I've been having a lot of thoughts brewing about how this season went, and how I want to take the lessons I've learned and apply them to next year. We started out REALLY strong - this season, I had an ATV for fall training and it made a massive difference. I threw Flounder on the team, not sure if he would be able to keep up once we started going longer distances and faster speeds, but surprisingly he wasn't the one who would miss out on races.
We hit dryland races hard, going to three of them. Stage races can be pretty exhausting to me, just because of the mental energy it takes to set up, do the race, then pack up, go to a hotel, wake up and do it again. But I did so many because I had three yearlings and a puppy this year, and it felt important to get them exposed, ESPECIALLY because of how shy the Bakery pups were. The travel and practice definitely helped, and Kestrel showed the most improvement – the first race, he was freaked out about going in and out of the box and being tethered to the truck close to other dogs for dog drops. By the third race, he was hopping in and out of his box with enthusiasm and would cuddle anyone who walked up to him.
When we got our first huge dump of snow - we went from nothing to 2-3 feet of heavy, wet snow - things slowed down drastically. My friend Dawn and I hastily made a trail for my team before snow fell, then had to spend endless days clearing hundreds of trees on a single mile of trail. The trail we were able to make includes a turn right out of the dog yard, three right turns over a mile, and a spooky downhill section that tends to get blown over into 3 foot drifts. All during the 2 miles right out of the dog yard when the dogs are craziest to run and hardest to control. We were snowed in for the 2 weeks it took to dig out (multiple times) and make the trail so no ATV training over that time, which put us super behind in our training. I was having a ton of PTSD blocking me from being able to take the sled out, since last year I lost the dogs and that has stuck with me, getting larger than life over the summer as sled season approched and my dread grew. I wanted to get on the sled because ATV runs, where you sit still and have your thumb on the trigger cramping for 2 hours, were getting extremely cold, and I knew I would be warmer once I got on a sled and was forced to move around. We started with small teams, but time was limited as Beargrease crept closer and closer, and I was forced to jump in full force. To my surprise, it was…fine. I was fine, the dogs were fine. Dawn helped me put in turnarounds so I wouldn’t have to turn my team around on the trail, and while we missed it the first few times, just knowing the turnarounds were there eased my anxiety.
But with my eye on the calendar and 2-3 weeks of missed training that we had to catch up on, the team and I had to push hard, really hard. We were training three days during the weekdays plus a run or two on the weekends, which was harder than I usually train and exhausted me. But the dogs seemed unbelievably strong, like they were unstoppable, and it makes me wonder if I should try to train four days a week in the future, even though it is difficult for me mentally. Mon-wed-fri training schedule tends to work well for me because I get days off inbetween – it’s not like the dogs need it! But I needed a day to mentally recover; two days in a row is very difficult for me.
The last Wednesday before Beargrease, we hit our goal of 30 miles on our run. The dogs were running so strong, even though I worried with how much I needed to push to gain miles. But I was on top of the world after that run…until a few hours later when Legend started limping. How was I going to race without Legend, my best leader, my pro passer, my soul dog? The next morning, I went and stretched everyone in an anxiety-ridden paranoia. Everyone seemed fine, except Loaf had the slightest twinge of hesitation when I stretched her right tricep. Her gait had been totally fine the day previous on the run, and I had Dawn come over to gait her for me – to trot her back and forth in front of me to watch her gait. She looked perfect, and with Legend off the race team, I was down to six dogs with no more alternates. I decided to skip Friday’s training run out of an abundance of caution and give Loaf that time to recover from whatever slight injury she was experiencing, so she could race on Sunday.
During Beargrease, the team felt unstoppable. They tackled hills with no hesitation and we really had an amazing run. But as we climbed the mileage from 20, to 25, to 30…Loaf developed a very bouncy gait by the end of the 35 mile run and wasn’t pulling. I knew it must be her shoulder and while she finished, it would be a strict two weeks off for her to rest and recover. Her and Legend both had sore shoulders, and shoulder injuries are NOT to be messed with – since the dog takes all their weight on the first two steps of every stride on their shoulders, shoulder injuries are to be handled with the utmost caution. The typical protocol is two weeks of rest, massage, emu oil linament, and heat. Compass actually developed a slight shoulder injury right at the end of our ATV season, but with daily massage and the two weeks off it took to make our sled trail, he recovered beautifully; so I was confident Loaf and Legend would recover too.
Two weeks later, I tried Legend back in harness for a 20 mile run, and she was glowing with happiness as she led the team down the trail. Her gait was beautiful, she never stopped pulling, and all signs pointed to a successful recovery. Until a few hours later, when she started limping again.
I started spiraling into a depression at this point about Loaf and Legend. Did I push them too hard for Beargrease? Was I wrong for running Loaf at the Beargrease? Will we have to withdraw from all our other races this season since I only had five dogs left who could run? I still had a couple weeks before our next race, but giving Legend and Loaf two more weeks off would put them out of the race pool for the season, because by then even if they recovered, they would be too far behind in training miles to rejoin the race team. And it is not worth ruining a shoulder and potentially ending a racing career for Loaf or Legend by trying to put them back on the team too soon. Me and my little five dog team kept trucking along but I kept having my doubts and depression and it was seriously affecting my ability to work.
As training season ramped up and I found myself spending more and more time on the trail with the dogs, my work suffered. I run my own business from home, so I am only making money when I decide to work. While this means I can make my own hours which works great for training a sleddog team, it also means I need to force myself to work even when I am tired. I was able to keep up fine during ATV training, but when snow started falling, it was more difficult to keep up. On days I ran the dogs, I was too exhausted to do much more than make food and take a shower. On days I didn’t run the dogs, I had to shovel and dig out from the feet and feet of snow that kept coming, or do other chores like refill straw, chop meat, run errands, or any other number of things that would leave me exhausted, too. During the final push for Beargrease, I found myself too busy and tired to do much work at all, and with the depression about Loaf and Legend afterwards, it was difficult to do much too. Last season this happened, where I stopped working all race season and blew through what little savings I had after buying a house and moving. I thought it happened because I was depressed, and things would be better next season. As it turns out, it wasn’t entirely because of depression this season…I did it again, I blew through all my savings during February and March trying to keep up with training and not working. It is a definite issue I need to be more aware of in coming seasons and need to be stricter to myself about work hours, even when I am tired.
By the time Northern Pines rolled around, I found my team felt really strong again. I had been able to shake off a good deal of the negative and guilty emotions I was experiencing over Loaf and Legend’s injuries, and thankfully I was able to borrow Grinker from a friend to round out my team of six. Of course, Northern Pines was a whole other dumpster fire that sent me into another funk, though thankfully my friends were able to pull me out of it within a few days – you can read about that here. https://www.flightriskmushing.com/post/northern-pines
The next weekend was Wolftrack Classic, but I got sick right before and had to cancel. I am glad I did, because I was miserable and wasn’t even able to shovel, let alone hook up dogs and go for a run. Thankfully it passed with enough time for the team and I to get in a couple last minute training runs before Coppperdog. My first Copperdog last year was right after Flounder got injured, and I don’t have great memories of it because of Flounder anxiety fogging everything. Plus I always feel unsafe in the UP because of how remote it is, and how you can’t get cell service anywhere. It’s beautiful there, but I always feel so wary and like my senses are on edge, like I will get lost or injured and be unable to call for help. Plus last year we had to drive through an ice storm to get to Copper Harbor, and everything was beyond icy and I was spooked out of my mind.
The last run before Copperdog, it was snowing and blowing hard. I set out with my five dog team, Tupac and Compass in lead as usual. But as we got deeper and deeper into the run, Tupac lost more and more motivation. I knew he was still struggling with his experience at Northern Pines, where our team collided with another during a really messy head on pass, since he had been less motivated the run before too. It got to the point where anytime we hit even the gentlest slope, Tupac would stop the team and I would have to walk the sled up every hill. For nearly 10 miles of the 20 mile run. I didn’t even have any other dogs I would consider putting in lead instead of Tupac, since Croissant is a distracted yearling, Flounder’s eyesight is going and I don’t want to put him in lead if I don’t have to, and Panther balks in lead sometimes and can cause tangles, and I didn’t quite trust her up there on sled yet. So onward we trudged, and I came home extremely demoralized and not sure we should even DO Copperdog in two days if Tupac was shutting down after 10 miles. But we persevered, and I am so glad we did.
My plan was to use Tundra, a dog I was borrowing from a friend, in lead with Compass so Tupac could take the mental break. But upon meeting her, I recognized the shyness within her, and worried if I tried to put her in lead at the extremely busy start chute, then she would balk at all the people. So my new plan was to put Tupac in lead, and then if he starts losing motivation, switch him with Tundra further down the trail where she would shine in the silent darkness. But something about the excitement of the race awakened Tupac. He was screaming to go, bark bark barking and hopping up and down on his back feet, straining the eardrums of anyone who wandered too near. He took off like a shot, drinking in the atmosphere, the loud music over the speakers, the dozens of spectators lining the chute. I watched him, waiting for what happened Wednesday to happen again, but Tupac and the rest of the team had their strongest, most enthusiastic run yet, ending in a fantastic season finale for the team. Tupac finished in lead, just like he started.
It leaves me with some thoughts for next year. The thing that has surprised me the most is how much more comfortable I feel on a sled. Considering I was petrified of stepping back on a sled at the beginning of this season, I find myself comfortable with 6 and 7 dogs, and easily seeing myself running 8 or more dogs without as much anxiety as I once thought I would have. But along that line, I have definitely outgrown the sled I have. I love my Maine Made Allagash sled to bits, it corners surprisingly well and has become so familiar to me that it feels like an extension of my feet. But it is too long, heavy, stiff, and has the drawbacks that comes with wood – it breaks, instead of bends, and especially with the tree crashes that I have been experiencing during spring melt, I am ready for an upgrade before I destroy it entirely. I have my eye on a Prairie Bilt Bullet, but it is nearly $3k and I am not entirely sure I will be able to afford it this summer. We will see.
Softening or eliminating sharp turns on my side connector trail is another immediate one, but shouldn’t be too difficult now that I know what I want to change once snow melts. I am also hoping I will be able to put some snow fence on the downhill section that tends to drift in, to make it a little more predictable and not a whole new adventure every run. We had to put in what we could in a hurry this fall, but I want to make the trail better and safer for big teams next year.
Right now I am using my friend Dawn’s snowmobile to groom my side trail, but I am hoping to purchase my own soon. Dawn says she doesn’t mind if I use it again next season, so I might take her up on that so I can focus on buying the Prairie Bilt sled instead of a snowmobile for myself, since I don’t believe I could afford both in the same summer…slowly upgrade is the name of the game, I guess! I also plan on building a small dog box on a snowmobile trailer so if I run the dogs with the snowmobile, I can box a dog and not have the same issue I had with Loaf.
I also need more dogs – my plan is to have a 10 dog pool for 8 dog race teams by 2024-25 season, but even as is, a 7 dog pool is somehow not enough for a 6 dog race team as we have learned this season! But, I have plans for this, so stay tuned 😉
And of course, being more cognizant of my work habits during race season. This season has been unusual with the amount of snow we have gotten, resulting in lots more days spent shoveling and exhausting myself – as I speak, we are only nine inches away from the all time season snowfall record! But I need to make sure I am putting in hours working, even when I am tired, so this doesn’t happen for a THIRD year in a row. I want to get a snowblower by fall so that would theoretically cut out a lot of the hours spent shoveling, not only when it snows, but when it blows in since the spot I live tends to be pretty windy. Pretty insulting I have to shovel even when it hasn’t snowed!
We will see where the summer takes us and what I can afford. I feel like we grew majorly as a team this season, and that I have overcome a lot of anxiety and PTSD personally and have made a lot of personal growth. I am already excited for next year’s race season, but for now, I can’t wait to take a break and hang out with my dogs during lazy summer days.