A musher's first race
When people see you have sled dogs, one of the first questions commonly asked is, "Do you race?" My reply has always been no -- life is too competitive and dog sledding is way too much fun to mix the two. Until now (and that is not to imply that my calling has taken me to a life of being a competitive musher). I completed my first 25-mile sled-dog race, hosted by North Country Mushers at Groveton, N.H., on Sunday. My results -- the coveted Red Lantern Award. (Outposts note: This is awarded to the last place team.)
I have never thought I wanted to get seriously involved in competitive sled racing, and I am sticking with that plan. The events leading up to my participation in this event occurred rather serendipitously when a fellow mushing friend informed me late last week that there was a rescheduled race taking place in northern New Hampshire. I needed to get weekend coverage at work to participate, because if I didn’t go, he probably wouldn’t either. Logistically, it would mean getting to northern New Hampshire by the mandatory 8 a.m. mushers meeting. MapQuest indicated it was a 3 1/2-hour drive, backing the departure time to 4:30 a.m. Then planning for time needed to load dogs, load the truck -- switch all the dogs and gear from one truck to another in Rockingham -- better add a half hour -- now looking at 4 a.m. departure. Then I started thinking I should probably arrive just a tad early to the mushers meeting, say, to drop dogs and sleds and at least look like we're in the hunt; so add another half an hour -- departure at 3:30 a.m.? And that’s a tight timeline and didn't allow for any unforeseen circumstances.
I agreed to go, and we contemplated the best way to manage our tightly laid-out timeline. As fate would have it, neither one of us slept -- I tossed and turned from 10:30 p.m. until midnight and tried to fake sleep like a child waiting for Santa. I think I may have gotten an hour and a half of shuteye and was wide awake at 2 a.m., well in advance of my 2:30 a.m. alarm-clock setting. I called my comrade at 3 a.m., half an hour before my "leaving-the-house" plan, scheduled for 3:30 a.m. He answered promptly and alert with: "Couldn't sleep either?"
The race was the end-of-the-season finale for the club, and I thought it a nice chance to explore this venue. I had absolutely no expectations other than to compare our performances as a team in a race setting to what we had been doing in recreational runs this season. In the few longer runs (15-plus miles) we have done this year, we had an overall run average of 5.7 mph and a moving average of 8.1 mph. My team is a hodgepodge of Siberian huskies ranging in age from 1 year to almost 9. The first was initially purchased as a pet, plus a couple retired race dogs and some acquired at various stages of puppyhood and trained to pull by ignorant but eager owners who embraced the breed and wanted to exercise them properly and, most of all, have fun.
Just as I was more discerning about my packing for this venture, once on the trail, I found myself more analytical of the dog's behavior and actions in harness. The race brought into focus nuances upon which I had to act strategically -- the type of things that might have been ignored on a recreational fun run. The race was 25 miles -- the longest run we would embark on this season.
Anthem and Expresso started out in lead, Lyra and Kadee in point, Tarot and Strider in team and Nina and Kaleb in wheel. Anthem is a trained lead dog; Expresso has no command training but has the best forward drive on the team. Lyra is a very smart girl and knows her commands but is sometimes more interested in smells on the trail than her forward orientation; Kadee has the drive of Expresso but very little lead or command training and at just 1 year old is young for the role of lead but has potential. Tarot is a powerhouse and rock-solid muscle -- a solid team dog with lots of drive. He is the most vocal of any of our dogs, and if he were a child surely would be classified as having attention deficit disorder with separation anxiety. He is very bashful around strangers and has a very loud, annoying squeaky bark if he isn’t getting the attention he deserves (his nickname is Squeaky Boy). Strider is a big 'ol sweetheart, lanky in the leg and very personable and is a talker, eager to run and a solid team dog. Nina was our first Siberian and the kennel princess (self-promoted to queen). She has a strong attitude and is always eager to run -- just not too fast -- and is a consistent team or wheel dog. And Kaleb is a big teddy bear of a dog whose sister is Kadee and at only a year old is still young in terms of what to expect or how far to push him. He runs well in wheel or team, is strong, always eager to run, but doesn’t quite have the drive his sister does.
About seven miles into the run, Anthem does not want to be in lead -- his tug line is slack and Expresso is neck lining him down the trail. So I decide to place him in point and give Kadee a go at lead. Less than a mile later, she too is telling me with a slack tug that she doesn’t want to be in lead. The next dog I have in line for drive is Tarot, and though he's probably the strongest physically and has incredible drive, he has no training. But what the heck -- we’ll give him a go. And to my surprise, he did great and actually showed some signs of listening to commands though was very far from a polished lead dog. Surprisingly, Anthem ran with tight tugs in point and showed great support from the point position.
Just as we as mushers seem to up the ante logistically and strategically, I too sensed a heightened performance from the dogs. Anxiety about staying to the right, passing and being around other dogs and snowmobile traffic all proved to be unnecessary. The dogs gee’ed over [turned right] like never before, did some great passing of other teams on the trail without incident (well, mostly allowed others to pass) and passed snowmobiles perfectly while in motion.
After our Mile 18 water and snack break, Nina showed signs of being tired -- her tug was slack, and she was getting neck lined on some of the faster downhill runs. Thoughts of bagging her ran through my mind, but she did fine as long as we set a slower pace. As I mentioned, she was our first Siberian, and I really wanted her to complete our first race. Around Mile 22, Kadee showed signs of tiring -- her tug was slack, her drive evaporating, and her neckline tight from the front -- so I set the hook and gave her some attention. A little break from running and a lot of positive reassurance for all the team worked wonders. Again, setting a slower pace was in both Nina’s and Kadee’s comfort zone. There were only a few miles to go, and I didn’t want it to end.
We started as a team, and we finished as a team. We came in dead last, a whopping half an hour behind my front competitor, which is decades in race terms, and 1 1/2 hours after the first-place finisher. I am not in this to be competitive -- remember, dog sledding is too much fun to add the stress of having to compete. Competition can be, however, a very useful tool. I learned about my dogs, we bonded on the trail amid new scenery and a different venue and, hopefully, built more trust and mutual respect. We met our goal of improving our overall average and moving average (7.0 mph overall, 8.4 moving average) and couldn’t have asked for a better experience. Coming in dead last was a huge success in this musher's mind, and racing doesn’t have to be competitive. It just may prove to be one of the best tools you have, though, to bring out the best in you as a musher and the best in your team.
Photo: Allan Tschorn, who completed his first competitive sled dog race March 20, 2011. Credit: Jaye Foucher