Here’s what I knew about the UP, gleaned from other mushers before the race: that the first 10 miles take place along the crashing waves of Lake Superior, that the crowds that line the start are unlike any other, that it was a straightforward structure, that the challenge lay in the length of the runs and not in the terrain, and that there was a fairly sharp right hand turn at the bottom of Main Street to watch for.
All of those things were true. All of that, and so much more. I found beauty and grace on that trail. I found a lightness of spirit and the feel of the wild, the lessons one learns from long runs with dogs.
The night before the race, I sat with Ward Wallin, who has run the race for over two decades. Ward started talking about the trail, about what happens in each leg, about the turn at the bottom of Main Street, but he quickly trailed off because I think he knew that it was going to be fine. Ward had seen me run Can Am the year before.
The Main Street start truly was unlike any other start line. For the full length of the street, the trail is crowded with people five to seven rows deep. They all have lights and bells and are full of so much positive energy. Bayley and Hyside were chosen to lead the team, since they lead so straight and true and have so much experience. When I reached the bottom, and turned right, I could hear the waves crashing along the shore. I cried, at the beauty of the experience about to be had, at the powerful emotion from passing through the chute, and in pure joy.
The first 15 miles are a flat railroad grade, and those miles were blizzard whiteout from the blowing snow and strong winds. I often couldn’t see the dogs right in front of the sled. Amidst the blowing snow were bonfires, parties, and so many people. After passing Blair and Shawn, we crossed a road and entered the woods.
The UP200 is a 245 mile race, and an out and back of 67 miles followed by 58 miles. The only strategy I was using was to keep them slow and steady in the first leg, and rest them more or less in equal measure at each checkpoint. I wanted to maintain as even a pace as possible, even if that pace was 7-8 MPH.
So I emptied my mind of everything other than watching Hyside’s trot, which I use as a gauge of how fast the team is going. They ran smooth and happily, up the easy gradual hills and winding through the tight trails. I could hear the swish of pure clean snow under my runners as we took turns. I was breathless with love of winter. Early in the run we passed Leanne Bergen, and she caught us again towards the end of the run. She was so nice, and when our teams tangled both times we laughed as we figured it out.
Another lesson that a musher imparted to me before the race is that there will be one run that is not so smooth. Having had some difficult runs at Can Am before, when the speed drops and tails are slow to wag and dogs question what is going on, I prepared myself mentally. That not so great run was the second run, when I bagged Ariel after 15 miles because she was favoring her right front leg. I stretched it out to find her squeak in pain. I tied the team to a tree, and wrestled her into the bag, Taz leaping and barking impatiently the whole time. I knew it would be a slower run with that extra weight, and, sure enough, in the last half of the leg coming to Grand Marais, the motivation was difficult. I expect the motivation would have lagged without Ariel in the bag, but the extra weight didn’t help.
During this time, in quick succession, Andre, Ryan, Ward and Denis all passed me. They all did so politely, kindly, and quickly, with a high-five from Ward of course. I watched the teams respond to the musher, and watched the musher maneuver around my sled in that tight trail. These interactions, these moments on the trail with experienced mushers that I hold such deep respect for, are what build camaraderie.
Grand Marais, the halfway point, was where I met Maria for the first time. She caught the team, she helped bed them down, and she already had food mixed and snacks chopped up. Within minutes of the dogs being cared for, she made sure that I had food, water, and ibuprofen. She interacted with the vets about dogs to be dropped and fed metrodinazole to the dogs with diarrhea. While every training run, and every other race, I am the only one caring for the dogs, I will say it was nice to have help and have a partner. It’s the same feeling as when I have the mechanical advantage to do a chore, like switching from an axe to a chainsaw, or from a shovel to a tractor. It’s just a little bit easier. (Maria commented after reading this post that her trail crew nickname was 'the human grip hoist', so this analogy was appropriate and fitting!)
While at Grand Marais, inbetween settling the dogs down and taking a nap myself, a young couple approached me, and handed me an envelope. We chatted quickly, and they backed away saying that they didn’t want to interfere too much with the dogs. I didn’t think much about it, and slipped it into a pocket. When I pulled it out before I lay down, I found a two page letter and a donation. The letter spoke of how they met me at the start line, which I remember, and I gave them advice about how to spectate at their first dog race. They watched the dogs and I interact, and they heard my biography at the start line. That combination inspired them, of the story of the life led and the bond between musher and dogs. It was moving, to me, and another example of how powerful this race is for all who attend.
Right before leaving Grand Marais, I talked briefly to Ryan Anderson, who has won the race five times and would go on to win it one more time. Ryan said that the next run would be one of the best, the dogs run well and it will be smooth. After the race was over, I asked him why that was. It was a mix of contrast to how foggy the end of the run into Grand Marais can be, as it takes place in the heat of day and the dogs realize that the have been on the trail for a long time. You come into Grand Marais with doubt in your mind, he said. But leaving, everything is different. It is night time and colder. The dogs are well rested and know they are going home.
He was right. That third run, led by Hyside and Ia, was one of the best runs of the race. They ran smoothly and cleanly and steadily. So much so, that I fell asleep most of the time, and would be jerked awake when we took a turn. One time I was bolted awake when the sled caught on a tree. This was also the coldest night of the race, somewhere in the subzeros. Ellie and Nibbler ran in jackets, the two skinny girls. I ate almonds constantly to stay warm. I noticed it was cold, but didn’t feel any effect other than a slight creeping of cold air when I would pull my hand back into my fur overmitts.
The third checkpoint was my favorite checkpoint. I ate soup and slept in the back of Maria’s truck, while she had the heat running and while she listened to a podcast in the front seat with her dog Tashi. It was comforting and relaxing. The dogs left on the team, the nine dogs, were solid and as I checked them over I found no problems. I would be running into sunrise and a bright new day, heading down trail that would lead us home.
The sunrise that morning was breathtaking. The sky burst pink and yellow and gold and white. The air was clean and cold, that subzero clarity. I was surrounded by the beauty of winter, engulfed in that feeling of being chased by the breaking dawn, and of welcoming the new bright day. Hyside and Wembley were in lead, setting a steady pace. The glow of cold winter sunrise echoed for three hours, until the sun had fully risen by mid-morning.
That last leg home was slow at times. It was a long trail, that 67 miles, coming after so many long runs. The terrain was not difficult, long gradual hills and fast fun twisty single track. I rotated out the leaders every few hours, to give them a break and keep our pace steady. With no one ahead I expected to catch, and no one behind who I expected to catch me, my only competition was with myself, and I was hoping to finish that run in less than 8 hours. I watched the sky, the trees, and saw a bald eagle circle overhead.
And then, suddenly, I came upon a dog team. Slow to comprehend, I was surprised to see that it was Andre, who had left the checkpoint an hour or more ahead of me. Andre let my team go by, and I waited for a half an hour or so to stop and snack the team, to get ahead of him a bit. He caught up to me then, when I was snacking, and I asked if he wanted to pass. He waved me on and said only ‘No, you finish.’ After the race was over, Andre came up tome in the parking lot, and we hugged and talked about that moment on the trail. One of those moments that bring mushers closer and make us friends, building understanding about our dog teams.
We burst shortly after that onto the railroad grade again. And, just as the way out, there were so many crowds and parties on the way back in. I met a woman the next morning at the awards breakfast, and she said ‘give us a reason to party and we’ll do it! We don’t have much to do in the winter.’ For the 15 miles home, those cheers jazzed up the team and jazzed up myself.
The last few miles of the race take place at the edge of the Lake, passing by the highway and out in the open. I again encountered a dog team, Normand Casavant, whose team was lying in the snow. When I asked if he was ok, Normand replied ‘No, but such is life.’
As we met the last mile, which wound around downtown Marquette, going onto sidewalks and crossing parking lots, Hyside and Bayley broke into a lope, the dogs all running strong. In the finish chute, they stood happily, strongly, and proudly. I was so proud of them all, as I thanked them individually for all the little things they brought to the team throughout the race. For Taz for leaping and cheering, for Hawkeye for being strong when he didn’t want to, for Wembley for leading when things got hard, for Nibbler for enthusiasm, for Ellie for cartoonish energy and constant forward momentum, for Ia for leading half of the race, for Schultz for her sweet effortless gait, for Bayley for bringing us home, and for Hyside for leading the majority of the race with his wagging tail.
They were happy, not out of relief at finishing, but at celebrating the experience we all had. I was glowing in that finish line, surrounded by so many people and greeted by the mushers who had already finished.
I have said before, and throughout this post, that I wasn’t racing. That I wanted a clean run, that I wanted a strong run, and that I wanted to experience winter. I wanted to have a wonderful time on the trail with the dogs, to be in the wild, to celebrate all the work that has gone into this life. That was achieved, and so much more.
‘May we learn to return
And rest in the beauty
Of animal being,
Learn to lean low,
Leave our locked minds,
And with freed senses
Feel the earth
Breathing with us
May we enter
Into lightness of spirit,
And slip frequently into
The feel of the wild.’