Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Hamburger Run

The Cosmic Canines won the Hamburger Run Last Saturday. It is a fun race that usually runs from Pleasant Valley Store out to Angel Creek where mushers can have a hamburger, but due to bad trail conditions the race was rerouted. So we did a 25 mile loop back to the Store where we could have burgers provided by Quickie Pizza. The race is just a fun race, no purse, just prizes for different categories such as “Most Disorganized Musher” and “Happiest Musher.” It was kind of a warm day so I was going to where my shell parka, which is kind of plain, but then I overheard that there would be a “Best Dressed Musher” category and I happen to throw Jim’s Parka in the truck which is similar to mine, blue and yellow stars, just minus the skirt, so I threw it on, because I knew I wasn’t going to win “oldest musher” or “Ugliest dog truck.” The race is a Mass Start, which means the clock starts and then everyone has to hook up and harness their dogs, the first one done, is the first one out. I was at a disadvantage for this in two aspects, I had no handler, which most mushers had, to help me and I decided to run with the full 12 dog team that they allowed, most chose to run with 10 or less.
They gathered us around the starting line after the Skijorers left.
Susan Admundson looked at me in Jim’s big parka, “Where are you headed Abbie, the arctic?”
“ Ha, ha. Best dressed musher is mine. And I’m going to be the first musher out of this yard too.”
Suddenly the race marshal yelled “GO!”
Holy crap! Usually they wait until everyone is at their truck and they throw a hat in the air, then you can begin. I turned and I ran as fast I could to the truck which was all the way on the far side of the parking lot.
I didn’t have a handler but Sharka Meyer volunteered to hold my leaders for me while I hooked them up. She also had no idea we were going to start right then. So she was standing calmly with her 2 small children next to my truck. As I was running towards them full speed I saw her eyes get wide. Then she turned and scurried her kids behind the truck to the safety of their nanny and went to the front of my gangline.
Now I set myself up well. I hooked the dogs next to each other on the truck that would be next to each other on the gangline. So I grabbed 2 dogs at time and then I would put their harnesses on at the gangline then run back for 2 more. Back and forth, back and forth, I was sweating and out of breath in my huge parka. Last dogs hooked up, I looked around, holy cow! I was the first done. No time to think about it I pulled the snub line and off we went.
Half outta breath, pumped my fist in the air, “Yeah, 1st one out! 12 dogs, all by myself!!!” They all looked at me puzzled. Then I got on the trail. Ahead I saw Susan Admundson. I let out a deflated, “Ohhh. I didn’t see her leave.”
I caught up to her quickly. And we smoked past. She only had 6 dogs, no wonder she got out first.
I saw the mushers behind me for about 5 miles, and then I saw no one. I kept looking behind me, searching for someone. So I decided I would try to catch the skijorers that left before we even started hooking up. But skijorers are usually faster than dog teams, believe it or not, so it would be a challenge.
No of course since it is a local race, we had to pass the house. This race it was at mile 21, so it wouldn’t be too hard. They passed easily but they always get a little pouty when we do that. I know they are thinking, “Hey dummy….um….we just passed the house, do you know what you are doing?” So lots of encouragement is necessary. I saw a skijorer ahead, and I had to race somebody so I keep calling the dogs up but they were still whiny about passing the house, so I didn’t get much out of them. Slowly we gained on the skijorer. I felt kind of like a slacker behind her. Here she was skate skiing the whole time and I was just standing still on the back of a sled. So I started pushing. About 1/8 of a mile from the finish line I passed her. I felt kind of bad about it but she said she didn’t mind, she wished I passed her at about mile 15 so she could have drafted me the last 10 miles.
So we won the Hamburger Run, the next musher was 20 minutes behind. That’s quite a margin for a 25 mile race. And we had fun. And we did win best dressed musher because the officials liked how my parka, my dog truck, my sled, and my harnesses all matched. So we won 50 booties, and Gila Dolif was raking in the prizes, she won many of the categories, so she also gave me 50 more booties that she won.

Ready and waiting

Dark Star and Digger


Friday, January 23, 2009

Confessions of a junkie



Mushing is an addiction. Seriously, I have talked amongst other mushers about this, if you go a couple of days without running the dogs, you almost feel sick. The call of the trail, the power the dogs have over you is immense. When I cannot run the dogs I feel lost. A friend catches a case of PMS at the end of the season, "post mushing syndrome" and its not pretty. Luckily that time is far away and we are enjoying near perfect days on the trail. It would be nice to have a little more snow, but its not bad thanks to all of the hard work that Rick Swenson and Sonny Lindner put into maintaining our trails all winter.

The conditions are not so perfect down in the Mat Su Valley, where the Klondike 300 is held. It is getting colder down there but they need some snow to replace all the snow that melted. The mushers that live in the area have resorted to trucking their dogs to snowier places. So the Klondike has been postponed to Feb. 7th to give mother nature some time to mend the trail.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

We're ready to race already!

Can we have our weather back please?

To catch everybody up on the Cosmic Canines. I travelled on some of the worst roads ever, almost 400 miles to run my last qualifier...the Klondike 300, only to turn around and come home again. Seems that mother nature thought it would be a funny trick to trade sub zero AK weather with warm and rainy lower 48 weather. Ha ha! That equals one big mess up here, and though it has been remedied up here in Two Rivers...the trails are wonderful still hasn't cooled down enough down in the Mat-Su Valley (where the Klondike is held) to get the trails up to par down there. It doesn't look good to run the race on their postponed start this weekend, and the following weekend there is one more 300 mile qualifier to run, but this is also the weekend my food drops are due in Fairbanks. Also my handler broke his leg, so I am searching for another to help Nina with the duties. With my options dwindling and my Quest hopes for this year waning I am stuck here in the waiting game. So I am doing the only thing I can think of.....running dogs! Whatever the dogs end up doing, they will be ready for it. I never thought I had to consider rain in Jan in AK cancelling the races I chose to run this year! Go figure.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Gin Gin Part 2

I gathered on all of my layers that were drying around McClaren Lodge. It was a little over an hour before my mandatory 6 hour layover was over. The 5 teams in front of me were already getting ready to leave. I grabbed the cooler of food I had soaking in the back room and headed down to the river where the teams were parked. I fed the dogs the mix of beef, kibble, and hot water. They ate like monsters so I threw them a chunk of fat each too. They were pretty active, paying close attention to all the activities of teams preparing to go. I bootied all of the dogs and hooked their tuglines. The five teams before me left, and we were waiting for our count down to leave too. The dogs were barking impatiently. Bridgett Watkins was the only female musher due to leave close behind me, I overheard her tell the checkers she wouldn’t be leaving at her scheduled time. Cool, I don’t have to worry about her. The Gin Gin began as an all women’s race, but the guys wanted to play too. So they changed the race so that now the women race against each other in the “pro race” and the men against themselves in the “amateur race.“ I know I am just trying to qualify but its hard not to be a little competitive.
Off we went into the darkness. We were starting our run in the depth of the night. I had heard before I left that it was 42 below at McClaren and typically it would be colder down on the Big Su River, where we were headed. Honestly, I wasn’t that cold at all. I kept the coats on the dogs. Occasionally I would get a little chilly but I would just push the sled for a little ways and I would warm back up again. That means my gear was passing the test. What wasn’t passing the test was the dog coats. They kept getting built with ice. So part of my hourly stop was to beat, break, chip off the ice in the dog and the coats. It was pretty lonely out there for a couple hours. It wasn’t bad, just a little boring, its kind of like tunnel vision at night, just being able to see in the narrow beam of light cast by your headlamp. It was also very easy sled driving, flat and straight river travel. I imagine during the day this run would be absolutely amazing. Finally about 25 miles in I saw a headlamp coming from behind. The headlamp put out more lumens than a spotlight, so I knew it had to be Jeff King. He always has the latest and best in gear, he’s one of the only one of us that can afford it. Later we would ask him about that light, to find out it could be purchased from Cabela’s, his sponsor, for $459.00. Ouch! Most good headlamps cost about $80.
Jeff caught me and passed. We kept up with him as we traveled. Looked like he had the same game plan, frequent stops and take your time. Then 2 more teams from behind Sebastian Schnulle and Lance Mackey. At least no women, I was happy in 6th out of 18 for the women. I had figured myself in at 10th before the race started. We all were traveling in a pack for a while. All these big names, they weren’t that much faster than me, at least at this point, so I was in good spirits. The trail was nice. Eventually we came off the McClaren River and onto the Big Su, but at which point I can’t tell you, it was to dark to tell. Finally the “big 3” pulled away from me. I stopped to snack and replace lost booties and “de-ice” the dogs. We were going along just fine when suddenly my leaders stopped and turned back into the team. I got on the sled to see what was up. As I approached the front of the team I found myself knee deep in water. You couldn’t tell it was water because it was full of slush. Then Brent Sass came from behind.
“Brent! There’s water up here!”
But we were all pretty bundled up so he had no idea what I said. He went to pass but his dogs got confused and turned into my team. After walking back and forth in knee-deep water about 10 times we got our dog teams sorted out and through the overflow. Neos (my water-proof overshoes) don’t fail me now! Darn! I had just de-iced the dogs, and fixed the booties now I had to stop and change all of the booties and try to get all of the ice off the water soaked coats. We went on. The trail got a little bit punchy and I just wanted to be off the river. I was a crusty, frosty ice monster and so were the dogs.
Sunrise came magnificently over the mountains. No end to the river in sight. Every bend I would come around I would think its going around this one, I would come around, nope! This went on for some time. Finally! The bridge, and there was a team stopped. It was Judy. She followed me for a while then we popped up on the road. Only 40 something miles to go. The traveling was painfully slow. The road went up and down and up and down. It seemed like we were going forever. I saw a mile marker sign ahead. When I read the number my heart sunk, mile 67. Uggg! I though for sure we had come further than that. Later I found out that every musher felt the same way when they read that sign. The lodge was at mile 42. This was the longest run I had ever done and it was taking its toll on both the dogs and I mentally. I keep upbeat for the dogs. Yes I am asking a lot out of you, but it will end….sometime. I had to do a lot of maintenance just keep the dogs thawed out. The coats were coated in ice from the water. I came to the decision that they were doing more damage than good, the ice was rubbing them raw. But I had to keep their “privates” warm or it would be bad news. Finally I cut my coats so that they would hang down to keep “under there” warm without touching the dogs. It seemed the end of this run would never come.
Finally I could see the lights of McClaren Lodge down in the valley. Yes! We made it. We pulled in to our previous camping spot just to find most of the straw gone. At this point I was very concerned with getting the dogs warm and well rested. Something that can’t be done on river ice at 45 below with no straw.
“Is there any straw left?” I asked the checker.
“Yes but you are only supposed to have the straw from before.”
“Look at my spot then look at that one, “ I pointed at Judy’s spot, “Or that spot.” I pointed at Bridget’s. “I think when the other teams were leaving they might have gone through here because I was one of the first mushers out and drug their brakes through my straw and drug it off.”
“ Yeah, there is quite a difference.” He let me get more straw. They could fine me, penalize me, I didn’t care I just wanted the dogs taken care of.
The dogs ate well again. Going through them I found no injuries but quite a few rubs, mostly from ice. I applied ointment and massaged all of the dogs with emu oil on their shoulders, wrists and thighs. I took off the worst iced up coats and put them in a garbage bag. The only place I knew of to dry things out at the lodge was by the woodstove in the main room. I didn’t think they would appreciate me melting the ice off my dog coats being that some of the ice was yellow. Pee yoo! I thought maybe I could get them part way melted in the bag and go from there. I felt sick about the dogs going so far and I couldn’t keep them warm in their coats so they would get good rest. I asked about the coats they had a generator shed that I could hang them in and they could dry in the warm exhaust. It worked well. I rotated the coats so eventually I got them all dried and back on the dogs. This made me feel a lot better.
As I ate some food and talked to other mushers I discovered that everyone had runs similar to mine. I was feeling like I had really made some mistakes. But I found out it was just the conditions.
Most everyone decided to leave the next morning instead of right at the end of their 6 hour layover. The winds that we encountered at mile 10 through 22 on the highways were still blowing, maybe even worse. No one wanted to go through it at night. Jeff King decided to scratch and just run home (his house is back the other way on the road) he was in first place too. I was nervous but more importantly I really felt I pushed the dogs a little too far on that 110 mile run and I thought they needed more rest. But another part of me was wondering how good of quality of rest they would be getting on the river ice at 45 below. I went down to check on them. They were resting and they looked warm in their DRY coats and under their blankets.
Aliy and Michelle figured they only had enough food to give their dogs a 12 hour rest so they would leave at 12 hours together and make their way over the pass together with Ed Hopkins. This made sense to me, over 12 hours would be a waste. Maybe I could leave so that I hit the pass at sunrise then I could see well. Tom and I talked about it and decided that that would be a good idea. We tossed around the idea that if Aily, Michelle, and Ed weren’t leaving until 12 hours we could leave at the end of our 6 hour and we would both get 3rd (in the money) in our divisions. I didn’t want to risk the dogs being tired and balking in the wind. I didn’t want to sour them, we had bigger races later in the season. I decided to get some sleep. I fell asleep on the couch, my favorite place to sleep.
I was awoken by Michelle, Aily and Ed getting dressed to leave. I got up to and ate some food. After getting some rest it was all clear. I would leave at my 12 hours too. That time came quickly. I went outside and fed the dogs. Still eating well, that was a good sign. I massaged all the dogs and walked each of them individually on a leash up and down the river to stretch out their muscles a little from such a long rest. They seemed lively. I bootied and packed my sled. I hooked up their tuglines, and though they weren’t barking this time they didn’t look miserable either. The checker helped me weave the dogs through the resting teams to the trail. He let go….it was the moment of truth….off we went. The next mile or so we had to stop a few time to let everyone poop, but after that we started cruising. I timed us between mile markers on the road. We were going about 10 mph, not bad! I was elated, 42 miles to go and we were done, and in 5th place! Better than I had ever hoped of doing. Still in the pit of my stomach something was churning. I was worried, almost to the point of being sick, about the wind. What was the worst that could happen? We could be blown off the road and have to hole up until help arrived. No! We would be fine.
When we arrived at Tangle Lakes, the beginning of the wind area, the wind was blowing but only enough to make you cold. I saw a falling star. Guess what my wish was? The wind increased and there was less and less snow on the road. I had to teach the leaders who are always taught to run on the right side of the road to run on the left on the upside of the wind or else my sled would be blown off the road. They eventually figured it out. I was only blown off the road once. It wasn’t nearly as bad as on the way out.
Johnny Schandelmeier, the trail boss said that once you get to the dead snow machine on the trail you were in the clear. As we passed it a felt a sense of relief. We made it! Just 10 miles left to go! The dogs slowed down. That wind took a lot out them. If they only could understand how close we were! I was still happy. The last 3 miles are all down hill into Paxson Lodge. Sunrise was gorgeous! A final reward for all of our hard work. I always felt this was one of the most beautiful places on earth. We crossed the finish line in 5th with all ten dogs!
Honestly the finish was pretty anti-climatic. No big crowd, no handler to tell me how good I did. I just drove the dogs to the truck, praised and fed the dogs and loaded them into the truck. Packed up and went inside for some food. It didn’t matter though, I felt proud of the dogs. They did great. I had so much confidence in them now for future races. We learned a lot, and have some new experiences under our belt. It was truly a qualifier. And though I didn’t think I needed one when I started, now I realized that I actually did. I wonder what is in store for my next “easy” qualifier, the Klondike 300.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

At the Start of the Gin Gin

The Gin Gin Team:
Samson(5) Leo(4)
Meade(2) Apollo(2)
Space(2) Captain Kirk(4)
Stellar(2) Polaris(1)
Kobuk(2) Bear(4)
Everyone finished! Samson, Meade, Leo, and Polaris all led. I thought Polaris and Meade did exceptionally well. They are all males except Meade is a little 35 pound female.

Check it out
You can check out the race website at this link. If you look at the Gin Gin blog there is a picture of my team leaving the start.

Gin Gin 08 Part One

I chose to run the qualifiers I picked based on the fact that I thought they would be easy. Ha! I have already qualified for the Quest, its just been too long ago logistically, I’ve run half of a Quest and lots of other races so I hardly considered myself a dumb rookie. Ha! Again. Little did I know that I had entered one of the hardest races that I, and according to veteran Iditarod and Quest mushers, including champions, have ever ran. I also learned that although I may not be a dumb rookie, there were a couple of skills both the dogs and I needed to learn before taking on the “big one.”
I traveled down to the GinGin 200 with Tom Lesatz so that we could save money on gas. As we got closer to Paxson, the start, we started to laugh nervously about what we were getting into. The wind was howling. You could feel the wind blow against the truck. Snow would kick up and make the road disappear for a couple of minutes so I would almost have to come to a complete stop to wait for the gusts to die down and the road reappear. Gulp, what’s this going to be like on the trail?
It was a social affair the night before the race, an advantage having over 40 teams entered. Lots of catching up and talking dogs. Good food and hospitality at Paxson Lodge. I recall being asked a few times, “Are you nervous?” To which I would reply, “Nah, I’m just going to take my time, I am just qualifying.” Ha!
The next morning was beautiful! (well at least at Paxson Lodge) About 10 below and sunny. I left 3rd which would turn out to be an advantage. The first few miles were wonderful. Travelling at good speed despite my sled loaded to the max. We were carrying all of our food and gear for the entire 200 mile race, so that makes for a heavy sled. We were surrounded by mountains. Within a couple miles I passed bib 2, Christine Roaloffs. Then we hit the wind. We have never been in anything like it. The wind would gust and snakes of snow would whip across the road. Some claimed it was blowing 30/40 mph some claimed 50/60mph, all I know that with the snow blasted off the road leaving only ice and asphalt it was strong enough to blow you and your sled clean off the road! The dogs would be running on the right side of the road and I would be dragging behind them, sideways, barely hanging on to the left side. At one point the dogs got confused and were like, “Oh, you want us to go that way.” and the turned haw off the road. “NO! NO! NO! GEE!” To no use, we were in the deep snow down off the road. I got them stopped and pulled them around to the road and went back to the sled to help them get the heavy load back on the road. Christine showed up by then and held my leaders on the road while I got them out. After thanking her profusely I began to pull away again. But a particularly strong blast pushed me back off the road and dragged the dogs with me so again they ‘hawed’ off the road. I got them turned quickly and I was pulling the dogs back onto the road I saw Christine pull up again. She stopped for just a moment when a team pulled around the side of her, it was Yuka Honda, and at that moment the wind blew Yuka and her sled into Christine and her sled and they both rolled down off the road together. Their teams were tangled, sleds tipped and their dogs began to get tangled with mine. I pulled my dogs away, and was about to go back and turn my sled toward the road, but Yuka turned it for me because she was standing right there and held her dogs out of my team. I caught my sled as it whipped past me and we were off. I felt terrible leaving Yuka and Christine behind, but there was nothing I could do with no snowhook hold, plus sometimes its better to eliminate a team out of the situation because it just causes more problems, which I would find out later was the case. Yuka said, it was better to just get out of there.
The next 10 miles or so there was very little snow and the wind continued. I managed to keep the sled on the road by riding on one runner or tipping the sled towards the wind, which was quite the workout with such a heavy sled. Plus Samson and Leo learned to stay to the right even if I was dragging of to the left helpless in the wind. With some of the big gusts I would have to run along side the sled and jerk it to the right with all of my might. I fell twice when the sled would be pushed hard to the left so I would be swung sideways then it would catch an edge. I clocked my head once hard on the exposed asphalt. After a while the wind calmed some, but I just wanted off of the road.
At mile 30 we finally got off the road onto the Mountain Loop Trail. It was punchy and a little slow but absolutely amazing. We travelled in a valley around a mountain and the alpine glow turned everything pastel. All I could think was how it was our reward for making it through the wind. At one point we were in a big open valley and the wind started to pick up again, the trail was already blown over from the team in front of me. I held my hand to the head of the valley, where the wind was blowing from. “NO!!!!” No more wind, but it wasn’t bad compared to what we had come through. I could see a team behind me in the distance, it was Aily Zirkle we were tavelling about the same speed so she never caught up to me. After about 15 miles we popped back out on the road. It was dark now, I could see the lights of McClaren Lodge down in the distance. Finally, the first checkpoint. Time for some good rest for the dogs. I pulled into the the checkpoint, we all were staged on the McClaren River below the Lodge. I set to my checkpoint chores. I was the 4th musher into the checkpoint, but I would be the 6th out because our times would be adjusted at this stop from our start order. I gave the dogs a fat snack. I pulled off all of the booties and checked feet and muscle soreness. I put straw down for them. We were each allotted ¾ of a bale of straw. When we returned to McClaren after the next leg we would return to the same camping spot and straw. I went up to the lodge for hot water for the dogs meal. They ate heartily, that was a good sign. I massaged the dogs and worked liniment into the dogs with past injuries as a prevention. I applied ointment to some minor toe burns and sores. All and all the dogs looked happy and healthy. I put coats on the dogs and laid blankets over them. Time to let the dogs rest. I went back up to the lodge, I was starving, a feeling that would continue through out the whole race and a couple days after. I ordered a reuben, and drank lots of hot tea, as I ate the lodge filled with more and more mushers. Each with stories of amazement and adventure. Comments were being thrown around like, “You’re definitely qualified now“, “ I’ve never been in anything like that., “ and “ I would have scratched, but I didn’t want to go back through that.”
I stayed up through the 6 hour mandatory rest, something I would never do on a race over 200 miles. But the conversation was good and I had to keep a eye on the dogs. We had a big 110 mile run in front of us. I was going to try to take my time, take lots of breaks and push through the whole thing with no long rest. I was a little nervous because it would be the longest run the dogs had done this season. I wasn’t sure if they could do it. The temperature had dropped to 37 below at the lodge and colder on the river. It would be an interesting run.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Greetings from the Global Warming Zone

Well one qualifier down, one to go. I will be writing about my trip over the next couple of days while I am holed up inside due to cold temps. 43 below right now. It was 40 below by the time I came back from my training run yesterday. Low tonight is expected to be 55 below. Yuck! No end in sight to the cold weather until maybe wed when it will warm up to 20 below. Yeah! I researched around the state and its cold everywhere. Blah....well might as well get used to it, could be what's store for the Quest.