On the Edge of the Race Season
For some reason, on the trail to Portage, I parked the team, and left them on the trail. A tall building, near the trail, had a series of open windows and doors. Entering the building, there was a crew of folks who asked me to help with their project, pushing me into and onto a ladder that was rickety and extended too tall.
When I got back to the dog trail, the team was gone, and the snow had all melted. Chasing down the trail, I entered a town where someone had found the team, but someone else had took all of my gear and sold it on craigslist.
And then I woke up.
Stress dreams have not bothered me in a few years. Those dreams took forms like the above: getting to a race start too late, not having the required gear, driving the dog team through buildings lost on the trail. The dog team version of forgetting your speech, or arriving in front of the audience without your clothes on.
For the past two weeks, after our snow melted, I was training no more than 6 dogs at a time, for no more than 20 miles at a time. To extend the training, I extended the runs by stopping a lot on the trail, letting the dogs loose and playing with them, all in an effort to maximize the trails we had.
The training log and training goals called for longer runs, bigger miles, to stack on the conditioning the month before the UP200. Missing those runs, missing that training, and looking at a team of 5-6 dogs on ice and gravel…. that induced a little bit of stress.
The stress came from not being able to see the team run, see them run far, and see them trot along effortlessly. I was losing the trust and security I had in their ability to take on long runs. As my friend Christine pointed out, after I shared with her the stress dream, I would feel better and different once the team started racing and running together.
This past weekend, 13 dogs were packed into the truck along with gear and food, and we crossed the border to Quebec, to stay with Denis Tremblay and Julie Albert in St Michel des Saints. Denis and Julie live in the heart of the Quebec mushing community, with some of the best trails around, maintaining the trails with competitive sprint musher Marco Rivest. These are dog-team only trails, and mushers travel from across Quebec to train there: Martin Massicotte the weekend before me, and Sylvain Robillard and Manon Moore only a few days before I arrived.
As I pulled together the 12 dogs for the first run, decisions met me with blankness. Who would lead? Where was the remaining sections of line to make a 12 dog line? Who would be in wheel? Who would be paired with whom throughout the team to maximize efficiency? I stumbled around the truck and the team, putting the sled together and booting each dog.
Julie and Morgan met me with the snowmobile to guide us onto the main trail, past the other kennels and driveways. They waited as I slowly booted the last few dogs, hooking them into the gang line. House and Wembley were in lead, House catapaulting around while Wembley held steady. Hilde pounced on Oriana, the fierce female that she is, so she got moved next to Hyside. We set off, fast. The string of dogs seemed impossibly long.
It was mid-day, warm and humid. Within the first 10 miles, the dogs slowed down. They became unfocused, diving into snow and stopping often to pee. I had taken House out of lead, putting Inferno up there, realizing that the quiet trail with no intersections was a great place to experiment with leaders. Inferno zipped into the line when we stopped, and while he was often the prancing youngster, he was also showing the confidence that will guide the team for years to come.
With the leadership experiment, and the warmth, the team was slow and inefficient. They felt kinked and disjointed, a group of individuals, unconnected. It took over 5 hours to run 44 miles.
Admittedly, when I do these long runs, I am not doing them fast. I do want to maximize trail time, as many of our runs during races end up as 5-6 hours, with speeds of 8-9 MPH. But in this first run, it wasn’t just a slow pace, as the team clearly had not remembered how to work as a team. I also had not remembered how to work as a team.
I had originally planned to take the dogs out for 38-40 miles, but as we headed back a determination crept in. I called them to gee onto another loop, to add another 5-6 miles. We had gone almost completely past the turn, because of the downhill and soft snow. Wembley turned the team back in on itself to take the gee.
From that moment on, the team started clicking back into place.
In the next run the next day, I placed siblings with siblings, cousins with cousins, remembering that there usually is magic in dogs that are related running with each other. Nibbler and Ellie, Foreman and House, Hawkeye and Inferno. The goal on this day was to run long enough for two rounds of snacks, to run for 6 hours. So I calmly stopped them often, I played with them when we stopped, and I let them roll in snow often to cool off. I placed Hilde in single lead, to experiment and see.
During these long runs, I calm my monkey mind. I let the goals unravel to allow for stops and starts, to not worry about when or how the run ends. The biggest personal mental challenge, for me, is learning to be ok with the slow pace of time, especially in the middle of a race. The calmness unfolds in the last run of long races, when our finish placement is fairly predictable, and the dogs know they are on their last leg. This year, I am working to spread that calm throughout the race, throughout the runs.
The third run, on Sunday, we got an early start, because we had to do the long drive home. Ellie and Ariel were in lead, two relatively new and moderately experienced leaders. Unbelievably happy.
The team flew through that run, as if they hadn’t run the two days before. They were smooth and effortless. I knew we were going to be ok. I set everyone loose when we got back to the truck, the dogs wandering and sniffing and just generally being dogs. I kneeled down, and each one of them came to me in turn to de-harness, have their sore spots rubbed, and push their heads to my chest in gratitude.
When I came back inside, I talked to Denis and Julie about the runs. ‘They were fast!’ I said. ‘Mine too!’ said Denis. ‘The air is colder, not so humid.’ We ate, laughed again, and then packed up for the long drive home.
Before this weekend, I had begun to lose faith and trust in the team as a whole. The dogs had lost some of that as well. I feel good about the race season, just around the corner.
January 28th: Brownville KI and Beyond 30 mile (this is a ‘fun-run’ race, to run the yearlings)
February 4th: Wilderness 70 Mile, Greenville ME
February 17th: UP200, Marquette MI
March 4th: Can Am Crown 250, Fort Kent, ME