Northern Pines mid distance race - tough weekend for me.
I've run the trail before on a training run so I remembered some of the tricky/tight turns and what to expect. I actively chose to only run 6 (instead of the maximum 8 allowed in the class) because of this and because of the rain we got Tuesday. I knew it would be a really hard, fast, scary trail and I remembered the trail being a lot of sideways tilting too and really technical in a lot of spots from my previous run there.
Loaf and Legend both have sore shoulders that I haven't been able to work out with massage and rest over the past 3+ weeks, so I borrowed Grinker from my friends at Happy Howling Huskies (yes, that Grinker) and he was amazing. Flounder got a pretty bad pawpad scrape on Thursday's training run but he was still running fine so he got booties.
Things started out fast and scary. The first section is windy and hilly for about 2.5 miles before you pop out on the snowmobile trail. Adding to this is a lot of the sideways tilting I was talking about. Right after takeoff before you go into the woods, the trail takes you on several wide S-curves across a field. The last curve was an icy and fast curve to the right that tilted to the left, primo for tumbling. I couldn't trust myself to take it at speed even though that may have helped things and was riding my drag and even the bar brake most of those scary curves. Then you go into the woods and are dodging trees as you try to keep yourself upright on the back and forth tilts, accompanied by some deep grooves in the trail that your sled would slip into. These were especially problematic on turns, since you would try to take the turn and lean into it and then your sled would slam into the groove and want to tip towards the outside of the turn. Nearly tipped many times and amazed I didn't.
Finally after a sharp left we got to the snowmobile trail. It was a big relief and I could finally relax a bit being on a flat trail. The dogs were booking it between the hard trail and the race runner plastic, so I tried to keep them around 12mph and we maintained that for a good deal of the race. I have been shooting for 10-12mph this year and we have been able to keep up with that pretty consistently. Later on the snowmobile trail was a section a few miles long of head on passing, and while it was a nice wide trail, there was a LOT of head on passing. My dogs are trained to stay on the right side of the trail, but some of the incoming teams would be on their left side, making for some really dicey head ons. This was Compass's first time doing head on passes, and I don't know if Tupac has had any head on passing practice before I got him but either way this would be his first time doing it with me. I really wished I had Legend at this point because she is pro at it. Regardless, we got through the snowmobile trail section and went back into the woods.
Cue lots more side to side trail and deep sled-tipping grooves. I struggled to keep my sled on the trail in a lot of sections because the trail was so tilted and my race runners were so slick. I was riding the drag and keeping the team at more of 9-11mph through this section because that's as fast as I dared. Then, we take the right turn and start lap 2 - the trail is 2 laps of about 16 miles.
Lap 2 wasn't as scary now that the dogs weren't so hot. We were still moving pretty good around 10-11mph. Got to the snowmobile trail, snacked them quickly, and got going again. We had a few more head on passes but they went pretty smoothly. By the end of the snowmobile section, we had definitely slowed down. We enter the woods and Tupac starts slacking on his line. I call him up and encourage him for a few miles, but he keeps making Compass drag him and caused a tangle so I stop and swap him with Grinker. Out of this team, Compass and Tupac are leaders I trust, Panther can lead but sometimes shies away and bunches up the team, and Flounder can lead in a pinch but his eyesight has gotten really bad lately and I really don't want to put him in that position if I don't have to. Croissant can't lead because she is too distracted, but I think she will grow out of this with maturity. Regardless, the only option was Grinker who I had never run let alone had lead for me before and I had to just trust him and Bucky who told me he leads well. After one very interesting leaf, he charged forward with Compass and Tupac straightened out and started pulling again, relieved to be out of lead. I think all the head on passing was really mentally exhausting for him and he was just done making decisions. But the team really just felt like it was falling apart in my head. Panther was slacking, Compass seemed like he was about at his leading limit too, but I really needed him to pull it out so I just went slow for him. Flounder was struggling a lot because of his vision - anytime we went down a hill, the ground would drop out from under him and he would put on the brakes. Any time we went up a hill, the ground would rise up in front of him and he would trip. I had to really watch him and make sure we went slow enough for him. The snowmobile trails we train on are no problem for Flounder since he can trust the flatness and predictability of the ground, but with the little vision he has now, a trail like Northern Pines was really difficult for him, even with the guidance of his neckline. The silver lining here is Croissant and Grinker never gave me any doubt at all. Croissant I am especially proud of because she is real shy but took all the passing teams and volunteers on the side of the trail in stride.
Not that going slow was a problem. We were going probably 6-7mph for that last section. I was planning and training for the Jack Pine this weekend, which is 5 miles shorter than what we did instead - and like clockwork, once we hit jack pine mileage, the team really slowed down. It got so warm at this point that I was determined to peel off my outer layer from underneath my bib which is no easy feat.
They kicked it into gear a bit more once they sensed we were at the end, and we finished right about when I expected - just over 3 hours for 32 miles. So to be fair, we were consistent with our training. But I know we can finish stronger than what happened yesterday. Frustratingly, Flounder ONLY lost a boot on the foot i was trying to protect so his scrape got re-injured. He is hurting today for sure and we are going to treat it with some web-med but it is frustrating because he needs a break for a few days, which leaves me with a 4 dog team to train for the 30 mile wolftrack for the first half of this week since I am pretty sure Loaf and Legend are done for the season with their shoulders.
I walked inside and was so disappointed with how the results shook out. I know its important to run your own race according to your training, but its hard to not be disappointed being 20 of 21. I didn't even get the honor of being red lantern 🤣 But seeing these times really makes me introspective. Everyone during the awards ceremony was talking about what an amazing trail it was, and I have to wonder if we ran the same trail. Yes I know they did their best with the rain but maybe my standards are higher for non-spooky trails. I noticed a lot during this race how I would freeze up when I was afraid on a downhill or a turn or when my sled was sliding off trail. My whole body stiffens up and I can't move my feet from the drag or bar brake or wherever they happen to be placed. This is something I've been trying to work on because I noticed it during that first terrifying downhill turn at Beargrease, when I was frozen stiff and couldn't move my foot from the drag mat to the bar brake for extra control. I know the dogs are capable of being faster, but it doesn't matter if I don't trust my sled and I don't trust them to make it around corners. I genuinely don't know how people were zooming around this course at 14mph and not crashing. I guess it just motivates me to come back stronger next year 😤 If we trained more then we would be getting faster too, but its so tough by yourself. We will see what happens the next two races but I am motivated to improve where I can.