Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Knik 200: KattiJo's First Race!

SO I entered and finished my first dog sled race! Woohoo! It was a 200 mile race (well, 160 to be exact), and I'm pretty proud of myself, but before I go into the specifics of that race, I'd like to start by addressing the one huge, burning question I know is at the front of everyone's mind: Will I run the Iditarod someday???

Answer: I don't know.

That may seem evasive, but it's actually a big step away from my old answer which was something more like "Haha! Absolutely not."

Deciding whether or not to attempt the Iditarod someday will require careful, thoughtful analysis of my own abilities, preferences and skills. Running the Knik 200 this past weekend definitely helped me understand distance racing in a new way -- most obviously from the perspective of someone who has actually run a distance race as opposed to someone observing and theorizing from the outside.

Jeff and I ran the Knik 200 together, which was super helpful for me, and we never did get so hungry/tired that we attempted to murder each other or end our marriage as I imagined might be possible in a few worst-case-scenarios that played out in my head before the race started :) Although I left the start chute early (as bib 2) and Jeff left about 40 minutes behind me (as bib 20), I took my time on the 40 mile run out to the first checkpoint of Yentna, and Jeff pulled into our camping spot there only about 15 minutes after I did...

What did I do as I was "taking my time" on the trail to Yentna, you wonder? Well, I had to stop and pull my sled over occasionally, letting other faster, more competitive teams go barreling past me. I also stopped on a wide section of river to give my dogs a meat snack after about 3 hours of running, and check their booties to make sure they were all holding up against the abrasive ice and snow conditions. While giving the dogs a snack break I also made myself a "trail mocha" (hot water, instant coffee, hot chocolate) and stopped to take some deep breaths - enjoying a moment that I had always imagined but didn't know if I'd ever be brave enough to experience. As I rested there briefly on the trail, I was passed by many teams, some of whom slowed down to ask me if everything was OK. Perhaps I looked in distress with my steaming trail mocha and small dog team?

Jeff and I were each running 8-dog teams while everyone else was running 12. This decision had to do with our kennel numbers at home. We were headed into the race with only 16 healthy dogs - too many for one full team, but too little for two full teams. Happily, I love running just 8 dogs; small dog teams typically means more control over sled speed, sled handling and as a result, means less risk of athletic injuries to your dogs. Not surprisingly, Jeff and I each finished the race with 8 healthy dogs. Jeff did drop George halfway through the race as a mere precaution since he was coming off a recent shoulder injury. But there was nothing wrong with him when he got dropped, and he is expected to make the Iditarod team in March.

After pulling the snowhook and continuing my journey towards Yentna, I started to pass teams head-on. This means I was going in one direction, and these teams were headed in the other. These were all teams who had already been to Yentna, decided not to rest there, and were headed back to the start/checkpoint of Deshka. They were doing a full 80 mile run, instead of the 40 that Jeff and I had planned. I was amazed at how fast these other dog teams were moving. While I was firmly on my sled's drag pad, keeping my team trotting along at 9.5 mph, these teams were being allowed to run full out - clocking speeds around 13 mph! This isn't an Iditarod pace, and I'm astounded that some of the same teams who did very well in this Knik 200 race will also go on to do very well in the 1,000 mile Iditarod in just a few short months. There may be dogs in our very own teams who have this versatility, but this year it's not something we're looking for. This Knik 200 was meant as a training run for Jeff's Iditarod team. He plans to keep them around 9.5 mph for that 1,000 mile race, and we didn't see any point in letting them run faster than that for this race either. Again, the risk of injury is higher at increased speeds. Slow and steady may not always win the race, but it should get more healthy dogs across the finish line.

By the time we got to Yentna, it was around 4:00 pm and we planned to stop for 4 hours. In general our race plan was to run for 40 - 50 miles, rest for 4-6 hours, run another 40 - 50 miles, rest for another 4 -6 hours, and just repeat until all 160 miles were completed. This should be a very easy schedule for a young but well-trained team of dogs, and for some of our dogs this was their first race ever, so even though most other teams were skipping the camp in Yentna, we were going to take it. While in Yentna we had dinner, chatted with the few other mushers who had also decided to camp, and the dogs rested easy as temps were in the mid-teens. We departed the checkpoint around 8 pm, and the run back to Deshka (the start line/checkpoint) was wonderfully uneventful. Jeff and I were each listening to "The Cruelest Miles" on audiobook (an awesome, non-fiction historical account of the famous dog sled serum run to Nome in the 1920's) and we enjoyed feeling the energy of our well-rested teams pulling us effortlessly down the trail.

Back in Deshka, around midnight, I was finally feeling tired and happy about the 5-6 hour rest we had planned here. Unfortunately a "rest" of 5-6 hours only amounts to about 1 hour of sleep for the musher as we feed dogs at least twice during this time period, give them some massaging and stretching, and have to feed ourselves one or two times as well. We slept from 1:30 am to 2:30 am and I was NOT a happy person when we woke up. We hit the trail around 5:30 am and I kept thinking the adrenaline of mushing would wake me up, but I was wrong. The section of trail we were on was the same exact section we had run the day before. We were headed back to Yentna. This 160 mile race was really just an 80 mile loop, done twice, so it wasn't going to be as exciting as a brand new trail might be.

It wasn't until several hours into the run and the arrival of the sun later that morning that finally made me feel normal again. Ironically, however, my favorite race memories are from this early morning run of exhaustion. The moon was just more than half full, hanging high directly in front of my sled, and bright as the sun. The sky was perfectly clear and temperatures were cold - somewhere below zero. I was following Jeff and I turned off my headlamp to enjoy mushing by the moonlight. I was silently hoping Jeff would turn his light off, too, so I would have absolutely no artificial light brightening the trail. Jeff suddenly sensed the lack of light behind him and turned around to make sure I was still back there and immediately realized what I was up to. He quickly turned off his light as well and we mushed for the next hour with only the moon lighting our way. I was exhausted, but I was happy. Without the tunnel-vision created by my headlamp, I felt completely in sync with the natural environment. My dog team became a smooth-gliding shadow. I was no longer distracted by little flopping ears, erect tails, or dogs with slightly crabbing gaits. Everyone looked to be in perfect unison, and I was their driver. Swamps, trees, mountains, snow stretched out all around me, and I was just part of it.

As we neared Yentna this second time around the sun replaced the moon and we pulled in for what would be our third and final camp around 10 am. On the way there I silently blessed Jeff's sweet soul for building me a sit-down addition for my dogsled this season - despite the fact that I told him I didn't want one because I was afraid of getting my leg caught underneath and seriously hurting myself. I loved being able to rest my tired body while mushing down the river in the early morning hours, watching my happy dogs trot along, still pressing on my drag to keep their speed around 9.5 mph. This is a good place to reiterate what I said above: just because we're "resting" doesn't mean we're resting! You might be thinking, "What the hell, KattiJo?! Why are you sitting down while your dogs are working!?" Yes, I was sitting, because I was exhausted and I knew that when we got to the checkpoint it was up to me to get busy getting everyone fed, bedded down, and checked for injuries. While my dogs had a nice 3-4 hour sleep soon ahead of them, I was coming off of only one hour of sleep, with no more sleep in sight until some time Sunday night... Temperatures slowly started to warm with the rising of the sun (going from in the teens/twenties below zero to somewhere in the single digits or teens above) and I felt reinvigorated with the warm sun and the end of the race within sight.

We left Yentna around 2 pm, on our last leg headed for the finish line. The run back to Deshka/the Finish was again, uneventful. Most of the trail was river running, and now this second time around was really, painfully easy. There is a perfect, tiny sweet spot for me between a trail being too easy and being too hard. This trail was too easy, but that's my only complaint at all about this race.

As we left Yentna headed for the finish line, we knew we were at the very back of the pack as most teams had run this race super competitively with fast speeds and very little rest. I don't know if our place in the back bothered Jeff, and I would lie if I said I didn't ponder on it for a bit myself. But the truth is that we set out to run this race on a very specific schedule with specific goals, and our placement among other teams was not something we ever considered. In the end we did exactly what we set out to do, and we did it well. Approaching the finish line on this two-day, 160 mile race, with our small 7 and 8-dog teams, we were still on the drag mats, forcing them to take it easy. The dogs literally did not miss a single meal while racing, and almost every single one of them was barking and jumping and wagging their tails to take off every time we left a checkpoint, and no one got even a little bit sore. This race was a hands-down success for our dogs and for me personally.

So will I run the Iditarod someday? I don't know. There is a big difference between a 200 mile race and a 1,000 mile race. (Like, 800 miles of difference!) I still love my 8 dog team. I can do 10 ok, but 16 for Iditarod? I don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable with that many. But last year the Iditarod Rookie of the Year started with only 12 dogs and blew the other rookies away, so that's something... Figuring out how to get more than 1 hour of rest per 24 hours will also be something to consider, for sure, so I'll have to talk to Jeff about that...

I think that's all for now. My brain is still in recovery mode from race weekend, so please forgive any typos you may have found :)

As always, thank you so much for following along with us!!!