Thursday, March 20, 2014

Iditarod Race Report

 A 1,000 mile race will inevitably have 1,000 stories to tell as every mile along the trail seemed to provide a new challenge, vista, or story.  This particular race proved to be no different.  Due to the lack of snow and coastal wind storms long time Iditarod mushers believe the 2014 race  to be the most difficult and challenging Iditarod in the history of the race.  As a rookie, my perspective in this race might be characterized as somewhat na├»ve.  Without the knowledge of what a good trail is supposed to be like I could only take each section of trail with a nonjudgmental openness.  I was determined from the beginning of this race to thoroughly enjoy every trail and every checkpoint.  I wanted to cherish this grand adventure of crossing Alaska with only myself, my sled, and my dogs.  This was an ideal which proved to be definitely easier said than done.

The 2014 routing was the Northern Route.

My dog team consisted of a wide variety of age and experience.  Four of the dogs (Summit, Rambo, Huffy, and Speckle) are older, between 6-9 years, and were on John Bakers’s record breaking Champion team.  The seven other dogs from our kennel are between 2-4 years old (Ears, Neo, Joy, Ghoulie, Ringo, Blaze, and Spook).  We decided that it would be best for me to leave with a smaller team of 14 dogs considering the difficult trail conditions this year.  I am certainly glad we did that.  Due to injuries in the week leading up to the race I was in need of a few more dogs to fill out the team.  Two dogs (Heineken and Lightening) came from Aaron Burmeister’s kennel and one dog (Papa) came from Pete Kaiser’s kennel.  My main leaders would be Ears and Summit.  Substitute leaders would be Ghoulie, Joy, and Heineken.  Although in my need to find fresh leaders even Papa and Lightening, both two year olds, got a chance to be in lead.

The Ceremonial Start in Anchorage was a total blast.  My Idita-rider was from a software company in Chicago which recently became a ‘Lead-Dog’ Sponsor of Iditarod.  Alex Westlake rode the second sled.  The most hilarious highlight was when we attempted to pass a hotdog from our first sled to the second sled using a very surprised spectator!  This is where the reality of what we are about to take on begins to sink in.
Ceremonial Start in Anchorage

The restart begins in Willow the following day at 2pm.  This is a more serious event because it is the last opportunity to bring critical gear and have everything just right.  I was so fortunate to have a great crew of family and friends to get me to the start line.  The first 50 miles of the race is such a party.  Every ½ mile is a new bonfire with people cheering you on and calling out your name.  

Willow Restart (Summit and Ears in lead)
The spectators make an effort to match your bib number up with your name and make things very personalized.  It is such a great feeling.  People are handing out cans of beer, RockStar drinks, hotdogs, and cookies. 
Willow Restart

The first few checkpoints are fairly full of teams but a surprising number of them are camped outside of the checkpoints.  My strategy for the first couple days of the race was to be very conservative running the dogs on something close to an even run/rest schedule.  The trail up to Finger Lake is relatively flat and smooth.  At Finger Lake the trail beings to climb up into the Alaska Range to the Rainy Lake checkpoint.
Finger Lake Checkpoint
It is between these checkpoints that the famous ‘Steps’ are.  Being a rookie, I wasn’t even sure where the ‘Steps’ were and when we actually passed through them.  While the switchbacks were steep and technical-it was clear that the Iditarod Trail committee had worked hard to make this section safe.  Our team had no problems in this section.   Other teams certainly did.  One musher, Jake Berkowitz, broke his gang line, and had the front 14 dogs go down the Steps by themselves followed shortly thereafter by himself with 2 dogs!  It is an unfortunate situation but it was caught on video which is rather hysterical to watch. 

Photo:  Ralph Johannessen, from Dagali, Norway, rolls his sled as he comes down the steps onto the Happy River between the Finger Lake and Rainy Pass checkpoints during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Monday, March 3, 2014. BOB HALLINEN — Anchorage Daily News

Upon arrival at the Rainy Pass checkpoint it was clear that the trail ahead to Rohn was dangerous and highly technical.  The first mushers that have gone through the trail have gotten injured or severely damaged their sleds.  The checkpoint officials were recommending that we proceed with caution and consider even staying.  In order to get through this section with the greatest degree of safety I choose to alter my race strategy by cutting the team’s rest so that they weren’t so strong going through risky sections.  In addition, leaving early would allow me to navigate the toughest sections during the daylight.  This was ultimately a good decision.   The trail leaving Rainy Pass climbs high into the mountain pass until it arrives at the Dalzell Gorge which has required days and days of work of the Iditarod Trail Committee in order to make the trail as safe as possible. 

The descent lived up to its reputation for being a thrilling ride!  Without there being any snow the trail was frozen dirt, ice, tree stumps, and rocks.  Having little to no stopping power the dogs were able to fly furiously down the trail.  Every second of the trail required 150% of the musher’s focus in order to balance on the sled appropriately in order to avoid tipping over and colliding with a tree.  I actually enjoyed the challenge of this trail as it demanded every ounce of strength and concentration that I had.  I was very thankful for my hours of strength training and endurance efforts because this helped to keep me fresh, alert, and physically able to maneuver down the endless chutes of frozen dirt, ice, and rocks.  The best video by far is that of Jeff King’s Go Pro-which can be found online. 

Being a rookie, I wasn’t ever even sure that the difficult part of the Dalzell Gorge was actually over or whether a more scary section was yet to come.  I was so happy to see the Rohn checkpoint arrive thinking that the worst was over.  Rohn is beautiful place with tall pines surrounding the checkpoint.  This was the first night that I slept in my sleeping bag next to my dogs on a pile of straw.  I learned on arriving in Rohn that the next run to Nikolai was just as challenging as the run to Rohn.  I therefore decided again that I should not leave Rohn with fresh dogs and so left after a 4 hour break. 

By that point, we had reports of over a dozen scratches.  Mushers had broken ankles, broken legs, broken sleds.  It was a nightmarish run for many mushers.  People getting thrown into trees and being unaware of where they were.

Photo:  Musher Hans Gatt has dried blood around his eyes after coming off the Farewell Burn and into the Nikolai checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Gatt hit a tree on the Burn just outside of Rohn. BOB HALLINEN — Anc Daily News

The trail through the ‘Burn’ again had no snow.  I made it through the first five miles before totally crashing my sled.  The brush brow was already cracked from the trip through the Dalzell Gorge.  After smashing into a couple trees, one finally smashed through the brush brow and the tree made it between my sled runners breaking the base of my sled.  I couldn’t get it separate from the tree, until fellow musher Jake Berkowitz, helped pull the sled apart from the tree.  I wasn’t sure what repairs I could possibly make that would allow me to make another 50 miles.  The sled was surely going to fall to pieces the next time I hit a tree.  To make matters worse the plastic sled runners (which are removable to allow for smooth gliding over the snow) had completely been worn down going through the Gorge.  So not only did I have a busted up sled but I had no runner plastic and was running on aluminum runners.  The Farewell Burn had endless numbers of steep hills which, this year, was completely bare with sand on the uphill side and ironically with snow on the downhill side.   I tied the sled up as best I could but couldn’t avoid having a piece of plastic from the sled bottom constantly rubbing into the dirt.  I had to stop numerous times to piece together the sled but eventually we did make it into Nikolai.  I wasn’t sure that the sled would make it but I had many contingency plans in place in case the sled fell apart.  I had creative plans of skijoring or simply walking the entire way nursing the sled into Nikolai. 

Obviously, I needed to find a new sled.  After frantically searching and calling around, Martin Buser came along and offered the use of his sled.  After switching all of my gear over from the old sled to Martin’s new sled I was ready to depart Nikolai without any sleep.  The next stop was Takotna where I was planning to take my 24 hour rest.  Therefore, despite the need for my dogs to rest after the shortened rest schedule, I decided to continue to Takotna thinking that once there the dogs would have the chance to fully recuperate.  This seemed like a good decision at the time, but in hindsight I believe this was a key error for my dogs.  I wanted to have a fully rested team at the beginning of the race but, in needing to cut the rest short to make it through the technical trail sections, this didn’t really happen.  Ideally, I should have rested 8 hours in Nikolai, instead of 4 hours, and then made the run to Takotna where I would rest for another 24 hours.  

The trail into Takotna is surprisingly hilly and the trail follows a road into town.  The 24 hour rest is very much needed at that point. Sleep for the musher and food for the dogs after the stressful trail would hopefully allow for the race to be ‘reset’.  I enjoyed my 24 and learned a lot by watching other mushers about how to walk the dogs to evaluate stiffness and for the stretching of muscles, how to feed and snack the team regularly while allowing for musher sleep.  Both John and I choose to cook the dog’s meals at every stop.  This means adding four bottles of heet to the cooker, starting the heet on fire, and then adding water (or snow) to the dog pot along with chipped fish.  Our dogs LOVE cooked Sheefish which we catch and prepare up in Kotzebue.  To the cooked fish we add additional chipped beef and commercial dog food.  This soup takes about twenty minutes to prepare but it is worth the wait.  The dogs all eat well and get their needed water from the broth.   During the 24 hour rest the dogs ate three such meals along with ‘snacks’ in between of turkey skins (fat) and meat snacks.

The trail from Takotna to Ophir was fast after the fresh break.  Most teams will go through Ophir, being only 3 hours away from Takotna, and make their way on the long run to Cripple (77 miles).  This makes the combined run 96 miles.  Most teams will rest half way between Ophir and Cripple for about four hours.  I planned on resting 3-4 hours as well but somehow decided to only rest 2 hours.  The team was already slowing down after we left Ophir.  The ongoing long runs had appeared to have worn the team out despite the 24 hour rest.  As a rookie musher, at this distance, I wasn’t that comfortable camping between checkpoints.  My preference had been to run checkpoint to checkpoint.  This is also because our dogs had been training to run 70-90 miles and have been very strong at that distance.  I expected that our team could make the run to Cripple without negative consequence.  

The run to Cripple was extremely long and slow.  I rested for 6 hours in Cripple before tackling the run to Ruby.  Here again, I planned to make the run all the way through.  Surprisingly, the run from Cripple to Ruby is not flat however.   I did not bring straw to camp between the checkpoints thinking that we would rest for 8 hours in Ruby and therefore shouldn’t waste time resting between.  If I had brought straw, I would have definitely rested the team for 3-4 hours.  So I continued on and pushed to Ruby in order to take advantage of the amenities offered at the checkpoints.  These runs took a lot out of my team and I feel this was a second error on my part. 
Katherine arrives at the Cripple Checkpoint

The Ruby checkpoint marks a big change in the trail as the mushers drop down onto the Yukon River and make their way downriver to Kaltag before crossing land again over to the Bering Sea Coast at Unalakleet.  I took my mandatory 8 hour rest in Ruby hoping that the long rest would invigorate my team.  Unfortunately, the next run from Ruby to Galena proved to be the longest yet.  It was a cold night, -35F, and my level of fatigue was very high.  I kept falling asleep no matter how many 5 hour energies I took.  This was endlessly frustrating and the team was literally walking!  I couldn’t do anything to speed them up.  I switched out every leader I had until I found a pair that seemed to work well together-Summit and Joy.  In addition, my fatigue caused me to miss the fact that a cable neckline was dangling from Ringo’s neck.  The dangling neckline had bounced up and hit Ringo’s eye causing it to get cut.  RIngo had to be dropped at the next checkpoint to receive veterinary attention.  This was the lowest point in the race for me.  My fatigue and pure exhaustion led to a great dog getting hurt.  I was so proud of Ringo up to this point for doing so well and had really looked forward to him making it to Nome.

I was a bit of a mess in Galena, crying about Ringo, and worried about my dogs.  I realized I had to drastically change my schedule to allow for an equal run/rest schedule with the hopes of getting to the coast with a team that could race.  So our team rested for 6 hours in Galena, 6 hours in Nulato, and 6 hours in Kaltag.  This enhanced rest did appear to be working as the team started eating better and picked up their speed.  The trip from Kaltag to Unalakeet was intimidating for me.  This was a long run when I was really working to take short runs with frequent rests.  I planned taking a 6 hour rest at the Old Woman shelter cabin which lies about halfway between checkpoints. 

My rest at the Old Woman shelter cabin was by far my favorite stop!  I loved camping out with the dogs.  This really changed my view of camping between checkpoints.  It was so quiet and peaceful providing me with a great opportunity to care for and connect with the dogs. 

After traveling over miles of glare ice I finally arrived at Unalakleet with a great sense of relief.  Jack Smith, Andy Baker, Andy Angstman, Midi Johnson, and others were there to welcome me there at 1:00 am.  This was a pivotal point for us because it meant the arrival to the coast where I hoped the dogs would feel really at home.  I rested in Unalakleet for 8 hours before making my way over to Shaktoolik.   I was warned in Unalakleet that a winter storm warning had been issued and that we would be facing high winds.  There is really no choice but to move forward and start the trek over the bare Blueberry Hills to the glare ice and high winds in Shaktoolik.   The north winds were head on at 40 mph and were going to be increasing over the night.  The team did well crossing the glare ice despite being pushed around. 

Photo:  Iditarod musher Jessie Royer, from Darby, MT, mushes over bare tundra on the Blueberry Hills out of the Unalakleet checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, March 9, 2014. BOB HALLINEN — Anchorage Daily News

When getting to Shaktoolik I was faced with a choice of whether to proceed into the 40 mph headwind or wait the storm out in Shaktoolik for the next couple days with over a dozen other teams.  Another musher, Paige Dronby, was anxious like myself to leave Shaktoolik.  The dogs would not be able to rest well at this checkpoint due to the lack of wind protection.  Paige and I believed that if we left soon we would be able to beat the storm and make it to Koyuk which had better shelter to rest the dogs.  I left with 2 hours of rest on the dogs.  I almost immediately regretted leaving as the glare ice leaving Shaktoolik had both of us walking in front of our teams leading them across glare ice that neither human or dog could get much traction on.  I was very thankful for the ice cleats that John had given to me prior to leaving Anchorage.    That run out of Shaktoolik had me walking in front of the dogs as often as I was on the sled.

Photo:  An Iditarod musher crosses a frozen pond between the Shaktoolik and Koyuk checkpoints during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, March 9, 2014. BOB HALLINEN — Anchorage Daily News

It took a long time to get away from Shaktoolik and once we did there was still a long way to go and the winds were increasing at a harder and faster rate than was expected.  15 miles out of Shaktoolik there was a sharp turn in the trail which was poorly marked that my team, along with many others, didn’t quite get.  The dogs had to go into a cross wind for a mile across glare ice.  The situation soon became very serious when the wind gusts, now over 60 mph, began blowing myself and the entire team sideways along the ice in a situation that I had little to no control over.  My leaders had become scared and were no longer able to steer the team.  In fact, they couldn’t even hear my commands over the howling wind.  After two hours of attempting to get on the trail, I had to re-evaluate my decision to proceed to Koyuk and make a new plan which allowed me to have the greatest number of options which would get myself and my team through the night safely.  This was now a life threatening situation not just about the race anymore.   I was wet from sweat, working to get the dogs walking in the right direction, and there was no help coming.  A shelter cabin was nearby which would offer protection from the wind.  So we inched our way to the shelter cabin thinking that this would leave us the greatest number of options.  I could stay at the cabin, I could go back to Shaktoolik, or I could continue on to Koyuk.  Staying at the cabin was limited in time because of the finite amount of food I had for the dogs and myself. 

The shelter cabin had no wood and I was needing to be on guard to stay warm and keep the dogs warm.  The cabin offered little shelter for the dogs so I decided to take my females, and main leader Summit, inside the cabin.  I was going to need them to get us through the storm into Koyuk the next day and they needed all the rest they could get.  The wind shook the shelter cabin all night finally letting up about 10 am the next morning.  Unfortunately, the visibility also dropped to ¼ mile or less.  Regardless, we needed to keep moving so I hooked up the dogs are we slowly made our way to Koyuk.  The wind was still relentless and the glare ice made travel difficult and slow.  I switched out the leaders every hour to keep them fresh.  The storm had brought in large snow drifts which really took a toll on the team.   Eventually we made it to Koyuk and rested there for 6 hours before moving onto Elim.   I kept thinking to myself that all I had to do was make it to the next stake.  Find the next stake, go after the next stake, make it to the next stake, and search for the next one.   This went on for 35 miles.  I finally arrived at Koyuk a bit shaken up but was surrounded by school kids asking questions and wanting my autograph.  One little girl eagerly helped to put out straw for the dogs.  They really cheered me up and helped me to realize that I just had to suck it up and keep my head in the game.  There was still a race going on.  Besides, the dogs were looking and feeling great.  The storm was harder on me than the dogs.  They were eating great.

The trail to Elim was beautiful-hard and fast most of the way-with the exception of the new snow drifts.  We left at night which is the dog’s favorite time to run.  My team was first out of Elim and took the burden on of breaking out the trail.  After 10 miles the faster teams behind me caught up and broke out the remaining trail.  I was thankful when they passed us.

The trail from Elim to White Mountain was notoriously difficult.  Not only for the large amount of hill climbing but also for the glare ice between Golovin and White Mountain.  The climbing was pretty intense but the views were very rewarding.  There was also no wind the day that I crossed Golovin Bay so the glare ice posed no real issue as it did for so many teams ahead of us that scratched.  Another challenge for many teams is getting through the town of Golovin itself.  The trail goes into the town and straight down the main road with kids running alongside the team.  At this point the dogs are tired and looking for an excuse to take a break.  Meaning that distractions are tempting for all of us.  Luckily our team kept focused and moved through Golovin without too much difficulty. 

At White Mountain everyone is required to take an 8 hour rest prior to tackling the remaining 77 miles of trail to Nome.  The trail to Safety consists of yet more climbing.  The highest point is actually called ‘Little McKinley’.  After this summit the trail drops down for 2 miles to the coast.  There was little snow on this descent again and my sled brake finally gave out on me.  This made things quite exciting for a while.  Careening down steep rocky slopes with an excited dog team and no good way to slow them down.   I managed to stop a couple times to wire the brake together-knowing that after this hill I would have little use for the brake for the rest of the trip.  The weather was reasonable during the climbing but once dropping down to the coast we started moving north through what is nicknamed the ‘Blow Hole’.  Conditions deteriorated quickly into 10 feet of visibility with wind blowing 30-40 mph.  The dogs were needing to cross glare ice with sand and then snow drifts.  The wind would blow the sled sideways into tripods and tree stumps and anything else in between.  I despairingly realized we still had a LONG way to go to make it to the finish line.  The dogs were doing the best they could to keep the pace up but we were moving pretty slow.  The fresh snow that had fallen caused significant drag on my sled making progress seemingly painstaking. 

The checkpoint of Safety is 22 miles outside of Nome and is also a scary point for mushers.  I needed to drop a dog, Heineken, and the remaining dogs were thinking this was a great place to hang out for a while to escape the storm.  After numerous attempts of the dogs to stay near the straw we finally left the checkpoint.  After about 300 feet the dogs decided that instead of their usual 7.5 mph pace they wanted to go 4.5 mph.  They were wanting to quit-if only they knew we were less than three hours from the end...  I had to stop the team and evaluate the situation. This consisted of me snacking the dogs then sitting on my sled crying out loud for a good 10 minutes.  I was just imagining everyone in Nome waiting for me to finish but the finish seemed farther away from me than ever.  After my little pity party was over, I calmly switched around the dogs and put in new leaders.  I made the decision that even if I was going to push the sled the whole way-even if we went 4.5 mph the whole way-it was better than sitting on the sled crying in the middle of a snow storm.    So 4.5 mph was what we did all the way to Nome.  With me kicking, running, and poling with everything I had.   After a few hours we got closer to Nome and I began to feel like the team just might make it to the finish line.  I still didn’t put on my bib until I was about 3 miles out of Nome!

Arriving in Nome
People began driving out on the roads and cheering the team on and the dogs and I began to feel pretty excited.  At long last we dropped down onto the ice in front of Nome and I could hear the siren, which is blown to indicate the arrival of a dog team, welcoming us to Nome.  The trail goes up a small hill onto the front street of Nome where all the people are saying ‘Good Job’ and ‘Congratulations’!  Even though I came in as the 32nd team I felt like a Champion!   The short jaunt down Front Street won’t be forgotten.   The Burled Arch beckons us in where a crowd awaits.  Amelia was there waiting to ride on the sled with me to the finish line!  I wasn’t sure the dogs would pull both her and me so I grabbed her arm and she ran with me into the finish chute.  Mom was there and she was crying with relief for us getting there.  I told her not to cry because this is a total celebration-we made it!  Mostly it was because I didn’t want to cry!  It is so easy for me to get carried away with exhaustion, frustration, and disappointment for all the struggles we had along the trail.  I was determined to focus on the sheer feeling of accomplishment and joy that we actually made it 1049 miles to Nome!
Finish Line in Nome

After checking in and going through the interviews and mandatory sled checklist the team was taken away down to the dog lot.  It almost felt like a piece of me was being taken away as I watched them go knowing that our great adventure together was at an end.  That didn’t mean I wasn’t happy to see our handler Nick on his way to care for them and feed them instead of me!   Eight out of fourteen dogs finished the entire race.  The finishing team was Summit, Ears, Joy, Neo, Huffy, Ghoulie, Papa, and Lightening.  Summit and Ears led together for 90% of the race.  They did an incredible job keeping us all safe and on the trail.  Ghoulie and Heineken shared some of the leading responsibility when I wanted to give Summit or Ears a break.  Even Papa and Lightening were given a chance to run up front and they did a great job for their first time in lead.  All dogs gave 110% the entire way. 

Post Race Fatigue

Knowing the dogs were being cared for I went to our hotel room, took a long hot shower, ate a super great meal, and enjoyed the company of all my family and friends that I had missed out on for the past couple weeks.  Now that a few days have gone by and my body is feeling rested I notice a bit of restlessness.  I look outside at this clear sunny day and recall those gorgeous days climbing through the Alaska Range or when I first dropped down to Unalakleet and saw the ocean coast, and I start dreaming about the next adventure…

Arriving into Nome

Friday, January 24, 2014

Phoenix Racing in the Media

There have been a couple fun shout outs to our efforts.  The links are below!

K300 Women Participants 

Here is a short video highlighting Katherine Keith & Kristy Berington, the only 2 women mushers in this year's K300.

For more LKSD eJournalism stories, visit  

Ironman Sets Sights Squarely on Iditarod 

Jillian Rogers, at the Arctic Sounder, wrote a really wonderful article about all of these efforts. 

Read it at:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Long Story about the K300 (no illustrations yet...)

The K300 Banquet on Monday evening, about 24 hours after most mushers completed the race, revealed a few very common themes.  First, the trail conditions were the 2nd worst ever witnessed by K300 racers, being ousted only by the 2008 race now nicknamed the ‘KuskoSwim’.  Even the 2014 champion, Rohn Buser, highlighted that this might have been worse than 2008 considering that the outbound portion was where the ‘swimming’ was forcing mushers and dogs to continue for 200 miles further while being soaked and having ice blocks for boots.  Secondly, most mushers seemed capable of admitting to swearing to themselves that they would never come to race this course again and it certainly was not really super fun.  However, on the next breath those same mushers admitted that in hind sight it wasn’t all that bad and that they would likely be here next year.  The ability of people to have this type of selective amnesia amazes me.  The challenge that the trail conditions posed made this race- simply put-crazy hard and slightly scary for a newbie like myself.

I left Bethel with bib #2 which allowed me to run first on the trail for at least three hours.  It was spectacular feeling so alone while watching the K300 fireworks go off over Bethel as we departed.  It was clear immediately that the trail was not going to be easy.  The race committee chose to go on an overland route due to dangerous river ice conditions.  Only two days ago this trail had snow cover which promised a smooth ride.  However, the two days of 40F weather and rain washed away the snow and left bare tundra, glare ice, and water.  The first leg to Tuluksak is fast as the dogs are excited and full of energy.  In going overland, the teams must still cross ponds and standing bodies of frozen water.  The most dangerous ice is that which is smooth with a fresh shine of water on the top.  The dogs have no traction-and neither does the sled.  Crossing these lakes becomes a circus as the dogs try desperately to cling onto the ice with some ending up sprawled out knocking over other dogs.  Meanwhile the sled slides back and forth perpendicular to the team so that any bump in the ice can easily tip over the sled.  After doing this a couple times you begin to wonder how much more of this can the dogs take-yet the ice skating rinks continued for dozens of miles. 
My favorite incident was when my big wheel dog Deuce slipped on the ice and he froze up sliding backward.  At the same time the sled became unstable and tipped over, along with myself, over and in front of Deuce.  So we are sliding along the ice, Deuce, my sled, and me.  The hook ripped into my pants with my left leg under the sled and I began to worry about how to get out of this jam!  Being dragged by the sled often seems to last a very long time but it all elapsed in probably 10 seconds.  I eventually was able to free my leg, right the sled, and get poor Deuce back on his feet to attack the next ice rink 100 yards ahead.  On and on. 

At Tuiuksak we cut down to the Kuskokwim River and head north to Lower Kalskag which is approximately 50 miles.  The night was warm just above freezing.  The rain that previously fell combined with abnormally high temperatures created standing pools of water on the ice along with slush.  The trail was mostly visible with the water being knee high at times.  At one point, snow mixed with rain fell making it difficult to see where the next trail markers were.  Some mushers went along an ice road for part of this portion while others stayed on the dog trail.  Upon arrival in Kalskag teams were piled up and parking was quite interesting because the lot was glare ice, it was dark, raining, and no one could really walk let alone guide the leaders to a good spot.  I arrived right behind two other mushers and the poor checkers where doing their best to help everyone.  I felt quite sorry because I was snapping at them.  Joar’s team was stopped directly in front of mine but perpendicular to my team.  I expected at any moment that the dogs would take off and get super tangled with his!  So I kept yelling to the checkers to please grab the leaders and tell me where to park.  They really weren’t able to help much so my team went in a couple circles at one point almost going across Jeff King’s parked team!   We finally just grabbed a spot where the dogs happily rested on piles of straw that I spread out for them after taking off their icicle booties which protect their feet from cuts.  They ate well and I proceeded to get myself sorted out.  Rohn Buser, jokingly (or maybe not joking) asked if maybe we should take a vote on this becoming the Kuskokwim 200.   At this point, I was actually scared of the trail ahead.  I had really no idea how in the world we were going to make it up to Aniak.  Furthermore, how were we supposed to get the dogs home??  I had planned for a 4 hour rest here so I grabbed my sleeping bag to go inside to catch 1 hour of sleep.  I remember thinking that is was now about 4 am Saturday morning and was considering if it was too early to call my Mom in Minnesota.  Instead of waking her up, I texted a request for a weather update.  She stated that Aniak was still going to be warm and raining. Super!  I had to drop Ripple, one of the 2 main gee/haw leaders that I was running.  She stopped pulling on the way to Kalskag and her left hind wrist was causing her pain when I examined her.  She is a critical dog for Iditarod and we couldn’t afford to risk her minor injury turning into a massive problem for her.

Before crawling into the sleeping bag, I took off my boots which had about 1” of water.  I made the mistake of not putting garbage bags in my boots to help protect them from water.  While my feet were warm-it could be a scary situation if the temperature dropped.  I did what I could to dry them out and found a new pair of socks.

Upon waking, I was still full of dread for the upcoming trail.  I sat their momentarily and watched the other mushers getting prepared and realized that indeed the race must go on.  Secretly, I might have been hoping that the race would be stalled pending further conditions but I quickly realized that this race is the real deal and not for pansy mushers.  I bucked up, got dressed for more water, went out to feed the dogs, put their booties on, and headed up towards Aniak.
The route around Whitefish Lake was the reverse of what it usually is so that more mushers might take advantage of Aniak as a rest stop.  Typically, Aniak is only 30 miles from Kalskag so there is no need to stop there and rest.  Now, the run to Aniak was 50 miles and so stopping there was logical and ideal.  Aniak is a beautiful and welcoming community surrounded by trees.  The trail starts on the river, then crosses many miles of tundra and frozen lakes.  Once again the tundra was bare and the snow slushy.  That being said, it was a gorgeous day.  It was dark leaving Kalskag and we were able to watch the sunrise over the mountains.  It is in moments like that I realize just how lucky I am to be there.  I thought about John and wondered if he was seeing the same thing as I was. \

I began having trouble again with Deuce.  He is a very large dog (100 lbs) with black hair.  As a 2 year old, he lacks experience, and was very stressed out from the crazy conditions of the previous run.  He stopped pulling and soon decided he couldn’t run anymore.  So with 30 more miles to go, the other dogs had to carry Deuce through the bare tundra and slushy snow/water.  The problem with this is that the heavier the sled, the greater the drag, and the other dogs became tired quickly in the heat to which they are not accustomed to.  In addition, having Deuce in the sled near the top created a sled that could not steer and it kept falling into the snow banks.  I realized that I needed to repack the sled so that Deuce’s weight was as low as possible on the sled.  This change made it marginally better but still really slowed us down.  The trail improved greatly as we got closer to Aniak.  The trail reminded me of the ones leading into Ambler with the beautiful rolling hills and trees.   We lost a couple hours of time on this run and I realized that the team was not going to be capable of finishing in the time that I had expected.   I was looking forward to the two hours in Aniak and hoped that the rest would energize the dogs.  I had the vet thoroughly examine Deuce to make sure he wasn’t sick.  However, as soon as Deuce got out of the sled, he was happy, refreshing, and eating well.  Figures!  Deuce will be a great dog but just needs a bit more confidence and experience.  (Me too maybe!)
With a two hour break, there really is not much time to sleep.  So I focused on snacking the dogs.  I put a soothing foot ointment on their paws to help reduce any swelling and to cool them off.  After getting booties put on-we took off back towards Kalskag for 30 miles.  I was feeling slightly encouraged by this run because it appeared that the dogs had a bit of their ‘snap back’.  The river had frozen over to some degree and the trail was slightly better than we expected.  My plan was to pass through Kalskag and continue on until Tuluksak where there is a 4 hour mandatory rest. I was really second guessing my plan.  I knew the dogs were exhausted, they were stressed out, and could perhaps benefit from the rest.  However, I also knew that if we stopped go rest 3-4 hours we would drop a considerable number of places.  The dogs could certainly run the 50 miles-physically we run long run all the time at home.  However, mentally they are young, inexperienced and wondering what they got themselves into!  So was I! 

After much deliberation, I stopped long enough to refresh their booties, snack them and go.  I decided that resting them for a short while would create further soreness.  I had the confidence that they could do very well in the next segment but I don’t think they did.  I made a kissing sound for the leaders, Swift and Ears, to go and they instantly got up and left the checkpoint with little hesitation.  After about a mile-they decided to change their mind.  They simply moved off the trail and sat down.  I was flabbergasted-never having had a team just decide to quit!  I sat there on the trail and continued to second guess my decision.  I decided that I better just take them back to Kalskag and rest them for that 4-5 hours and see where things were at then.  We turned around and went back through all the deep pools of water to about 100 yards from the checkpoint turnoff.  Interestingly enough-upon turning around they could all suddenly pull and suddenly put the pace up to over 9 mph. Outbound from Kalskag they were barely moving at 7 mph.  So, I became stubborn!  I stopped the team and thought about all the long training runs we had and how great of a team they are.  I switched out one of the leaders with a fresh dog and I made them turn back around and head in the right direction. We don’t give up!  It took some time but we got going in the right direction.  Once I stopped second guessing myself and portrayed that confidence to the dogs-they sensed it and just accepted the situation.  Their pace became steady at about 8.5 mph and we made our way to Tulusak.  It wasn’t fast but we were moving.  More importantly, we were a team that didn’t quit.

John arrived in Tuluksak a couple hours ahead of me and I was very glad to see him there.  His dogs were looking great and had wonderful spunk.  They are a young and inexperienced team which caused him quite a bit of frustration, as well, but the promise of a record breaking team is evident.

I slept for two hours in Tuluksak at the school.  The teachers there even made a gluten free macaroni pasta that I could eat!  I put my socks and liners in the dryer hoping to dry out my feet a bit.  Regardless, there was now only 50 miles left until we would make it to Bethel.  There were many dogs that I considered dropping.  Most of them were having a hard time and not pulling as they usually do.  We brought these dogs to the Kusko to give them experience and to understand how they would do in the Iditarod team.  Dropping them, in my mind, meant giving up on them and their Iditarod potential.  So I kept them all which turned out to be a pretty large error.  

The trail to Bethel was dramatically improved.  Cooler temperature froze the previously standing water and the trail was solid.  The tundra was still bare and now had glare ice to content with.   I crashed numerous times on this route.  The funniest time was when we were traversing this 45 degree angle ice bank and because the wheel dogs weren’t pulling the sled just slides down the bank.  Usually, I can counterbalance this without an issue, but the sled caught on something and we did a double summersault.  Two dogs became overly tired and I put them in the sled.  Joy, being a small dog around 40 lbs, was not a big deal.  Adding Spook, close to 90 pounds, was a big deal!  I definitely wondered if we would finish or end up camping out 5 miles to Bethel.  At long last Bethel came into view and the finish was in sight.   I breathed a sigh of relief and felt huge pride for the dogs who saw this race through to the finish. 

A race like this teaches new mushers, like myself, many things.  I realized I have so much to learn about dealing with changing trail conditions, knowing the difference between a tired dog and a dog ready to quit, and how my level of confidence passes on the dogs for better or for worse.  Now onto Iditarod!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Race Conditions in Bethel

From Board by Myron Angstman:

As we prepare for the 35th Kuskokwim 300 amidst winter storm warnings, I am reminded of how often race week has been spent watching the weather forecast. Racers always pay attention to the weather, but in Bethel we have had enough races hammered by tough weather that we pay special attention to the forecast.

Our first race in 1980 featured many of the weather issues that have come back to visit us in later races. That year, we started out cold and clear with a stiff north wind. By late night heading up river it was wind chills in the minus -100 range, which changed to a blizzard by the next morning. The next night it was raining in Aniak. A 24 hour delay was declared, and the Whitefish loop was eliminated. Fairly normal weather allowed the teams to return to Bethel via the river.

Other races have had similar variations. We have had glare ice the entire way (1985 and 1990). We have had standing water, the most recent year in 2008, waist deep for some. We have had open holes in the river near the trail. We have had extreme cold (-60 actual temp in 1989) and we have had years when perfect trail was present all the way around (1992 and other years). One year only half of the food was delivered to the upriver checkpoints when the first team arrived in Kalskag (Joe Redington in 1982). That resulted in a 12 hour delay while Wien Air got it together. Their local station manager explained that no one from the race committee had told them when the food needed to be in the checkpoints.

So a winter storm warning for the starting day of the race is not something unexpected. What will happen? Who knows? But an experienced group of directors will be in touch for the next two days to sort out the options and come up with a plan. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Kuskokwim 300

The Kuskokwim 300 will start on Friday January 17th at 6:30 pm.  Trail conditions have been less than ideal due to above freezing temperatures and lack of snow.  The race is tentatively set to go 300 miles Bethel to Tuluksak, Kalskag, Whitefish Lake, Aniak, then back to Kalskag and back to Bethel.  There are 28 teams signed up.  You can follow the race with live GPS tracking at and on Facebook at Kuskokwim300.  Both John and I will be racing.  Last year it took 45:02 hours to finish and that gave me 11th place.  Dogs are looking fast and strong this year so it should be an exciting race!  There is a highly competitive field which includes last year's champion, Jeff King, Martin and Rohn Buser, Pete Kaiser, Ramey Smith, and of course 2011 Iditarod Champion John Baker.
Original K300 Trail (Modified trail will travel above Akiachak on tundra to Tuluksak)

"The Kuskokwim 300 race committee has made changes to the traditional trail for next week’s race because of adverse trail conditions on the river near Bethel. The race will start on the river in front of Bethel but will immediately leave the river and travel cross country to the Gweek River, and travel behind Akiachak to Tuluksak on the tundra. From that point the trail will follow the traditional route to Kalskag and Aniak. There will be no check point at Akiachak.

Trails crews report the overland trail is satisfactory in places and very good in other places. Once the teams approach Tukuksak, the snow is deeper and conditions are much better from there upriver. A Friday snowmachine traveler reported the trail near Kalskag was beautiful."

More Details to Follow!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The War

Tomorrow comes and so does the day that myself and 2,800 other athletes have been preparing for physically, mentally, and spiritually for a long time.  2013 Ironman Cozumel.  The day represents what, to many people, appears to be an insurmountable physical challenge.  What will challenge the competitors most is the mental battle.  The war with our personal inner demons.  Yes, we all have them.  That nagging voice inside our head which tells us we are not good enough, that we are weak, and that we will fail.  That part of us which is a coward, weak, wanting to take the easy road, a quitter, and full of doubt will try to win the war during race day tomorrow. 

Due to high winds, the swim portion of the race has been modified at the last minute.  It has also been reduced from 2.4 miles to 1.9 miles.  While this will shorten the swim and allow the swim to be with the current, instead of against, it will also create significant last minute chaos.  The trick to the swim is always to STAY CALM.  There will be 2,600 or so people all starting to swim at the exact same time-7:00am.  All the age group athletes, of which 25% are women and 75% are men, will take off with the gun shot.  We all swim along the same course keeping the buoys in sight as best we can with the waves.  Swimming 2.4 miles is not an easy task but swimming while being kicked in the head and having your feet grabbed makes the experience much more complex and memorable.  For myself, I have not been in the swimming pool for at least six months.  At home in Kotzebue, there is no pool.  I have trained for the past few months on a Vasa Trainer which simulates the conditions needed to work my swimming muscles.  I actually have no idea how I will fare in the swim with the entirely ‘synthetic’ training routine.   This is my fifth Ironman, so I have the benefit of having the confidence in knowing that I will absolutely finish the swim.   The question is in what amount of time and whether my time/technique will have improved or not.  My best IM swim time was about 1:15 (the shortened swim course will reduce this by about 15 minutes).  I would like to finish in 1 hour.   I will be focusing on my technique, on even and steady breathing, and on finding a swimmer just ahead of me to pace off of.   The water is too warm to allow for wetsuits.  For additional excitement there apparently are invisible jellyfish that bite like horseflies.   I don’t think that is a joke.

The bike course consists of three laps around Cozumel.  The course is entirely flat and the pavement is in good condition.  The difficult component of the course will be the strong winds.  The key for me will be to start off easy.  In the excitement, many people hit the bike course hard and then suffer from downgraded power output for the remainder of the day.  I will take the first 10 miles to get my legs warmed up and moving good.  I am aiming for a negative split which will allow me to finish feeling positive and strong.  The course is going to be crowded but this will also keep things interesting with more riders to pace with.  The bike segment is important for getting in key nutrition which will maintain strength not only during the bike but the run as well.  For me, bike nutrition has been tough.  Lately, anything has been hard to get down without GI consequences.  The course nutrition will be untested for me.  Without calories, the body will eventually run out of vital glycogen and the dreaded ‘Bonk’ will occur.  Therefore, getting in gels, electrolytes, and water will be my focus during the bike.  My goal for the bike course will be to average 18 mph-but this is hard to predict as it is so dependent on the wind conditions.  I would like to finish in under 6 hours.   Faster if possible!  I have trained inside on my computrainer all year putting in hours after hours on my bike.  Amelia thankfully kept me company for most of those hours!   I am really looking forward to a fun and gorgeous Oceanside ride on a real course.

It is hilarious to watch racers getting off the bike and onto the run.  I remember one year I was lucky enough to have John with me to cheer me on.  He was waiting for me near the bike dismount and I was so happy to see him I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have.  I had to stop suddenly to dismount but couldn’t get my shoe out of my pedal and promptly fell right over!   I was hoping John didn’t recognize me. 
It typically takes 2-3 miles of running to get your legs back and feeling strong (or numb enough to not be bothered by them).  That moment when you hand your bike over to the volunteers and take off your bike shoes feels that pure heaven.  At least until you throw on your run shoes and realize you have 26 more miles to go.  The run course is also three laps on a single road out and back so it will have many racers and spectators.  It is surprising how often you find yourself completely alone on the usual 1-2 lap courses.  This will be a refreshing change.  The run is a massive mental mountain.  It becomes SO EASY to slow the pace down, to walk through the aid stations, to just stop enough to reduce the pain momentarily.  People on the course want to talk to you for distraction which can be either good or bad depending on how it impact the target pace.  I am not a fast runner.  I also had ankle surgery in May which removed an OCD Lesion (Osteochondrial Defect).  Recovery from that surgery was painstakingly slow.  Working closely with my coach, Rebecca McKee, we decided our first task in racing IM Cozumel was to arrive at the start line uninjured.  Not as easy as it sounds.  We therefore had to be very conservative in our training approach for running.  This meant not putting in as many hours as needed, not being as intense as needed, and taking it easier than in the past.  My longest run, two-three weeks ago, was 15 miles.  Once again, I have to rely on my past completion to know that YES I will complete the 26.4 mile run but it will not be fast.  My training pace was a mere 6 mph.  My goal is to maintain that throughout the course.  This would have me finish the run course in 4:30. 

I like to have a mental plan for the run.  There are many people in my life over the years that have helped me to be the person that I am and have supporting me along the way.  I have a list-actually.  Every mile is dedicated to a different person (a few people have multiple miles!).  In my foggy brain, I reach out and say thank you to those people in my life.  I have actual conversations about common points of interest.  This inspires me when most needed and make me feel tremendously grateful for all things in my life. 

While I may be racing against the other random people on this course the biggest battle is always with myself.  It is what being an IronWOMAN is all about.  When I triumphantly cross the finish line I will have pushed back my inner demons until next time.  I will have shown my self-doubt, fear, and cowardice who is boss.  I will get to honor all the beautiful, precious, and incredible moments in life.   I will then get to watch every other racer out there crossing the finish line do the exact same thing.  Some will be jumping up and down, some will be crying, some will collapse, all will have something in common.  

You can follow the race at  Bib # 1821.  Thanks for your support! 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dancing with Caribou

During the past few days there have been thousands of Caribou in the hills.  Every corner has another breathtaking view.  The dogs get pretty excited but still manage to stay focused-unlike me.  The Caribou get nervous with the dogs and just start to run in any direction.