On running your own race: The UP200
When I finished the UP200 last year, I said to Leanne Bergen, 'I loved this race, but I don't have enough dogs to return.' I knew that 2017 was going to be an in-between year, with dogs aging out and not quite enough dogs aging in.
When I saw Leanne again, one of the first things she said was 'I didn't think you would be back, you said you didn't have enough dogs!' It was a good thing I came, she said.
I really didn't have enough dogs to run this race. By mid-January, because of youth and older age, the race team was 12 dogs. Exactly 12 dogs. It is very daunting to go into two big races with only 12 dogs, two big races that are less than two weeks apart. It would take all the skill I have acquired in the past five years as a musher, and all the things I knew about these 12 dogs, to finish this race with a strong and happy team, ready to continue.
But I just couldn't not run this race.
The UP200 is a magic carpet ride, swooping sinuous turns and quiet trails. The start line is unlike any other, as thousands of people throng the main street with bells and lights and so so so so much celebration. The energy is contagious. The energy is open and welcoming.
The events that lead up to the start line build that community. There is a dinner and banquet on Thursday night, so many friends and mushers reunited for the first time this season. We spend the next day, Friday, running into each other again at vet checks, and then at the Mining Journal lunch as we drop off our drop bags. On the tip of all of our tongues was the looming hot temperatures predicted, and the damp trail conditions. But, also, there were many laughs, jokes, and smiles. And, somehow, Ron Hewsen, the UP Board President, seems to be everywhere all the time. As were so many other key volunteers: Darlene the VP, and Brenda Eagle-Ransom who seemed to be doing everything.
We spent the Friday afternoon in the Wal-Mart parking lot, the dogs resting in their boxes, and me taking a nap in the front seat of the truck. It was there that we met our handlers for the race, Jon Brown and A.J. Downey. Jon and A.J. are locals who have handled for the Stielstras in so many prior UP200s, and knew the race and the routine. ‘What are you doing?’ Jon asked right away, ‘We need to get you to your park time!’
Main Street of Marquette had acquired the trail of snow for the start, and it was balmy and spring-like as we pulled in. Water was running down the sides of the road, puddles of slush had developed in places. There was intense debate and decisions being made about dogs feet, about booting or not booting, and about runner plastic being shredded on asphalt. The decision I ended up with was to cream the dogs feet (thank you Colleen Wallin for extra zinc ointment) and bootie, and take off the booties as the run went on. For, as Julie Albert pointed out, ‘do you really want to stop and potentially boot the whole team?’
I remembered, last year, there being a crowd on Main Street, spectators wandering among the dog trucks. This year, because of the comfortable air, those crowds were huge. There were families, and so many people in light jackets and no hats. As Bib 3, we were close to the start line, and thereby closer to the concentration. As I prepared the team, House thrashing in excitement as he always does, I had spectators asking questions about my every action. Why did I have boots? What was that cream? Why is that dog barking but that dog not barking? It was one of the most stressful starts I’ve been in.
Once we got to the start line, I relaxed. I walked up the team, and kneeled to the ground in front of Ellie and Hyside. This was to be Ellie’s first big start line in lead, with thousands of people crowding the trail with cowbells and lights and cheers. She was ready and excited. It was time.
As Bib #3, I knew we would be passed by pretty much everyone in the first leg, to the point where I jokingly learned how to say 'you can pass' in French for the benefit of Martin and Andre. The warm temps had watered the railroad grade at the start down to slush and asphalt, but by the time we entered the woods the gliding was there. Over the course of the first 40 miles, we were passed by Carl, Matt, and Leane. Many of these passes I watched the headlamp approach slowly for miles, and then stayed close behind them for miles as well. We were all pacing our teams in similar ways.
By mile 40 in that first leg, the dogs and I had settled. All the teams had passed us, and we were in that space of quiet calm. As we neared the Wetmore checkpoint, Shawn McCarty approached and ran behind us for awhile. I paused and let his team go by, and said ‘I wasn’t sure if you needed to pass or not.’ In response he said ‘I wasn’t sure either.’ He came into the checkpoint a minute ahead of us, me watching his team the whole way.
Wetmore, the first checkpoint, is the only checkpoint in the race where I needed to pack drop bags and couldn’t work out of the dog truck. It is the quiet and lovely kind of checkpoint I have grown used to, after so many years of Can Am. In solitude, I bedded down the dogs, rubbed them down and snacked them. The vet team did their mandatory dog checks, while I prepared the dogs’ meal, and then after feeding and blanketing every one, I went inside to eat soup and sleep.
All of us took the minimum mandatory of 5 hours at this checkpoint. We were all trying to race the heat of the day, coming that morning. I left the garage early to water the dogs again and to check over for possible soreness. There was a pause where I knew I had time to kill, so I pulled a blanket across my cooler and sat and watched the sunrise, and watched other teams rouse, howl, and depart. House was sitting sentry at the front of the team, facing the rising sun, along with Hyside.
I moved as little as possible, to keep the dogs resting, and even as I moved around them, and even as so many other teams became anxious and agitated, all of the dogs stayed laying down. These dogs are veterans of so many races at this point, that they have learned that go time is when the jackets come off, and the lines get hooked, but not before. The other teams would rise with squeaks and howls and the bark bark bark of the cheerleaders, one by one they all took off ahead of us.
The rising and departure from this checkpoint was one of my favorite moments of the race. Usually the first checkpoint feels harried, busy, or rushed, confused as I adjust to the long-haul mindset of races. But this one felt different. The sun was rising. I had plenty of time before we were going to get on the trail. There was only the small array of gear to go back into the cooler and bag. I sat and drank water. Calm. There was nothing to rush into.
Hyside stood at this checkpoint, insisting to be in lead. I had planned on him leading us out of every checkpoint, to keep our pace steady when everyone else wants to charge hard. I, also, had planned on him coming out of lead halfway through each run, as he has been sometimes less-than-focused after the first snack break. I put him in lead with Ariel, and we followed Shawn onto the trail.
Pointing east, we met a sunrise on that burned a whole spectrum of colors, misting fog among the standing pines and the frosted breath of the dogs. It was silent. We encountered a small family of spectators, sitting around a bonfire watching the teams go by in the morning. I was breathless with beauty and didn’t quite know how to greet them.
The sun burned more intensly. The light snow puffed around the dogs bodies, the Upper Peninsula sun that is a glowing ball of fire was in front of us as we headed east. I lifted my hand to my pocket, and remembered that I had forgotten my camera. A flush of understanding, connection with the team and with landscape, came through me. This was an important moment, and this was an important day. I smiled, and cried.
After a few miles we caught Shawn, passing him I said ‘This is probably a bad idea, you’ll just catch us again.’ To which he replied ‘Doesn’t matter.’
The sun rose. I swapped out Ariel for Wembley in lead, and she and Hyside drove the team with speed and focus, into the warming heat I could feel through the trees as we left a section of plowed road for the winding trail to Grand Marais.
There had been a lot of talk and anticipation about the heat in this race, temps forecasted to be in the 40s and 50s on Saturday and Sunday. But the trail stayed firm, the air remarkably cool. When we passed through the open fields, in the last half of the leg, the sun was hot. Anytime we passed through one of those sections, at the next shady spot, I would stop and let the dogs cool off. Just as Hyside is our speedometer, I used him as our thermometer, and let him roll in the snow a lot. Their appetites and attitudes stayed high. I got sunburned.
Each time, after Hyside and Wembley and others rolled around, a quiet ‘alright let’s go’ would snap them back into line. And we’d be off again.
In the last 10 miles, weaving among the hardwoods, Shawn’s team spooked me as they caught us silently. I slowed down to let them pass, and watched their fluid movement in front of us for the rest of the run to Grand Marais. His team moved beautifully, flat backed and leading with their wrists like wolves.
Hyside motored into Grand Marais as if he knew what awaited him there, a long rest and a big meaty meal. This was his fourth time in this race, twice with me and twice with Nature’s Kennel. I have no doubt that he knew what he was doing.
Grand Marais was a warm, busy, noisy mess. The parking spots for the teams were muddy and sloppy, the dogs resting on two layers of straw and snow. As the vets did their mandatory checks of heart rate and hydration, they laughed as they found Hyside’s resting heart rate of a calm mellow 68 BPM, compared to Hildegard’s racing 102. Hyside was in his element. I tried to dry out my gear by opening my sled to the sun, hanging equipment everywhere on the dog truck. Leaving the team under the watch of Jon and A.J, I went inside, ate soup, and then slept.
During this race last year, I truly began to learn the import of the musher’s adage: ‘run your own team.’ To make decisions based on what I knew about these dogs, and not on what I was guessing about the other teams. To run a rest cycle that met their conditioning, and run a pace that matched their endurance. To, more than anything, not let the head game start of ‘wait, but the other teams are doing so much better.’ To know that the measure of success would be found in the finish line, in the happy faces and tight tug lines of each member of the team. And, to know, that when you are in the back of the pack, it is where you can find the most solitude.
Leaving Grand Marais is where Shawn’s team and mine changed pace, he staying another hour and also ended up gaining a lot of speed in these last two legs. We wished each other well in these last runs, and I didn’t see him again until the finish line.
The night was clear and not-quite-cold, as we scaled the hills out of Grand Marais I could feel waves of melting heat and the growing cooler air. We traveled under a starry moonless night that had me turning off my headlamp in the fields to stare at the glittering darkness around. I started nodding off, and seeing shadow buildings in the trees, as I am prone to do in this second night of sleeplessness. It was in this leg that Inferno ran in point, the position right behind the leaders.
Sun and warmth had done damage to the trails, and dealt a tough hand to the trail crew for when we crossed water and when we ran on road. In this leg, the snow-covered plowed road had turned to pure dirt during the day, leaving a slight strip of rutted up ice and snow on the edges. The team splayed out as they each tried to find their footing, and I noticed a section where the trail crew had shoveled snow out of the banks and onto the trail to give us a slidable surface. As I wrestled to keep myself upright on the rougher sections, I watched only Nibbler in wheel, as I always watch the wheel dogs when the trails get rough or twisty. Because you go where your eyes go.
The last checkpoint, Wetmore, arrived quickly. It was there that I learned how close the race for the top three spots were, and offered my ski pole to Ward as he had broken his. As I bedded down the dogs, they settled right in, and I looked up the team, amazed that all 12 were still there. The vets did their mandatory checks, me holding the nervous Hilde and Oriana still, and the vets reaching under Ia’s pile of blankets to find her. (‘is there a dog under there?’ one of them asked).
In each checkpoint, there was specialized care for almost every dog. House and Ellie got wrist wraps, Hawkeye, Ariel and Ia got therapeutic shoulder vests. Wembley, Nibbler, House and Foreman need extra fiber. Hyside needed extra foot cream. And for each dog, every foot is checked and rubbed down. They all ate, and then slept. The veterinary team said that they looked great. They did look great.
This checkpoint was hosted by a log home company, and the musher’s sleeping quarters was in the heat of their kiln. Every single item I had that was damp or wet dried in the two hours I slept there. Looking at the earliest departure board, I saw mushers 20 minutes ahead of me, and 20 minutes behind me. If I did things right, we would enjoy a solitary trail all the way home to the finish.
I walked all the potential problem dogs before we left, Hawkeye, Ellie, Ia, Ariel, House. They all moved well and stood up well. We hooked the team up early to get to the start chute early, also so I could have a few more minutes looking over the team and making sure no one needed to be left behind. All 12 were standing tall and lunging forward. Hyside and House were in lead, Foreman and Nibbler still in wheel. Hilde had been running next to Hawkeye the entire race, the smallest dog and the tallest dog. Oriana with Ia, and Inferno with Ellie. Wembley and Ariel were in point. They were happy and strong.
We left the checkpoint, and my left stanchion on my sled flew up and hit me in the face, breaking the handlebar. Cold and shaky with adrenaline, I steered the team with the drag mat through the twists and turns and loopedy doos of the first few miles.
At the first straightaway, I set the hook, and strapped the handlebar in place with the NRS strap that held my cooler in place. I put the cooler in the sled bag, feeling like the problem was now controlled.
And then Ia started backing off her tugline.
And then I remembered that I had intended on dropping Ia at the last checkpoint. After that rough section of dirt road, Ia had been stressed and backed off a little bit. Oriana had as well, but she had found her confidence again and was pulling well.
Not super thrilled about putting a dog in the bag of a broken sled, I slowed the team down to see if Ia would ease into it, as she sometimes does. I stopped and snacked her, I unclipped her tug. And then, at mile 15 or so, I put her in the bag, imperfectly at first which resulted in her leaping out, but then cinching her in and zip-tying the bag shut calmed her down. Throughout the rest of the run, when I would reach into the bag to get my water bottle, I would also rub her on the nose.
The remaining 11 dogs showed remarkable patience during all of this, Hyside rolling around in the snow, looking back once in awhile to see if it was time to go again. A simple whisper of an ‘ok’ from me, would bring all of them back to focus, and launch forward once more. I thought of all the times during the years we have stopped for a long time, to teach them patience and calmness. Our snack breaks in training have been calm and quiet, willing. I could see this coming out in them now.
I steered the sled for the rest of the run using only the drag mat, and a light tough on the crosspiece where the snowhook was. I watched the remaining stanchions come slowly out of alignment, but knew the trail was a slow downhill with well-designed turns. The team was keeping a steady 7-8 MPH pace. We would be ok.
One of the remarkable things about an out-and-back race is that you learn the trail quickly. This was only my second time in this race, but the fourth time on some of the sections of trail. I had begun to learn them, already. I knew where we were for the most part, anticipating the twisty sections through the beaver ponds, and remembering the long straightaways where we ran with Andre last year.
As we descended in the sun and blue sky towards Marquette, for the finish, I stopped the team and set the hook. I had no idea of Sylvain or Blake or someone was close behind us, but I knew I wanted to thank each dog outside of the business of the finish line. Their tails were all wagging. Inferno was leaping in his harness. Nibbler sent out a purring cry of a cheer. This was at mile 210.
They came into the finish with House trying to break into a lope, Hyside insisting on remaining in his prancing trot as we motored up that uphill railroad grade. The photos of that finish look like photos from a start line, tight tugs and huge huge huge smiles. I am so incredibly proud of these dogs. These dogs are an inspiration. These dogs are solid.
At the finish line were so many of my fellow mushers, Matt and Erin, Colleen and Mike, and Shawn who said ‘where were you? I had to run by myself the last two legs.’ Leane Bergen was at her truck, happy with her finish and run. I was so thrilled to find out that Denis had won, had won his first race and also the first Canadian to win the UP200.
Putting the gear and dogs away back at the truck, in that haze of exhaustion, two girls quietly came up to me. I had met them at the start line last year, they had come to the truck before things really got busy, so I was able to talk to them a little bit without being too distracted. I remembered them well, intentional and curious and quiet. I was happy to see them again, Elisabeth and Gabrielle. They had been following us since then, and knew so many of the dogs names.
‘Is this Hyside?’ they asked. ‘Can we pet him? Can we take pictures?’
‘Oh absolutely!’ I said.
These moments of connection with those who follow the race are the reasons that the UP is a special race. The opportunity for these connections are so real and possible, as the race is run in such close proximity to and encouraging of spectator engagement. While a great deal of these races, for me, is about time spent on the trail with the dogs and with fellow mushers, it is also about that human element, about how everyone else connects to these events, and to each other. It is a rare and wonderful human moment.
The parking lot emptied out as I repacked the truck, preparing it for the long journey home to NH. The dogs were socked out in the boxes, Ariel sleeping on her back with her nose towards the door. Wembley had no one to bark at, and probably wasn’t interested in barking at anyone as she was sleeping. We had dinner that night with so many of the other mushers, Wallins and Matt and Erin and Andrew and Peppy, and all the Canadians: Andre and Amelie, Manon and Sylvain, Julie and Denis and Morgan, and Martin and Dominic. We took over a corner of the bar, and Julie teased me relentlessly for my sleepiness. We were all celebrating.
This race could not have been run without a tremendous amount of help. Thank you to Jon Brown and AJ Downey for being the support crew, making sure I slept, ate, and drank water. They knew to find me a good sleeping bag spot, and knew that, more than anything, the important task of the handler is to keep an eye on the time and timing, to do that math when the musher can’t. Thank you to Lynne Witte and Nature's Kennel for being such tremendous hosts for the week before the race, so the dogs could get out of boxes and stretch out for a few runs. Thank you to Maria Gaffney and Tashi for cheering us on from the sidelines, and for my sister Rachel for doing the same. Thank you to Erin Altemus and Matt Schmidt for being bunkmates before and after the race. Thank you to Chuck Johnston for holding down the home base through two Nor'easters and playing with puppies and caring for my siblings. Thank you to my fellow mushers for advice and inspiration before the race, along the trail, and for awarding me the Sportsmanship Award.
Oh....these dogs. Hyside, who stood at the second checkpoint and insisted on leading, and there he stayed until the finish, assisted by Wembley's speed in the second leg, and House's surprising focus in the third and fourth legs. Oriana Fallaci was a tail-wagging bundle of joy, and Hawkeye was mellowed and intentional. Ellie led the start line with prowess and skill, and her cousin Nibbler ran the entire race in wheel, patient with the moguls that slammed the sled and cheering the team. Foreman remained, always, a coiled spring of energy, unending. Hilde, at two years old, displayed remarkable maturity and was screaming for more as we left the last checkpoint. Ia led most of the first leg, but got stressed by some of the rough trail conditions in the third leg and ended up in the bag in the fourth. Ariel was a hard-driving, constantly eating, machine. Inferno, the famous Inferno, ran in every position except for lead, and got stronger as the race went on, driving the team with a lope in the last leg.
I chose to travel over 2,000 miles for this 200 mile race, with a very small dog team, for all that I described above. For the love of wilderness, for the love of these dogs, and for celebration of all of us who show up.
Less than two weeks until the Can Am 250. We are ready.