This last installment has been sitting in my drafts folder for months! Time to get it out there , as I have lots of new exciting things I want to share! After the finish of last year's Iditarod, a lot happened... I moved to Fairbanks, I bought a house with the love of my life, my grandmother passed away, and I started up the ecotourism company I've been dreaming of for the last 7 years.
Wrapping it up....
Iditarod 2016 was a tough one for me. For the first time in four years of racing, I didn't have my main leader, Ruby. She suffered a partial tear of her achilles tendon in December & I gave her the rest of the season off to ensure a full recovery. As a result, I entered Iditarod with only two experienced lead dogs: 7 year old Ripp (Ruby's brother) and 9 year old Vader. Ripp made it to Nome for the first time in 2015 and Vader completed Iditarod in both 2014 and 2015. Ravna, Goofy, and Vinnie were the other dogs on the team that had any sort of distance experience. The other 11 dogs: Orro, Princess, Mini Lu, Jasmine, Fly, Hilary, Buffy, Raspy, Barkly, Bitey, and Shelly were all new to distance racing. About half of this group completed the Copper Basin 300. Overall, they were a very inexperienced group of dogs. Although they weren't puppies (Jasmine, at 3 years old, was the baby), I decided to treat them like a puppy team and run a puppy schedule that wouldn't challenge them too much mentally. I decided to run an roughly equal run/rest schedule, and split the first runs of the race into roughly equal portions in an attempt to introduce the dogs to a consistent schedule as early as possible. The first couple checkpoints are not evenly spaced out , either too close or too far away, so we camped beside the trail for the first 200 miles. The first checkpoint we stopped in was Rohn, the place where shellshocked mushers rest, recover, and commiserate about the decent down from the mountain pass over the Alaska Range. Amazing what a few feet of snow can do for a trail. The decent was harrowing, but nothing like the nightmare of 2014. The section of trail from Rohn to Nikolai was snowless, but that was expected. Lots of buffalo poop scattered on and around the trail. I got to camp in the near vicinity of *fan girl alert* Lars Monsen, a famous Norwegian explorer and dog musher & was very amused by the fact that I knew on the GPS tracker that it would look like I was "camping with Lars Monsen." haha. I took my 24 hour rest in peaceful Ophir. I would do it again. It was quiet there, and I feel the dogs rested better with less distractions than you see in busy McGrath or Takotna. I had the opportunity to hang out with mushers I both adore and admire (Monica Zappa and Lance Mackey, respectively) Lance was a hoot, and I was saddened to learn that he scratched there later, though I understood why (damage to his hands was hampering his ability to properly care for his dogs). In Ophir, even after 24 hours of rest, 9 year old Vader didn't seem to be on top of his game, so I decided to send him home and entrust the rest of the trek in the paws of his proteges.
Traveling through Innoko River country once again felt ageless and endless. These stretches are beautifully monotonous, interspersed with unique challenges: twists and turns down creeks and icy overflow. Reaching Ruby always feels like an accomplishment. I enjoy running on the river. Leaving Kaltag is another transition in the race. The portage to the coast feels mystical. A historical no-man's land, where the peoples of the different cultures of the Interior and the Coast have touched, traded, fought, and disappeared.
This section is where I started worrying about the team, a feeling that did not dissipate until we made it to Nome. A stomach bug was moving through the dogs. Princess had not been eating well the last few checkpoints. I ended up dropping her in Unalakleet. After we reached the coast (where I had the BEST greeting ever -- thank you Bethany & Kendra Heather!) I also started to have leader problems.
An Iditarod leader is not necessarily the fastest dog or even the smartest dog. They are the dogs with the most drive, the ones that always want to get up and go. The Iditarod is a proving ground for the toughest of lead dogs. Sometimes you discover a leader you didn't even know you had. And sometimes, lead dogs you thought you had turn out to not be such great lead dogs after all. As I crossed the sea ice, it became evident that a couple of the "lead dogs" I thought I had were perhaps not Iditarod lead dogs after all. They liked to go fast, they took commands, but mentally, they weren't serious enough to keep the team lined up after 700 miles. In this instance, Mini Lu and Orro proved to be better team dogs than lead dogs, and Ripp and Vinnie basically led the team to Nome, with Mini Lu and Buffy alternating in supporting positions. I understand now what other mushers are referring to when they talk about "leader troubles." Ruby has been so solid and steadfast for years, on every race with me but two since my qualifying year in 2013; I've never had to worry about having a solid leader. Ripp, her brother, is pretty awesome, but Ruby is incredible. This year I didn't have her, and the anxiety it caused me makes me never want to do another race without another 2 Rubys in the wings. But you know, you don't know you have a Ruby until you run a 1000 miles, so....... looks like I have some work to do.
With my alternating cast of lead dogs, we made our way down the coast. The trail was fast and weather fantastic. The dogs were steady, cruising out of checkpoints. I switched my leaders around regularly in an attempt to not mentally tire anyone out. Vinnie and Ripp were the only dogs with a 1000 mile race previously under their belts; the rest of the team were new to distance racing as of that season. That being said, we never had any problems leaving checkpoints, and we cruised through Golovin, a spot that the dogs always think ought to be a checkpoint, considering it has all the characteristics of a checkpoint along the Iditarod trail (aka vestiges of human civilization), and it is a possibility that a tired or headstrong team will mutiny once they pass through the village and drop back down onto the sea ice, miles of flat trail stretching ahead of them. Many an Iditarod team has stalled on the other side of Golovin spit. We cruised on through, a proud and relieving feeling !
The biggest challenge of my race came in the last 50 miles. Dropping out of the Toklat Hills into the famed Solomon Blowhole, we encountered the worst coastal winds I've seen yet. It was the middle of the night. The trail followed a lagoon, glare ice blown clear of snow. It was impossible to follow the markers. The sled and dogs had no traction on the ice. We crawled along the side of the beach, bumping over gravel and driftwood. I was a little frightened. I am thankful for my Lupine headlamp. I had OK visibility most of the way, and could spot a reflector from a good distance away. I pushed the sled along as best as I could. Ripp in lead and tiny Mini Lu in swing were working SO hard to keep the team on the trail. The wind was so fierce the front of the team was under tremendous pressure to keep the team lined out. The gusts pushed the sled towards the coast; we traveled in a diagonal line, the front end working hard to keep the team on the trail. Dawn came and the winds faded as we neared Safety, but Mini Lu had developed a limp. The tiniest dog on the team , she had worked incredibly hard against the wind to stay on the trail. I decided she had come this far, and since she was so small anyway, I'd carry her in the sled to Nome. She deserved to cross under the burled arch with the team she had worked so hard to keep on track. While Mini Lu enjoyed her mid-morning nap in the basket, I ran up Cape Nome.
Cresting the Cape and catching sight of Nome is a great feeling. Maybe one of these years I'll be able to cut my run time by half a day and see the famed "lights of Nome." I've approached the town at about the same time of day (mid-morning) three years in a row now and can see the town plainly in the light of day. The race isn't over at the top of the cape however. At the bottom I was passed by Larry Daugherty and Patrick Beals. It was nice to know I hadn't been out in the storm by myself.
As we got closer to town I noticed a blue truck tracking me. I KNEW Nils was in that truck . I was right! He got out at a road crossing & my spider sense was affirmed. So good to see my beau after 1000 miles!
The first two times I ran Iditarod, I knew even before I crossed under the burled arch that I was going again next year. Thinking about ways to improve our performance, situations to train for... This year, I felt a decided ambivalence about the idea of coming back in 2017. Maybe I was shaken up by the windstorm, but I also had new & exciting life prospects coming into focus. That winter I had decided to move back to Fairbanks. I had met Nils shortly after that decision. We were going in on a home together. I wanted to start a business that was centered around my dogs, not me being gone all summer to earn money for kibble for them. I decided I wasn't going to run next year, but the decision didn't sit easy. My life for the last four years had centered around training and racing the Iditarod.
At the end of the summer, Nils and I bought an off-grid property north of Fairbanks with a small timber frame cabin on it. Our home is located in a dog mushing neighborhood and we have access to some of the most fantastic trails in the state. We cleared land, put in a dog yard, and got the dogs moved up mid-fall. By this point, I would have been way too far behind in training to attempt Iditarod. I also didn't have the funds to sign up. So that was that. I waited tables and started developing my business's website. Arctic Dog Adventure Co.
launched early this winter and thanks to referrals from friends, we have had some exciting business opportunities. In January, I was able to quit my waitressing job begin focusing on the business full-time. I am so excited about sharing our mushing lifestyle with visitors and am happy with my decision to step back from racing to focus on building up my guiding business. I plan to start training and conditioning the dogs next fall for some sort of mid distance or distance event, what exactly is yet to be determined. The past four years, much of my daily motivation has come from training and prepping for racing; now, I am finding a lot of motivation in becoming self-sustaining and the creator and driving force behind my own dream company. Exciting times! Thank you to everyone who supported us in our 2016 Iditarod & thank you to all of my friends and family who have cheered and supported me in my move from Willow to Fairbanks, and have supported Nils & I in the development of our ecotourism company. Good luck to all the racers in the 2017 Iditarod, I'll be cheering you all on from my "armchair" at home! xoxox Lisbet