Tuesday, March 4, 2014

True Grit: Copper Dog 2014

grit   noun
    : a hard sharp granule (as of sand);
    : firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger

To me
    : having goals and sticking to them against all odds; follow through; perseverance

In Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book, Outliers: the Story of Success, the thesis is simple: we put too much stock into what success looks like and not where it comes from. Gladwell argues that successful people have certain traits and qualities that help shape them to become successful.

Gladwell also asserts that one has to spend about 10,000 hours at anything to become truly gifted at it. "Achievement," writes Gladwell, "is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play."

You gotta love something an awful lot to spend 10,000 hours doing it. As I drove up I-75 north toward Michigan's Upper Peninsula this past Thursday for the second time in two weeks, I tried to calculate how many hours I have spent behind dog butts in the last eight years. I've certainly spent 10,000 hours in the last 8 years driving hundreds of miles up I-75. But how many hours have I spent driving dogs?

Michigan is a blur of snow and rest stops. Lake Michigan fades into Lake Superior. Miles go by and eventually I arrive at Keweenaw Bay. I've gotten so good at these road trips up I-75, I can practically do them in my sleep.

It has taken me eight years to even know how to begin to get serious about this sport and how to train competitively. A rookie erroneously puts too much stock into simply hooking dogs, running them and accumulating training miles. This vastly over-simplified way of training dogs is inadequate. This season, I changed my way of thinking about training dogs, focusing on not quantity of runs/miles/hook ups, but quality. While training, I focused on speed bursts later in the season; while racing, I focused on keeping our speeds consistent throughout an entire leg. Sometimes, my training runs might have been short, but I consistently hooked up at least four days a week, and sometimes five. I was more consistent in my training than ever this season.

My dogs are talented athletes. But without the proper preparation, that foundation would fall short. It is my job as trainer and musher to provide them with the best preparation.

The Race

Many have said I'm crazy for driving as far as I do just to jump on a sled for a race. And maybe I am. But, back to those qualities that make successful people, I come from a family of grit, and I think sheer determination is a backbone to success.

I was nervous at the start of the race, I admit. I had never run the Copper Dog 40 and I knew, among other things, that there were 20-some road crossings along the way and the last 10 - 15 miles was full of hills. At the last minute, I changed my dog choices because my main leader was coming into heat. I left the chute with Big Brown and Ruffian in lead; Tosh and Fiona in point behind the leaders and Perry and Wailer bringing up the rear in wheel.

But right away, I began having issues. About two miles out of the start, Ruffian kept looking back at Tosh, balking and slowing the team way down. I'm not sure what she was thinking, but after stopping and trying to get her to focus several times, I decided about three miles into the race to hook down and switch leaders out.

This was risky. Tosh, who is two years old, has only led a handful of times on shorter training runs and never on a race, where there is far more pressure. It was risky also because Big Brown was coming into heat.

As soon as I put Tosh in lead, however, we flew. He kept his head despite the many road crossings staffed with people and the girl in heat next to him. It was the best decision I could have made.

I really have nothing else to report about the race! The trail was fast and beautiful. I saw more stars than I've ever seen in that part of the country. It was very cold this weekend. I turned off my headlamp at one point, hoping to see the Northern Lights, but did not. On the drive up Thursday night, my dashboard thermometer hit -25.

We finished the 42.6 miles from Calumet to Eagle River in 4 hours, 31 minutes and 30 seconds.

I am told by several people that I have grit. My Marine father was more tenacious than anyone I knew growing up, and his legacy has certainly carried forward with me. And, although my mother was a home maker until I was 13, she also cared for seven kids. She could put her feet firmly in the sand and not budge an inch if she chose to. I had no choice but to have grit.

I want to harness this feeling. There is nothing more rewarding than working so hard for something and watching it come to fruition. Success is less about intelligence as it is about perseverance, less about status as it is about culture.

I am not saying I am successful, but I have grown more this season as a musher - and I think as a person - than any other season prior. Mushing has taught me what I am made of, shown me that I am stronger than I think I am. I had a feeling the team could place in the top 10 in this last race of the season, and they did. And I am in love with my dogs. They run for the joy of running and pull their hearts out, all for me and for love of the trail and what's around the next corner. I have no idea how many hours we have spent at this, but I put more miles (we hit just over 900) on the team this year than ever. That's a lot of hours shared between my furry friends and I.

Here is a video I made of the race start and switching leaders 3 miles in. What a fabulous way to end a season. Our best season yet.