Monday, April 1, 2013

The Sheep Mountain 200/300 Sled Dog Race: First Iditarod Qualifier !

Lunch Time at Lake Louise Lodge
Checkpoint #1

 French Fry is licking her chops in anticipation !

4th Place ~ Sheep Mountain 200/300 Sled Dog Race

The Sheep Mountain 200/300 Sled Dog Race was held over a three day period of time, starting on  Tuesday, March 26th at 6 a.m. My team of Northern Whites ran the 200 mile portion, completing the race in the afternoon of Wednesday March 27. This was my very first Iditarod qualifying race.

The day before the race, all the mushers arrived to put their "drop bags" into a truck that would deliver them to the first checkpoint at Lake Louise Lodge. A hearty meal was provided, followed by a mushers meeting. This meeting provided opportunity for the organizers to review rules and regulations and information about the trail. It was a short meeting as the race was to start at 6 am the following morning. Jim Lanier, who is allowing me to run his dogs, arrived to give me lots of support and to help Dave with his dog handler responsibilities.

The start of any dog race is a scene of total chaos. The dogs, all amped up, bark and leap, lunging in their harnesses.The cacophony is loud, very loud and as a rookie musher  the "all of it" worked on undoing me,  as nerves were already on edge. But, I kept my head clear and did not let it undo me and stayed calm within myself.  It is still dark here in Alaska at 6 am. Getting the team ready in the dark possess its own challenges but it is no different than working throughout the long dark winter days we have already been through. All the training in the dark pays off as races are no different.

Here we are at the start. Alpha is psyched, lunging and bouncing in his harness, while Verona is quietly 
getting her own game face on.

My headlamp (LED Lenser) is an necessary piece of equipment. This headlamp is powerful and cast's a long beam of light so that I can keep an eye on the front of the team and the trail in front of them. Verona and Alpha are in lead in this picture and they would continue to be my leaders for most of the race. They were awesome leaders.

From Sheep Mountain Lodge to Lake Louise Lodge, our first checkpoint was 60 miles, where we had our first mandatory 4 hour layover. This is to allow the dogs to have a rest and a well deserved meal. At 10 mph or less a team may make the 60 miles in 6+ hours. This is a very simple answer to how long it takes to travel 60 miles. There are variables to consider when trying to calculate running time, such as terrain, wind,  and temperatures. Mushers may not have any help while they take care of their teams. In order to feed the team, we heat water to melt the frozen meat(s) we have provided to ourselves in our drop sacks. (The race organizers transported our bags the previous day from Sheep Mountain Lodge to Lake Louise Lodge). By the time the meat has thawed and the team has been bedded down on straw, they are fed. Booties are removed and any lameness issues are attended to. Once the team has been completely taken care of it is time for a short rest for the musher. In this case the rest was about an hour. It was just enough time to eat a meal and put my feet up for a bit.  Getting the team ready to leave the checkpoint takes time, about an hour of time. That cuts into the musher rest time. When a non-musher type hears there are 4 hour mandatory rest stops they might think that this mushing thing is no big deal as there are so many rest stops. The fact of the matter is, the dogs get the rest, the mushers don't, not really.

Veteran Iditarod Musher, Jim Lanier giving me some sage advice
before I leave the Lake Louise checkpoint.

We departed out of Lake Louise Lodge checkpoint around 4 p.m. in second place.  This leg of the race from Lake Louise Lodge to Tolsana Lodge would be 55 miles figuring I would pull into Tolsana around 10. But I knew, realistically, it would be more like 11:00-1130 p.m. I pulled into Tolsana at 11:30. I had not had a very good run because of many tangles when the team got all balled up into big tangles requiring several stops to sort out lines. I had changed leaders mid-run which proved to be a big, huge mistake.  I wanted to give my tried and true leaders a break as they were showing signs that needed a change. One of the dogs I put in lead was a poor choice as he would just suddenly stop running and look around at those behind him. After the fourth time of Sorbet pulling this action, I replaced him with the original leader and all finally was going smoothly. This slowed me so much that by the time I got to Tolsana I had dropped into seventh place.

It was about twenty below zero at Tolsana at midnight. Dave and Jim were there to greet me and help get the team parked. Handlers may help you park your team and communicate where the water and drop sacks are located. It certainly is nice to see familiar faces waiting for you when you have been out in the dark, cold wilderness for so many long hours. I was able to get through my checkpoint routine  quickly which allowed me to get inside and rest for a longer period of time. I lay on the camping pad on the floor and Jim, very kindly put his coat over me so that I could rest better. So very kind, indeed and rest I did for about an hour and a half. 

Jim woke me up and thrust a cup of coffee in my hand. In my mind, I did not know how in the world I would be able to get going. The thoughts of getting the team ready and standing on the runners of the sled did not appeal to me at all. I really did not know how I was going to do it. It all seemed so overwhelming. But, Jim said, it will take a bit of time to get your motor going again. And he was absolutely right. The coffee kicked in and I was ready to get going. 

It was about 3:30-4 a.m. when I pulled out of Tolsana checkpoint. This leg of the trip would now back-track trail we had come in on. Our next stop would be at Eureka Lodge 65 miles away. Off into the night we ran crossing frozen lakes and sloughs, flat expanses and kicked up steep hills. It was a full moon without cloud cover. The northern lights danced a bit but the brightness of the full moon took away from the brightness of the lights. It is a really something to witness the wonder of these things from the runners of a sled being pulled by dog team. It harkens back to so much history and lifestyles led for centuries across this wild territory. 

It felt like such a long, long run to Eureka. The temperature dropped to 30 below zero as  dawn approached. As the dogs trotted along,  the moon sunk and the sun came up, ever so slowly, spreading its rays, creating the pink alpine glow on the surrounding mountain peaks. As tired as I was, I felt I could feel my heart swell with a joyfulness at being so lucky as to be witness to all of this beauty. It was these feelings and the anticipation of a big piece of banana creme pie and a cuppa mud waiting for me at the final checkpoint, Eureka Lodge.

It was a bright, sunny day at I made my way across the Nelchina Valley and up to Eureka Lodge. The miles passed by slowly and I felt like I would never make it to Eureka Lodge. The team was giving me that feeling as well, but we finally made it there. Again, Dave and Jim met me there with smiles and positive greetings informing me I was in fourth place. This new really got me excited as I had never even given it a thought that I would possibly be competitive. I was only thinking about completing the race. The checkpoint stop was really great for the dogs. The sun was warm which gave the dogs a nice rest. Once they ate they could fall asleep on the clean straw nests in the sunshine. Once the team had a good meal in their belles, I watched them, stand and circle to make a nest in the straw. Once each dog was nodding off to sleep, I made my way to the lodge for a well earned meal.

The final run to the finish was only 18 miles long. I had a great feeling within me now that I knew I would complete the distance. I opted for a healthy turkey burger instead of the banana creme pie. I had not eaten much of anything during the race, just a few snacks here and there. Mostly I drank water from my insulated thermos all the while running the trail. The turkey burger was like turbo charge food. I felt great the last leg of the race. The three mountain climbs were not as bad as my imagination had made them out to be and I was able to complete the leg in less than two hours.

I completed the race around 5 pm on Wednesday March 27th in 4th place. As the finish line came into view I had that heart swelling feeling again and made a mental note again, of how lucky I am so be alive and able to do what I love to do.