It's early morning. I'm waiting for the fire to catch hold and provide some warmth. In the interim, I am relishing the darkness that lurks outside my Wee House windows. All is quiet, even with the rhythmic breathing of my 3 canine companions. Oddly enough, my mind is racing. Or, rather, it is focused on racing.
I'm focused on Montana musher Jason Barron, sitting at the Highway 2 checkpoint, waiting out his 6-hour mandatory rest before pulling the snow hook and heading 35 miles into the finish of the John Beargrease Marathon. Having won the last two John Beargrease Marathons, I wonder what is going through his mind, as he sees his competitor, Nathan Schroeder, leave before him. This race is tough. John Beargrease tough. But then, so are the mushers. Perhaps Jason is thinking of Sun Tzu..."Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate."
We'll know the outcome of the race later this morning.
What drives a person, or their dogs, to reach deep within and tap that desire to race?
Our new mushing friend, Mandy Palmer, has that drive. So much so, she raced her first race this past weekend at the Springfield Township Sled Dog Race in Fife Lake.
Here's her account, in her own words, of her very first race, with her Doberman, "Meem" and two new additions to her family, Baker and Chocolate, provided by fellow local musher, Tony Wolf:
The very first stretch of the course was a nice long straight away down the power lines that came up to a 90 degree elbow turn into the woods. Baker and Chocolate went to work with a can-do attitude, settling into a nice stride as they sprinted toward our goal. Meem, on the other hand, although very dedicated to the task of running, showed her true colors as a green dog and hauled Baker with brute strength past the first 90 degree bend in an attempt to blaze her own trail. I quickly reacted by braking, telling Baker to haw, by which time Meem had managed to tangle herself quite nicely in the lines. Baker did his best to move her in the right direction, but the ditzy Doberman was determined to take a cross country tour. I quickly jumped off the sled to untangled Mi-mi as I watched the individual behind me close the distance between us in a flash. I soon realized I had forgotten one vitally important piece of equipment during a stop - the snow hook. As soon as Meem was free, Baker and Chocolate surged ahead determined not to let the dude behind us win. Thinking quickly, I held my arm out in a curve and hooked the drivers bow as the sled went flying by, swinging myself less than gracefully back onto the sled. Whew, not even a minute into the race and I had nearly lost my team - mental note to always remember the snow hook!
Going into the woods the trail was riddled with washboard, large dips and moguls, most of which seemed abundant right before the turns. The flinging momentum of the dogs and an awkward mogul sent me spinning off the sled on the next big turn. I held tight to the drivers bow as my team slowed and stopped to allow me to jump back on the sled. The dude behind us had caught up, so I courteously asked him to pass more so for my own ego than anything as I truly did not wish him to see me crash on every major turn!
As the guy passed, his team tangled in the middle of a narrow trail section, causing us to have to stop and wait while he hooked down. Francie later told me that I could've asked to pass him, and I probably would have, but I felt better waiting as I didn't want Meem's "everyone is my friend!" exuberance to get her into trouble. It also offered my dogs a chance to rest. We were on our way again in no time.
My next spill came at another awkward downhill turn with a lovely washboard surface. I hadn't quite mastered maneuvering my sled around curves yet. Fortunately the dogs patiently stopped for me to jump back on. Before we could get underway, little Francie Dorman comes barreling down the trail behind us screaming "TRAIL!". I held my sled brake so she could speed by, my dogs keeping their noses pointed in the direction we needed to go without so much as batting en eye at Francie's team (GOOD DOGS!!). I watched Francie as she maneuvered the next curve, her form that of a true racer as she leaned into the turn, snow spraying up from her sled runners as she whipped around at top speed. I then had an epiphany as I watched her go, learning in an instant what to do to keep my ego from further demise with a third spill - pretend as though I'm skiing and lean like a downhill racer going around gates. I can do this, I thought to myself as we sped off. =)
From that moment on, I pictured myself as a skier, placing my body weight to the inside of the turn to help keep the sled from barrel rolling and helping the dogs by tracking the sled more in the correct path of travel. As we snaked through s-curves and dodged trees, I kept my focus on following Baker as he led us, helping him and the team by maintaining the path they chose. I figured out, too, that there was no way I was ever going to turn the sled on a curve myself and remembered Russ Sutherby's lesson from a trip to Russ-Stick Acres: pretend the sled is continuing in a straight line when going into a curve. Don't try to force it around, but rather let the dogs do the job of pulling it around and you'll always be good. What a valuable lesson, one that works like a charm!
Baker was doing excellent with tracking the previous teams to keep us on course, Meem finally got her head into the game realizing Baker knew more about cross country travel than she did, and Chocolate was a trooper as he brought up the wheel. At one point, Chocolate started dipping snow, so I told him, "C'mon, Baker, let's go!" He did it again so I said it again in a chastising voice. I quickly notice my lead dog, Baker, turn around to look at me as if to say, "What the heck is your problem?" and soon realized I had been chastising Chocolate by the wrong name! I truly felt horrible and made a mental note to apologize to Baker upon our return. ;-)~
I began using the drag mat more effectively to slow us to a comfortable speed for turning and traversing downhill sections without overrunning my team. Before we knew it we were passing the 1/2 mile marker and I suddenly was sorry to be approaching the end. The past eleven and a half minutes was such an incredible learning experience for me that I didn't want the journey to end. I stopped my team in the clearing next to the marker for a breather, enjoying the excitement of our accomplishments, my teams little canine heads staring back at me in anticipation of the "HIKE!" command. Everything, in that instant - all of the lessons from our weekly sledding trips to our adventures at Russ-Stick Acres and chats with friendly fellow mushers willing to help me learn - allowed me to get here. I am so incredibly thankful for all of it.
Off we went, coming up to the finishing gate, Tony Wolf there all smiles to catch us as well as my friends and accomplices in the game of mushing. I was so proud of my team and the help they gave me through the rough spots.
Wow ... what an adventure...! ;-)
It just shows you how much drive is instilled, hard wired, into some folks to experience greatness through goal setting. Whether it is seasoned musher, Jason Barron, who is one of the hardest working and dedicated mushers in the Lower 48 and Alaska, or Mandy ~ a new musher who is excited to experience time on the trail with her new 3-dog team.
We salute you racers ~ embrace your talents.
Until tomorrow ~ God willing,