On finding confidence in darkness: Can Am 250 wrap-up
The last few miles of the Can Am 250 are wonderful twists and turns through a downhill slope to the finish. The emotions that go with those last few miles are gratitude, love, and a little bit of amazement at the challenging miles that lay at our back. On those miles this year, I said to the team 'soak it in, this is our last sled run,' and I reached out to touch trees, tap trail markers, and knock at branches, just as I reached out in joy to so many people at the start line 250 miles earlier.
This was my third time in the 250. The first year I scratched, and last year I was gifted with the extraordinary challenge of having only 8 dogs for the second half of the race. On this year’s 250, I approached it with curiousity. How would the dogs do? How would I do? How would the foot of new snow slow the team down?
On the team were 10 dogs from the UP200, joined by young Hilde and Gunnar. Hilde, as a yearling, I planned to drop in the third checkpoint, to keep her from burning out too young. Gunnar I didn’t expect to finish, as he is weird with eating at times. I knew that the team was resilient and tough enough to make it through the race, and tough enough to keep intact as a team of 12 for awhile, as long as I did my job of caring for them along the way. House would need wrist attention at every checkpoint, and Ia would need a shoulder vest to keep her muscles loose, and the rest would require attention and care.
The first leg of the race is a 70 mile run to Portage. It starts on a railroad grade, flat and groomed. Once we turned off the railroad grade and hit the Can Am dog trail, the team’s speed plummeted. The machine of their movement become derailed, as they flailed in the soft snow, their first time in soft snow all year.
It is a shock to see such a drop in speed and an inefficiency in movement in the first few miles of a 250 mile race. It was at that point that I simply decided to keep it slow, keep it steady, and accept the long slow runs that likely lay ahead of us. I laughed to myself, and enjoyed the ride.
As the day cooled off, the trail firmed up, and the last 30 miles were much smoother and the team reclaimed their speed. Bayley and Ellie were in lead, and I swapped out Ellie for Wembley as we neared Portage. Wembley and Bayley guided us across Portage lake, a wide three miles in darkness. Once we made it to Portage, I knew that the longest run was behind us in miles, but I knew that long runs still lay ahead. I knew also that a cold night lay ahead, and I couldn’t wait to get out into the darkness.
Leaving Portage was a bit of a cluster. A bunch of mushers were trying to leave at once, and the volunteers weren’t quite set up to let us leave. Miscommunication between myself and the checkpoint managers had me hook up the team too early and we were waiting for 10 to 15 minutes, until it was our time. The team ahead of us was having problems leaving the checkpoint, which slowed down our departure even more. Once we were released into the trail, the team flew and I rode the drag mat for the first 15 miles.
At Rocky Brook, the second checkpoint, I wanted to get out onto the trail again before the heat of the afternoon softened the trail and slowed down their spirits. Usually I find confidence in the daylight, but this race was different. It was warm. The snow grew soft and punchy. I wanted to rest them in the heat at Camp Syl-Ver, instead of bringing them through the long hills. So I chatted with Matt a bit about the trail to come, rested and ate, and then we hit the trail again after 2 ½ hours, still with all 12 dogs on the team.
The run to Syl-Ver is an indication of the run to Allagash. The trail begins to ascend out of the river valley that we descended into on our way to Rocky Brook. I planned to rest them four hours, and begin the climb in the evening light, when the trail grew hard. I also planned to drop Hawkeye here, as Hawkeye has tended to get a little distracted in the fourth run, as he did at the UP and during training runs. Hawkeye was joined by Ariel, who was stiff all over for no clear reason, a mix of front and back end. The rest of the team looked good, all eyes on me when I went out to start to rise them up for the run.
Mike Hoff, who was well ahead of me at Rocky Brook, took a long rest at Syl-Ver and asked if I wanted to go out together. Mike is a friend and all-round nice guy from the Midwest, on his first 250 running Ward Wallin’s a-team, and so of course the answer was yes. Mike and I headed out together at 5:15, and we passed each other a few times as our teams settled in, and then he blew past me about 10 miles out from the checkpoint. We faced that long climb, and I kept my headlamp down so I wouldn't see the unending hills, and got into a rhythm with my kicks and ski pole.
Throughout the training season, I’ve been fixated on this run to Allagash. It’s the toughest run of the race, 50 miles of true uphill as we ascend out of the river valley to the headwaters of the Allagash. Before leaving Syl-Ver, I took Hyside’s head in my hands and told him what we had to do. Hyside has been inconsistent in lead since the UP200, and I knew deep down that he had to connect with the tough head he inherited from his mother Enzo to lead us there. That pep talk must have worked, because he led most of the run, and did so smoothly.
While many parts of that run were smooth, some were not so smooth. I kept falling asleep on the runners, which is dangerous as I could run over the team if someone stopped the team to pee, or dangerous to speed if I fell asleep on the drag mat and slowed them down uphill. Turns out both of those things kept happening, and they annoyed the dogs, especially Hyside and Wembley in lead.
As we neared the last 20 miles to Allagash, that was when the wheels came off the bus. I shuffled dogs around to find the combination that would work, and through that shuffling somehow House ended up in single lead. House, the mama’s boy pet dog, ran confidently for about 5 miles, charging uphill like a natural. I cooed to him and to Gunnar and Nibbler, who were in point just behind him, and I thought of my options.
There are so many things that can fly through my head in the middle of the night, sleep deprived and on a slow-going trail. Should we camp and rest? Should I push them through? I knew if we got to Allagash we would get to the finish. I did look at the side of the trail and wasn’t impressed by my options for camping out.
We passed the sign that said 10 miles remaining. Hyside and House were in lead. I decided then to drive them to Allagash. I dug deep. I pushed myself. We passed Mike Hoff, camped along the side of the trail, in the last 6 miles. He asked if I could lead him in, but as I slowed down to talk to him, I saw the dogs dive into the snow, and if I waited too long my team would stop like his.
At Allagash we found a longer rest, and met Elissa and Erin and Christine, who all affirmed the pep talk I had already given myself to raise the team to the finish. With the faster teams ahead, and the slower teams unknown, I risked taking a longer sleep for myself and the dogs. If I did things right, we would keep 6th place and finish mid-day.
The run home was smooth. I listened to a series of podcasts and Hyside and Wembley lead the team steadily. We had left behind Hilde, who had run like an adult throughout the race, but whose inability to rest at checkpoints finally caught up to her, and also left behind Nibbler, who had some diarrhea and I wanted to go light and fast to the finish.
We arrived at the Wallagrass safety station rapidly. Ia and Wembley were in lead together at that point, and I smiled because I knew we were only a few hours from the finish. The last 20 miles of that run were the hardest part, with new tacky snow falling and a series of short steep hills. I made errors of my own, moving dogs around when I didn’t need to. Bayley and House assumed the lead and took us home, downhill into the finish, Bayley with a giant smile on her face that I knew echoed the smile of my own.
As I look back at the race, and at what the essence of that experience was, I come back to the dogs. The dogs are the obvious deep power within this whole experience, but in this race, with all the challenge we went through, the dogs are the critical part. It is the kinship, power, and love among us all that made this run possible.
The dogs are amazing and always amaze me. Gunnar, who didn't come to the UP200 and wasn't expected to finish Can Am, was a never-quitting cheerleader who ate and drank like a star. Hilde, the youngster who I had planned to drop before Maibec, made it all the way to Allagash, running and acting like an adult beyond her years. Ellie, who so dislikes slow runs, led most of that soft snow trail to the first checkpoint. Most amazing was House, who stood sentry at almost all checkpoints, exuded confidence and power, and led almost half of the race, including a few miles in single lead on the toughest hills to Allagash.
Then there are the things I knew I could count on, that Bayley would pave the way on a good run to Portage, that Taz would be a tireless machine at the back of the team, and that they would all rise screaming for more as we faced the new trail ahead. 12 dogs stayed on the team for the first 150 miles, leaving behind Hawkeye and Hilde as planned, and Ariel and Nibber due to injury. The 8 dogs who came into the finish were Bayley, House, Gunnar, Ellie, Hyside, Taz, Wembley and Ia.
And, at the first and last checkpoint, was the superb handler Elissa Gramling with soup, good cheer, and boundless joy for the adventure. And invisible to what I saw, was all the work that Elissa and Erin Altemus put in as a handler duo, from fixing broken boxes to caring for so many dogs and for shuttling so much gear around for so many mushers. And at all checkpoints were the volunteers who care so deeply and give so much. And on the trail are the mushers we share this adventure with, who help us pass each other on tight trails, who chat easily at checkpoints, and who laugh together at the dog trucks at the end. We are all so lucky.
The Can Am is a tough race. The terrain is relentless, and this year the snow was soft at times and the temps were warm. The first 70 miles were so soft from the foot of snow received a few days earlier, that the dogs had to re-learn how to run, and their speed dropped quickly, but remained steady. The 52 miles to Allagash, all uphill, is a run that is always a hard run for me and the team, and this year was no different. It took the full range of the emotions I possess to run this race: patience, joy, openness, directness, intuition, and insistent stubbornness.
That's a wrap. One musher said to me after the race that mushing is a sport that seems to always be about 'next year.' While of course all season I have been thinking about next year, I plan to spend some time first honoring the incredible athletes that ran two 250 mile races this season. Good dogs.
6th place and a faster finish than last year. Onward.