The race began like every other. We made it to the start line on time, the weather was fair, and the trail hard and smooth. The dogs ran to Two Harbors without a hitch. I worked to keep our speed under control. Going into Two Harbors, we had the eleventh fastest time. I knew the hard fast trail would take a toll later in the race. So far, the race felt easy.
Two Harbors checkpoint felt chaotic. My daughter Sylvia and her cousins were running around amongst the dogs, climbing snowdrifts and popping in and out of our camper. The dogs were not especially restful yet and with spectators coming and going, they were distracted. After an hour and 40 minutes of rest, I pulled the hook and carried on toward Finland.
After a nice rest in Finland, we began hooking up the team. Itsy had a slight limp. Investigation revealed a sore shoulder and I had to leave my best female behind. My husband Matt told me to shrug it off as I left the checkpoint. The next 30 miles could be smooth sailing. It was a night run. It would be super hilly but one of the shortest legs of the race. But the dogs were still working out their kinks, working into their race metabolism. Within a few miles, I saw Hush doing a head bob. Something was wrong.
Soon she began to limp. I didn’t want to cause her any pain nor did I want her to slow down the team. I stopped, hooked down, and tried to put Hush in the sled bag. As I clipped her into the bag, she started thrashing. She did not feel she was done running no matter what I thought. While she thrashed, the zipper on the sled broke and split open. It became clear I would be unable to keep her in the sled, so with no other choice, she went back to the gangline. As I clipped her on, I looked up at the team. Temper (my leader) was on top of Peaches. As the only intact (not neutered) male on the team, he had let his young male hormones get the best of him. I ran up front and grabbed his collar and he came off of Peaches. Now, one thing you are not supposed to do is break up two dogs who have “tied.” I do not know if they were tied at this very moment, but Temper was clearly quite in the middle of something and so I stood there, on the trail, in the dark somewhere between Finland and Sawbill, waiting for my dog’s hormones to recede so we could continue racing. This was not how I envisioned this run going.
Three teams passed us before we were ready to go. We made our way slowly to Sawbill at a pace that Hush could run. To Hush’s credit, she never looked back at me like “‘Why are we doing this,’ or ‘I wish I was done.’” She just wanted to keep going. But Sawbill was her last checkpoint. She sat out the rest of the race. Second best female dropped.
The next leg to Trail Center is always the most difficult for me. I hoped that perhaps because we had a slow leg to Sawbill, the team would be more ready for the run to Trail Center. We started out well. We kept a good pace those first 20 miles of hills with my 10 remaining dogs. Going on no sleep, I began hearing voices at the same place I heard voices on the trail last year (weird?). Someone must be catching me, I thought. But no one ever appeared. We passed Devil’s Track Lake and Ball Club Road and hit the Lima Grade. Dogs were pooping more than I thought could be possible. When Keith (my other leader) stopped to poop, which was often, he came to a dead stop and the whole team accordioned into him. Tina gave me the “I’m done” look.
How will we finish this race? Why am I doing the Beargrease? This is crazy. We need to get out of mushing. Why would anyone do this in their free time? I could be knitting. I could be in the Bahamas. Tina, if you just finish this leg, you can be done.
The darkest of thoughts crept in. I nodded off on the runners, jolting awake to another dog pooping. I never saw another team ahead of me or behind. Finally, we hit the plowed road past Poplar Creek, hit Poplar Lake and stormed onward to the checkpoint. Everyone cheered! “Your team looks great!” The judge beamed. I really needed some sleep.
I dropped Tina and left Trail Center. We veered north up Poplar Lake. Within a few miles, Stevie decided she had enough. She gave me the “I don’t want to run” look and pulled hard on her neckline. Should I turn back and drop her? That would really deflate the rest of the team. I tried to put Stevie in the sled bag and even though I thought I had fixed the zipper, it split again. I put Stevie back on the line and while I stood there trying to figure out what to do, Colleen Wallin passed me. I pulled my hook and gave chase. This was what Stevie needed, another team to motivate her. I followed Colleen up to the King’s Road turn around and back to Poplar, trying to stay within sight for my own team’s motivation, but not so close as to be annoying. As we hit Poplar Lake, I was secretly happy to have a team to follow. The turn-off past Trail Center was always nerve-wracking because the dogs might want to go back to the checkpoint. Surely Colleen wouldn’t have a problem, I thought.
A few miles down the lake, Colleen’s team suddenly veered straight left toward the shore. Oh dear.
“Will your team follow me?” I yelled as I passed her.
“Yes! Wait!” She yelled back in a panicked tone.
It took her several tries to stop her team and get them turned back in the right direction, but eventually, they did follow me and we made the turn past Trail Center and toward the Lima Grade. And when we hit the Lima Grade, my team stopped. Finally, I had Collen pass me again, and I followed her the rest of the way to Devil Track Lake.
We made it to Skyport and crashed.
After two hours of the deepest sleep of my life, Matt woke me. I slowly came out of my foggy state, drank some strong coffee, and tried to eat some snacks. Anna told me that Erin Letzring had just scratched.
“Well, why would anyone run this race anyway?” I asked in sincerity.
I got nauseous, ran out of the camper dry heaving, put on my parka, and signed the paperwork to drop Stevie.
In the dark on the old runway at Skyport, Pinto let out a rallying cry. It took the other dogs a minute, but they followed suit. This is what keeps us racing. Because they want it. This instinct to run and pull that rises from their gut. Temper and Keith were ready. Teddy jumped toward the sky and Pinto screamed to go. We followed the trails past our old kennel and up Pine Mountain as the sun rose.
Friends passed me a corn dog and a beer after we crossed the Arrowhead and we continued on to Mineral Center.
Peaches, my two-year-old that was one of my alternates for the race team, made it this far. But she was too tired to continue. Seven dogs continued on after a four-hour rest to Grand Portage.
As we looped around the Grand Portage trails, the dogs gradually picked up speed. We ran through dusk into darkness. Halfway to Portage, I saw the light of a headlamp. I had left 25 minutes after Sarah Keefer’s team and we had caught her. We made a clean pass just before a huge hill that I then ran up. We cruised the rest of the way down to Portage and into fifth place.
Ten out of 24 teams finished the race this year. My team finished due to leaders that never faltered. Without them, finishing would not have been possible. I thought a lot about the roller coaster of emotions out there on the trail, how yes, I will do this again and no, we won’t actually get out of mushing…not yet. My own instinct to follow another trail runs as deep as the dogs’.
Now we move on to the Midnight Run where Matt and I will both run 8-dog teams from downtown Marquette to Chatham and back (45 miles each way). From these two teams, we will choose a final 12 dogs to race Can-Am in northern Maine.