In high school, I briefly trained to row in crew. I rowed in the spring in the sub-JV boats, and made it into exactly one race. One winter was spent in training for the spring, running in the track and churning along on the stationary rowing torture devices known as Ergs. Not a natural athlete, especially when I was young, memories of that winter brings the bile of overexertion to my throat. Memories of the spring on the boats brings softer moments, of the company of the women on the boat, the drift of the river, and the peeled-back skin on my palms.
While ultimately the sport was not for me, there was something that I pulled out of rowing that informs these long runs now. The woman who coached our winter training sessions broke down the 2,000 meters of our races as thus: the first 500 meters of easy pulling, the second 500 meters of pace setting, and the last 500 meters as the push to the finish.
And the third 500 meters? Well, her explanation was not as simple because the third section of the race is not as simple. It is the section when the goal is less clear, the speedy energy is starting to be spent, and the finish line is not there. In short: grit and grin and dig deep, and you will make your way to the tipping point towards the finish. A mix of patience, steadiness, strength, and focus when there isn’t a totally clear focus.
On Saturday, around mile 40 or so, as we crawled along sandy snow before climbing the Blue Ridge and descending towards Greenville, I thought ‘yup, here we are in the middle of that third 500 meters.’
The Wilderness Race this year was a very challenging course. For the past three times I’ve run this race, the trail leaving the start line (and ultimately the trail we return on) has been different. The second half of the trail, up and over the Blue Ridge and through the Appalachian Mountain Club property, has been the same for the most part, rolling hills and steady climbs. I knew, going into it, that the trail would have some big hills to climb, and that the start would have some twists and turns that were sharp enough that the RGO dropped the team size to shorten the lines, and thus minimize the whiplash. It was a big pool of mushers, 12 teams, and included so many champions and incredibly skilled mushers.
Going into the race, I felt good about the team’s stamina. They were steady and strong, and solid. I chose Ashley Patterson as my pace car, as I have long admired her ability to run a steady pace and gain speed in the end of races. If we were within a few minutes of Ashley, either ahead or behind of her at the finish, I knew we were doing well.
Throughout the prep, set up, and hook up for the race, I was so unbelievably calm. I hung out inside the lodge and drank tea, I laughed with volunteers, I quickly did the chores to prepare and then ran out of things to do. The sled bag was fairly empty, as the required gear list was short, and it was only 10 dogs. As bib 11, and 3 minute intervals, I had over half an hour between the first team being brought to the start line and our moment in the chute. Hyside and Wembley would be leading, capable and experienced start-line leaders. And, also, it was only one leg, one 60-ish mile leg. I really didn’t have much to do. The dogs and I were ready. After swapping a few jokes with Shawn, the race marshal, in the start line, we shot out into the fields and into the woods, on the trail at last.
The first 10-15 miles of the race was new, a mix of dog-trail-only on private land, and snowmachine trail. The air was clear and cold and the snow was hard and fast. I slowed them down so that Hyside was trotting, which is the speedometer indication of us at the ideal speed of 10 MPH.
Driving the semi-race-proven rebuilt sled, I didn’t know what to expect, but we skidded around corners and I stayed upright. The line holding the brake bar taught did give out in these first few miles, adding the extra complication and adaption of figuring out how to keep the brake bar off the snow when I didn’t need it, and keeping it loose enough so I could use it. All of this done at 10-12 MPH, of course.
Being at the back of the pack in the start line, there weren’t many mushers I expected to catch. I passed Ashley early on, knowing she would catch me again by the end. Next was Yann Shaw, a happy and graceful pass. And after him was Giles Harnois and his fuzzy Siberians, Giles smiling and saying with his Quebec accent ‘They are doing good, yes!’
I sighed with relief when we passed onto the ski trails of the Appalachian Mountain Club, saying to Wembley ‘we are now in the promised land,’ as I knew we were on impeccably groomed non-motorized trails. We encountered a few groups of skiiers, and based on how they were clumped in the middle of the trail, I knew that there was a great stretch of time between the teams ahead of me and our place on the trail. From years past, I recognized so many sections on the trail, the sidehills and the turns, and the long climb up and then the steep roll down. As we neared the halfway point, in rapid succession we head-on passed with Martin, Etienne, David, and Andre, Andre shouting to me ‘where’s the next team?!’.
We arrived rapidly to West Branch Camps, the turnaround point, whizzing along in the single track. I love this particular section of trail, winding through the woods and bursting through the camp itself. This turnaround is the only chance I had to guess as to where we were, based off who I could see. Sylvain came at us as we entered the turnaround, so I figured we were within 10 minutes of each other.
Ellie and Wembley were in lead at this point, and as we entered that third section of the race, the third 500 meters, I felt that rumminess in my head. The dogs picked up on it, and became a little distracted. They stopped to pee more, Ellie’s tail when up more often, and House scooped up a lot of snow from the side. I felt the pressure of Ashley behind me; not wanting her behind me, just as I don’t like people behind me when hiking, I planned to stop at the Hedgehog gatehouse to snack the dogs before the big climb, and assumed she'd pass us then.
As we neared Hedgehog, I saw two dogs with the group of people, and heard their barks. Having passed so many teams, and also passing so many dogs with hikers and skiiers, I didn’t think anything of it. One of our training trails, the Wild River, is rarely without a hiker and their dog, and we have always passed without incident.
This time, we were not so lucky, as the dogs were completely loose and their owners made no attempt to grab them, shouting at them only. Both of the dogs, big black dogs, chased and dove into the team on the turn, my dogs reacting confusedly and silently with their tails up. As the team tangled up, the sled flipped. The owners got control of their dogs and left. Ashley came by not long after, and I took the welcome pause to snack the team, untangle them, and play with them a little bit.
The climb back up the Blue Ridge is steep, the team and I walking at times with the sled above my head. We paused to catch our breath, and launched ahead again. The snow had become churned-up sugar snow from the snowmachines, soft and sandy underfoot. It was hard and slow going, and I knew that climb was not the end of the hills. As we descended the other side, I watched Moosehead lake come into view, the ridgelines framing the lake, and ate the last of my sandwich.
Leaving the snowmachine trail, we re-entered some of the dog-team only trail, a sidehill that wove through trees and next to a small lake. In this section we caught Becki, who stopped her team so we could pass safely in the tight trail. After this pass, both Ellie and Wembley were a little more distracted than usual, as sometimes the thrill of a chase gives way to reclaiming the steady pace.
As we neared the end, Wembley caught on to what was going on and picked up her pace. The hills became steep and constant, killing momentum, but thankfully, every so often, a long chain of snowmachines would arrive and give us reason for pause. The team would launch forward again, climb again, in that sandy soft snow. I have never had to work so hard in the first leg of a race before. We reached the height of land of Greenville, and landed in the straight home stretch and the open fields of the airport. Wembley broke into a lope, that she held for the rest of the race, landing strong in the finish line.
Throughout the race, while I did have that lull of the third section, I also found myself mentally locked into the long game. I was thinking of how to preserve the team for an additional 160-180 miles, of the next legs and the checkpoints. These were thoughts that were not active thinking, but a deep understanding ingrained into the subconscious. We came into the finish line, happy and calm, myself prepared to run again, and that led to a look on my face that likened to confusion, as I look at some of the photos of that finish.
However, this was a single-leg race, and after feeding the dogs and checking them over, there was food and drink to be had in the restaurant inside. It was a wonderful celebration, as mushers and volunteers trickled in, and as I got to share the stories of the race with Chuck, which I don’t usually get to do as he does not come with me to races.
There were over 70 volunteers involved on that day, to make the race happen. They were at road crossings, turns, intersections, and reaching out to every single snowmobiler. They brought our teams to the start line and caught us at the finish, checking the gear in our bags. They hosted events throughout the day to make it a full experience for spectators. It was an incredible celebration of the sport, of winter, and of these small communities.
Foreman and Nibbler were the bruisers in wheel, strong and pulling hard. Ahead of them were Hilde and Hawkeye, Hilde driving a focused and fast pace the entire race. Young fuzzy Oriana Fallaci was a tail-wagging phenom, with House a mature role model next to her. Ariel was a happy little girl behind the leaders, I considered putting her in lead at times, but knew she was perfectly content where she was. Hyside held our pace so steady in the start, and Ellie kept it fast in the end. Throughout it all, was Wembley, my soul dog, who nailed each intersection and turn like the steering wheel she is. All of them finished content, and happy.
And how did we do? 6th place out of 12 teams, only a few minutes behind Ashley. That’s just about right.
Less than two weeks until the UP200. We’re ready.