Most all mushers will admit to race jitters. To the anxiety that is either visible or internalized, to the excitement and adrenaline, all in anticipation. All of that fades away once I hit the trail, which is why I am even more anxious for races to start, so the anxiety can go away.
In the case of the Mahoosuc 100, that anxiety was exponential as I was so deeply involved in organizing the race. Where there going to be enough volunteers? Where mushers really going to show up? Would we all start on time? What was going to happen on the turn onto the plowed road? And, more than anything, the deeper question of ‘Was this whole event really going to work?’
There were parts of the race that were like other races. Those were the parts that involved strategy, involved watching the team and listening to their needs. Deciding to let the team open up and run, I put the speedsters of Ellie and Bayley in lead for the first run, knowing they would set a fast pace. They flew across the challenging trail conditions of the first few miles, of open ice and thin snow and across roads and around a right-left zig zag of a turn onto a plowed road.
We passed teams in quick succession, Giles and Gen and Guillame and Jaye and Colby and Sydney. I said hi to all of them and greeted their dogs. There was a wonderful quiet 20 miles when I didn’t see any teams, passing only my friends Lori and Lise who were manning the halfway point on their snowmobiles. I kept waiting for Martin to catch me, as he was only four minutes behind at the start, and he finally did at mile 35 or so. As we leap-frogged for a few miles, I would give him a high-five every time he passed.
There were parts of the race that were unlike other races. The trails the race traversed were the trails we have been training on since October, first on the ATV and then on a sled. There are turns we take in training dozens of times that we were not going to take during the race, and until we made it around the course the first time, I wasn’t sure if they would take the race trail or choose to disregard my opinion for what they thought we were doing. All part of the unknown.
Throughout the race were so many familiar faces and smiling cheer from good friends. So many friends showed up to man the start, to help get teams to the line. They were friends who didn’t always know each other, but who were all there because I asked. They drove ATVs, they helped hold out teams, they manned road crossings and more. A group of friends camped out on one of the most challenging turns, with a campfire and hot dogs, and stayed throughout the duration of the race. I joked that it felt like a wedding, because it had that sense of celebration. It was a rare and wonderful gift. It was a day rich in kinship.
The second leg took place in the dark and growing cold. It was my first time departing a checkpoint in a race this year, and I let my anxiety get the best of me. I had to be really intentional to stay calm, as House screamed and hollered to get going again, ramping up Ariel next to him and Taz behind. I wanted to shorten the gang line, as I had dropped two dogs, and felt so inefficient as I moved up and down the line, rearranging. All the while, House was screaming to run again. The frenzy leaving a checkpoint can feel like a different kind of pressure than leaving for the start line at the beginning of a race.
Hyside and Bayley led the start of the second run, Hyside steady and Bayley knowing the way. After we negotiated the zig-zag turn and the plowed road, I pulled Hyside back and put Ellie back in, so we could maintain a faster speed. Hyside in lead is a strong and steady motoring dog, which will be a wonderful gift in the long races of the UP200 and Can Am 250. But if I wanted to maintain the edge in this race, I needed a faster leader.
The anxiety that started this second run fed into their energy as well. Two thirds of the way through, on the return trip back, Bayley and Ellie suddenly got bored. A bit of team fandangling had me replacing them with Wembley and House, who both simply trucked the whole way home. Perhaps these stops and starts ‘cost’ me the time from third to fourth, but at the time I wasn’t thinking that being ahead of Christine was a possibility. I don’t carry at GPS when I run, just a watch, so I had some sense of the speed at which I was traveling, but it was just an educated guess.
The last 4 miles of the race were on a straightaway under a power line. Singing the soundtrack of “Rent” to myself (‘To days of inspiration playing hooky making something out of nothing/ the need to express, to communicate’), I saw a headlamp up ahead. So, I wasn’t that far off Christine after all. I pushed the dogs, and I pushed myself, and we gained 17 seconds on her in that leg.
Christine and I are good friends. We train together, we talk on the phone constantly. We know each other’s dogs and we ask genuinely how they are doing. We helped organize this race together, and help each other in any way we can. To be able to share friendly and respectful competition with each other is a wonderful and beautiful thing. She took third place, and I happily took fourth.
And the last friendly face to greet me? My dear friend Faith Kimball, who was the late-night bag checker, standing out in the cold at midnight with a clipboard. So much wonderful support for this race, requiring long hours and constant work. It is inspiring.
In the midnight cold, I cared for the dogs, I eased off their harnesses and thanked each and every one of them. I held them close, I checked their paws, I scratched their faces and massaged their shoulders.
I am so incredibly proud of these athletes. Wembley spent the night in the house that night, and she was bouncing off the walls with her own form of adrenaline, as if nothing had happened. Heading to feed the dogs in the morning, only a few hours after we had gotten home, they all looked as if nothing had happened the day before. Times like that, I know exactly what every hard-earned mile of training has built towards, those long ATV days and nights.
First race has come and gone. Three more to come!
Team leaving the start line:
Team leaving the checkpoint: