Steel gray skies and the frozen ground. Endless visibility through leafless trees. Snow that stays unmelted in the shadows, and dips and ruts that are now locked in place. November has arrived.
But while November, and all I understand November to be, is here, the dog team and I are only just leaving October. We are still building strength, still building endurance, still building the base that we launch off of. The signs of mid- October, such as Nibbler and Ellie needing harness rub shirts and Hyside needing booties, only showed up in the past week or so. And in the tracking of mileage I keep at home, my eyebrows still lift in surprise when I see the difference between the past three years and this year.
In short, we are behind.
Some of this being behind is because of me not pushing the dogs because of the race goals this year, 100 mile races and not the back-to-back push of 250 mile races. Most of this, however, is because of the warm September, and the consistently warm October. We would be shut down for a week while temps barely dipped below 55, and humid damp air would make me not want to run, and not want to cram dogs into boxes to sweat them through a run the next day. And then the wind and rain storm of Halloween washed out roads and trails. And, well, sometimes I just can’t take advantage of the first cold day because of work. It was a hard September, and a bad October. I did not feel good about the prospects.
But we are catching up.
In the past week, once the temps stabilized and I found a place to run the dogs, they have been strengthening exponentially. They are shedding their summer pudge and are becoming lean muscled machines. I have been adding in more meat, and increasing their food. They are increasing in speed, and they are starting to run and move as one. I have been watching and learning from the new dogs in the team, and bringing the young dogs through the ranks.
This year feels different. This is the sixth year that I’ve trained a big team for 100-mile-plus races, and perhaps the biggest example of how comfortable it has become is that I no longer have a team line-out list. When the time comes to hook up all the dogs, I do it all from memory, set pairs of dogs, and thinking through the line up as I harness the dogs and talk to them about what they are doing and what they want to do.
I am trying to integrate the entire team in decision making, and I have been listening to them, such as when Inferno tells me that he NEEDS to lead that day, and Wembley telling me that she NEEDS to run with one of her family members. I am not sure if this will make us a faster, more competitive team, but it surely makes us a true team.
There are 17 dogs in training this year, and here are their individual reports so far:
Lead dogs: This year is the year for training new leaders, and building confidence in Ariel and House.
Hyside: Hyside is in his prime, and he has a hard time when I don’t let him lead. He is showing he can motor and drive speed, I think he can tell that we have different race goals this year. He has been paired a lot with Inferno, to teach Inferno how to lead. Hyside has also been in the house a bunch because I love hugging him.
Wembley: Wembley is not on the list for races, but is running in training and I hope to rely on her to continue training Ariel in lead once we get to snow. Wembley detests dirt training and thus rarely leads. She, also, is inside the house a lot, as she will be transitioning to being a full-time house dog in the next few years.
House: SCHMIZZZZZZZYYYYY!!! There was a string of runs in October where I realized that House had been leading for two weeks straight, without fail. It’s amazing how far he has come in the past few years, and I’ve grown to rely on his leadership. He, also, comes inside because he insists on it.
Ellie: Eleanor, like Wembley, also detests leading dirt training runs but she sets that aside to lead with Hyside. Ellie has been spending a lot of time in point, the position behind the leaders, where she can drive the speed. Ellie is as whimsical as ever.
Ariel: Princess Ariel has really been rising to the occasion this year. She also has led a bunch of runs, and is showing real confidence in front of the team and can hold out the string of dogs now. She has also earned the nickname 'tater tot', as she, well, just looks like a little potato with legs until she trims down a bit. She shares a dog box with Oriana Fallaci. Once we get to runs where the dogs have to start making more decisions about turns, I’ll be working with her to really know her commands.
Returning team dogs: I have been cultivating future leaders within the current pool of team dogs, as well as building confidence in younger dogs.
Inferno: Inferno is leading. Or, at least, leading as best as a 2 year old can. In front of the team Inferno charges with confidence, and never looks back. In a run recently, when he was in the middle of the team, he showed he knew commands when he tried to correct the leaders. I could watch his ears float along all day. Inferno is also showing how much he knows the routines of training, as he runs right to the truck and puts his paws up to load into the box, and stands in the next spot he know he needs to be. He is a true rising star.
Hilde: Hildegard is also leading, and really really really leading. She is a speed demon in lead, fearlessly charging up hill and down, and is learning how to get along with other dogs in lead. She does best with Hyside, House and Ariel. If I can figure out how to get her to lead with Fanzine, I think we’d have an unstoppable force. Hilde is also inside the house a fair amount, and she loooooves dog beds.
Oriana Fallaci: Oriana learned last year as a yearling how to be a cheerleader, and I love hearing her deep bark bark bark at hookup. I’ve been moving her up in the team, hoping she can serve as a speed driver at the front end. Oriana has shown some interest in lead, but I think she needs to mature more first. She is as tireless as ever, and seems completely unfazed by everything.
Nibbler: Oh, Nibbler. That howl. That bark. That endless screaming and jumping for more. That ridiculous gait. Nibbler is happiest in the back end of the team because that’s where most of the pulling gets done, and I’ve learned from Nibbler that pulling is what she wants to do. She has also been giving the responsibility of being loose around the truck and in the dogyard, and she is showing that she can be trusted. This is a big deal because Nibbler came here as a very spooky dog.
Paolo: Oriana’s brother Paolo is still learning how to be a good sled dog. Thanks to a tip from my friend Christine, he now stays on his side instead of flipping over to lean on the dog next to him. He gets insanely distracted when we get to the piles of snow at the side of the trail. His biggest improvement is that he has finally figured out how to help get himself into the dog box, which is so important because he’s grown into a big and heavy boy.
Hawkeye: I didn’t think it was possible, but I think Hawkeye has gotten bigger. Watching him run in the team, he transitions from a trot to a lope to a pace and back again, his line always tight and his energy always forward. He and I stare at each other a lot, communicating beyond words. Hawkeye is a solid team member, and is growing even more solid this year.
Foreman: I have been running Foreman with Zippo a lot, because Zippo is teaching Foreman how to focus more. Foreman also has been riding in the backseat with Hyside, partially because of how dogs are loaded into the boxes but also because I want Foreman to learn about getting along with dogs and not continuously communicating his feelings through grumbling. Foreman is turning into the sleek smooth coiled spring of energy I expect him to be, now that we are running more consistently.
New team dogs: I have been getting to know the five new team dogs this year, learning how they fit into the team and how they do things.
Zippo: ‘Don’t. Hit. My. Face.’ Is what I spend a lot of time saying to Zippo, because Zippo just can’t stop leaping for joy. Zippo is a machine in the team, his head locked in forward position always. He also barks impatiently for the next thing, whether it’s being hooked up to run, him barking from the very second his paws hit the ground after leaving the dog box, or him standing in the team barking to be let loose after the run. I am really interested in seeing how Zippo acts in a checkpoint training run, whether he’ll sit right down in the straw and set aside his impatience.
Elim: I honestly was a bit unsure about Elim, given that he has not been running hard the past few years. There was a moment a few weeks ago when Elim seemed to have been injured, but he worked through it quickly and has been steady in the team since. He has been consistent, always hungry at the end of the run, and seems to get along with everyone. Elim has been running a lot with Vega, as well as with Wembley.
Vega: Vega almost got cut from the team in the first few runs, because she started a bloodthirsty fight every time. I took her out of the team and benched her for a week, and thought about what to do. I figured out how to communicate with Vega and get her attention, and ran her in wheel by herself for a few weeks. In this way, she learned both how to listen to me, and how important it is to realize she's part of a team. She’s been flawless ever since, including a scary moment when the gang line snapped at hookup and 13 dogs took off, tangled, and Vega just stood there calmly and didn't start a fight with anyone. Vega is a speed demon and has a beautiful lope, and is happy and focused and runs beautifully with Elim. Like Elim, this is her first year with heavy training so it’ll be interesting to see how she reacts to it as the runs get longer and the miles pile on.
Bolt: Bolt is a dream. He runs beautifully, has zero bad habits, and is always happy. Bolt has been trucking along in the middle-front of the team, and has been paired with a variety of dogs, from Inferno to Hilde. Like Zippo, he’s been getting used to New England heat and is always the first to flop down in snow and water. I can’t wait to race with Bolt this winter to see what he’s like in once things get competitive.
Fanzine: Fanzine was off her tug line and not pulling very hard a few weeks ago, and that was strange. She has always been a hard-driving endless energy dog. I brought it up with Christine, who asked where she had run in the past, and I realized that she had usually been towards the front of the team, and I had been putting her towards the back because she was in heat. Once I moved her to the front, she came back full force, and has led her first few runs with us. She did come from Denis and Julie as a lead dog, but I wanted to get to know her more before I put her in front of a 17 dog team. Fanzine, like Bolt, is flawless and has zero bad habits, and I can’t wait to see what she does in a competitive race. She has been running with Oriana Fallaci, and is a completely joy to be around.
We got this. All 18 of us.
A few more weeks and we'll be ready for winter.