.

It is the longest distance we travel for a race at over 750 miles away. There are two races: a 10-dog, 150 mile race in three stages, and a 6-dog, 40-some mile race in one stage. We are doing the 40 mile race. Both races start at night.

Sometimes, I think I am crazy. I train these dogs for hours and hours (we have 850 miles on the team as of this writing), only to drive for hundreds of miles to races to put the dogs on the ground and drive them for several more miles. But, dreams can make us crazy, and sometimes we do crazy things in pursuit of dreams. Part of being free is having the ability to pursue "crazy" dreams - even if they don't entirely make sense. "Freedom is just another word for nothin' left to lose" said the late great Janis Joplin...

This morning I spent some time thinking about which dogs will race on the Copper Dog team. Here is the line up:

As always, my trusted leaders, sisters Big Brown and Ruffian will lead the way through the darkness.

Big Brown, only 38 pounds but the best little lead dog anyone could ask for

Big Brown's intense sister, Ruffian. She is the get-up-and-go. If we go too slow, she barks at the team to "Giddy up!"

In point position behind the lead dogs, I have chosen Fiona and Dirk. 
Two-year-old Dirk is an up-and-coming leader with a ton of drive and potential. All the boys hate him because he is handsome and all the girls adore him. His nickname is "Dirk the Jerk" because of it

Sweet Fiona has run such legendary races as the John Beargrease Marathon. She is tireless and just getting warmed up after 20 miles 
And rounding out our six dog team, in wheel position are brothers, Tosh and Perry.

Tosh after the Midnight Run last week. Tosh is a super sweet, sensitive two-year-old boy who is  also an up-and-coming leader

Tosh's brother, Perry, is also super sweet and sensitive and is my biggest dog on the team. At about 58 pounds, Perry is a very hard worker who brings a lot of muscle and power to the team
And I am bringing one extra dog, Cinder, just so I have an extra dog in case I change my mind for whatever reason come race time.

Cinder is also only three, but has a lot of drive and is whip-smart
We leave on Thursday after a Skype session I have scheduled for an elementary school in Roaring Brook, New York. It's hard to believe this will be our last race of the season! Our race will end sometime late Friday night/early Saturday morning. We have trained harder this season than ever before. I hate to see it end, but hope we end on a happy note! I plan to spend the weekend helping out other teams at the race and shooting photos of beautiful Copper Harbor. Stay tuned and you can follow our results on the Copper Dog site or on our Facebook page.

Mush love!
Shannon and the Diamond Dogs

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Nothing ventured, nothing gained: 2014 Midnight Run

"He that nought n'assayeth, nought n'acheveth,."Troilus and Criseyde
    - Geoffrey Chaucer, 1374

The team and I set out on our third consecutive Midnight Run, a 90 mile sled dog race, this past weekend in Marquette, Michigan. There is a saying in mushing "run your race." This means, don't get caught up in stress about what your competitors are doing. Keep your focus on what's important: your team. Heading up north, my strategy was simple: run our race. On the drive home, I had lots of time to reflect - and laugh - about some things I lost on the race. Conversely, I had time to reflect on many more things gained.

There were many challenges throughout this training season right up until the last minute leading up to the race. For one, I had to teach until 10 p.m. Wednesday night. The mandatory drivers' (mushers) meeting was in Marquette, Michigan, 11 hours away at 4 p.m. the next day. Doing the math, it's clear that didn't leave a lot of time for things like, say, sleeping. I drove until 2 a.m., stopping to camp near Saginaw, Michigan. I rose about 7 a.m. the next morning, dropped dogs and hit the road again, narrowly making it to Marquette at almost exactly 3 p.m. with just enough time to check into the motel, drop dogs and head into the mushers' meeting.

I was super excited to receive a new-to-me sled that has special meaning. It belonged to one of my best friends, Emily Wade, who handled for me on my very first Midnight Run in 2012.

Me (left) and Emily (right) before my very first Midnight Run in 2012
I hoped it would be a good talisman for the race. Emily moved back home to the west last year after living in Marquette for two.
The "new" sled: a Sled Dog Systems K-2, inside the motel after I'd changed the runner plastic
The next morning brought new challenges, as snow fell throughout the night. I got rid of my truck and replaced it with a more fuel-efficient Mazda Tribute last summer. The Tribute was no match for a Marquette snowfall while pulling my 13 foot dog trailer, however, and it became quickly apparent I wouldn't make it to the vet check, let alone the race start in this vehicle.

Thankfully, my good friend, Sharon Curtice's brother, Paul, arrived with an all wheel drive van and pulled us to the vet check. Her friend Carl Hansen would arrive later to handle for the race with a Chevy Tahoe. Miraculously, 15 minutes late, we arrived at the vet checks.

Cinder (black dog) and Perry (brown and white dog) are listened to by the fabulous veterinary team before the Midnight Run

Ruffian gives kisses to the vet at the vet checks before the Midnight Run
All the dogs checked out with flying colors. Now we just had to wait for Carl to arrive and get to the downtown start. Not only did Carl arrive, but friends Krystal Hagstrom and her boyfriend, Josh Hudachek came from Bayfield, Wisconsin to help out, too! Suddenly, things were all falling into place. I began to relax.

We arrived at the downtown start in Marquette with almost two hours to set up and prepare. I had a GoPro to record the downtown start - something I had always wanted to do - but for some reason, it kept shutting off. Unfortunately, I do not have much footage. I am very disappointed about that!

We hit the starting chute at 8:30 p.m. with 750 training miles on the team. I was concerned about the mileage a bit because, even though we had done the Midnight Run twice before, it had never been this long. In years past, it was 70 miles. Before I had time to blink, we were off into the night, past the crowded streets of downtown Marquette, alone with my eight best canine friends - exactly where I like to be. I am always nervous until we pull the hook.

The first leg of the race runs out of town along a snowmobile trail next to Lake Superior for 17 miles, and it is my favorite part. People make bonfires and camp out along the trail on snowmobiles, cheering and clapping for the dog teams; kids hang out of car windows smiling at the dogs as they pass by, and the dogs seem genuinely jazzed by all the attention.

I had trained faster this season, but I never know how the team will gel until we are out there. Our first leg was flawless. After about 10 miles, I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. The team looked beautiful, loping along in the night. I was so proud of them. I had watched three of these dogs - who are still young two year olds - take their first breath; I had trained all of them from puppyhood with the exception of three. Watching them blossom into such phenomenal athletes loping along the shore was breath taking. I held the drag mat down for the first hour to preserve energy in the dogs, but we still hit speeds of 13 miles per hour and held our place solidly in a totally clean run for the first 30 miles. It was only in the last 15 miles, when the trail steadily climbs a long, slow grade, that we lost some time. We arrived at the checkpoint in Chatham almost exactly when I predicted, at 2:01 a.m.

After caring for the dogs, and getting a few hours of sleep myself, Josh woke me at 6 a.m. by shining a headlamp in my eyes and saying "rise and shine!" Lovely. Thanks, Josh! I rose immediately to prepare for the second leg. We left the Chatham checkpoint at 7:57 a.m. My friend and fellow photographer, Nace Hagemann drove from Minnesota to shoot photos of the teams, and he shot these beautiful photos of my team leaving the Chatham checkpoint. Please visit his web site! He is amazingly talented.



The second leg was beautiful and clean.  I ran along the trail with my friend, Chad Grentz, who got into this sport right around when I did. Chad and I have grown up the ranks of these races right around the same time, and so it is fitting that we seem to run together often at races. We made conversation along the beautiful trail until I finally stopped to snack my team, and he passed. It was a gorgeous day, and the team was moving well at about 8-9 mph - still a decent pace. I wondered what I had done to be blessed with such a clean moving team of wonderful dogs and such a clean race. Other teams who I considered far stronger had scratched from the race. I beamed with pride. But...I must have jinxed it.

About an hour and a half from the finish, while running along the snowmobile trail, a snowmobile came up behind us. He turned right onto a connecting trail in front of the team, and the dogs instinctively followed. I had my drag mat tied up with a neckline because the bungees were worn and it wouldn't stay up on its own like it should have, despite having worked on it at the Chatham checkpoint. I couldn't react quickly enough before my team was headed down that connector trail. I called my leaders to "come haw" which means to turn the team around to the left, and my best lead dog, Big Brown (BB for short), pulled the entire team around with all of her tiny 38 pound strength.

In dog mushing, things happen in an instant. A perfectly clean run can turn disastrous in the blink of an eye. A large part of the sport is, in fact, dealing with adversity. Cinder, a larger female in my team, hates BB. They had a spat when I first acquired Cinder last year, and neither one of them have ever forgotten it. And as Shakespeare said, hell hath no fury...and this moment was no exception. Though Cinder was two positions back from Big Brown in the team, when BB turned the team around on that narrow stretch of trail, Cinder did not hesitate to seize the opportunity to unleash her wrath upon little BB.

At that time, my friend and fellow musher, Amber Evans, came upon us on the trail. She yelled for my leaders, and eventually they came toward her. But then I realized my sled wasn't hooked down well at all. The team started to surge forward, and I watched in horror as my sled lunged forward without me while my wheel dog, Wailer, was wrapped up in the gangline, head buried in a deep snow drift. As the gangline clamped down on his rear leg, I could hear his muffled screams under the snow. The team kept surging forward, and I admit it: I panicked a bit and said quite a few choice four-letter words. I tried in vain to release Wailer's leg from the gangline. I screamed. I cursed. I started to think I would have to cut the gangline to release him. But that would mean the rest of my team would go charging up the trail. I panicked again.

Then, finally, I stopped for a second and thought clearly. In a flash, I unhooked the tug line of the dogs in front of Wailer, relieving the pressure on the gangline and, subsequently, on his leg. I gently unwrapped it from his leg and he popped up out of the snow drift as though nothing had happened.

We inched forward and I stomped the snow hook more securely into the snow. I wiped the blood from BB and examined her wounds, and stretched Wailer's leg to make sure there were no breaks or injuries. Miraculously, he was completely fine. I walked back to the sled, hupped the dogs, and away we went. I apologized to Amber as we passed her for my four-letter words :)

As we turned the corner back onto the snowmobile trail that runs along the shore and headed for Marquette, I was shocked. What seemed to take so long the night before had taken only three hours. We headed into the last 17 miles of the trail, and I began to see signs of life: people standing along the trail cheering for teams as they passed. I was concerned about BB and considered bagging her; I stopped again to check her wounds. Amazingly, she was moving effortlessly despite the puncture in her cheek. I decided to keep her in the team.

In the last 10 miles, I saw a male musher in the distance behind me. He was far enough back that I couldn't tell who he was, but I could see he was working hard to try to catch me. I was working hard to prevent him from catching me! He was very tall, though, and had a great stride when he was running. Before long, he narrowed the gap between us. He tried to pass, but his leaders clothes-lined me. I pulled the leaders around, and he called one of the dogs names; I immediately recognized the dog. I said, "hey! I know that name! Who are you?" It turned out, he was a musher from Minnesota named Mike Hoff. We chatted from there until the end of the race, leap-frogging with me passing him, and then him passing me again.

Mike Hoff and I chatting through the streets of Marquette at the finish, as captured by Nace Hagemann once again

Mike and I got lots of passing practice for the dogs and talked about all kinds of stuff along the way. It was great running along the last few miles with him. We came across the finish line with two seconds between us.

Mike and I again coming through the streets of downtown Marquette
So, another race is in the books as they say, and we placed 19th (by two seconds) out of 29 teams who started the 2014 Midnight Run with all 8 dogs on the line. One of the mushers at the awards banquet said something to the effect of, "it's taken me 12 years of running dogs to place in the money; it will probably take me another 10 to come in 1st." How true this is. There is so much to learn in this sport, and every season, I fine-tune what I know and learn so much more. I had hoped to place in the money this time, and may have done just that if I hadn't had issues along that second leg. Regardless, I am very proud of how this race went.

On the drive home, I realized I lost something during the race and giggled. Perhaps running up the hills those last 15 miles of the first leg had me grinding my teeth a little too much, for I lost a filling in a very back molar, which now has a hole in it. This caused me to reflect on some other things that I lost along the race trail, but, more importantly, made me reflect on what I've gained.

Things lost on the 2014 Midnight Run
1. A filling
2. A blinking red leader light, which was recovered by my friend, Mike Betz (thanks Mike).
3. Five pounds - of which I do not want back!
4. Considerable amounts of sleep
5. Quite a bit of money
6. My MacBook Pro, which now mysteriously will not launch since I returned to Ohio

Things gained during the 2014 Midnight Run
1. Experience. Running dogs is an exercise in calculated chaos. There are so many potentially unknown variables. Every mile down the trail brings more grace in my abilities as a dog driver and my abilities to handle and almost thrive in the unknown.
2. Poise. The ability to think calmly and clearly under pressure. When mayhem broke loose on the second leg, my first reaction was to panic. I had to deliberately breathe through that panic, calm down and find a solution.
3. Resilience. Despite the challenges this season has presented, I have found the courage to bypass those challenges and remain focused and steadfast in my goals.
4. Countless friends and a renewed faith in the goodness of people.

Much thanks to Chad Schouweiler, Sharon Curtice and Joann Fortier, who, without their countless hours of advice and endearment I would not have gotten this far. Thanks to Krystal Hagstrom and her boyfriend, Josh Hudachek for handling for my team and to Carl Hanson for taking care of my team and me during the race. Thanks to Mike Hoff and Chad Grentz for great trail conversations and to Amber Evans for sticking by me when shit was hitting the fan. Thanks to faithful sponsors, Dennis Waite, Jim and Martha Conway and SueAnn Henry who believe in me, for whatever reason! Thanks to Nace Hagemann for his beautiful photos. Thanks to countless volunteers who devote hours and hours to host these spectacular events and help keep us and our dogs safe. And, mostly, thanks to my parents for raising me to believe in myself and my dreams and thanks, most of all to my amazing, beautiful dogs.

Our next and final race, The Copper Dog, is in two weeks, on March 1 in Calumet, Michigan.