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Copper Basin 2015 – Musher Summary

We made it home from the Copper Basin awards banquet early this morning, and after a few days of rest the dogs are all looking perky and rejuvenated. We had really a great race and a lot of fun. It was awesome to be back in a race, and I am super proud of our 6 of 7 finishers that had never raced before.

Here is a quick synopsis of the Race:

Glennallen to Chistochina- 50 miles of soft trail that starts by leaving downtown Glennallen and running along the Richardson highway heading north. After about 12 miles we veer off this trail and begin making our way east towards Red Eagle Lodge. At this point we follow old section line and power line trails, and make our way through thick spruce forest. The trail conditions tend to be pretty soft and sugary as these trails are not often used except for this race. In fact, the whole race this year was pretty soft and slow due to the warm weather (it was snowing and 25 degrees at the start, and only got warmer from there). This run was pretty smooth considering the amount of passing that goes on as the faster teams work their way to the front and slower teams fall back. We came in 19th after passing about seven teams and getting passed by the same amount. The dogs looked great on this run, but I ended up dropping Stoic due to a sore tricep on her right side.

Chistochina to Meiers Lake- 75 miles over multiple water crossings and a small mountain pass. This run is notoriously tough due to the topography and the minimal winter travel on this trail. We leave Chistochina and make our way through more black spruce for about 25 miles. The trail is pretty level at this point and the dogs can usually move pretty nicely through this section. My team did not quite keep the pace I was looking for mainly due to the warm temps and the heavier than appropriate meal that I fed in the checkpoint. After about three hours, though, we start to get above tree line and through some of our first water crossings, which helped to cool off the dogs and get them into a more fluid rhythm. We have really put our a focus on hill training this year, and our home circuit really sets the dogs up for excelling in hills. Climbing the “knoll” (about 800 feet of 35 degree ascent), and the continuous rollers after this hill were no problem at all for the team. Of course, with everything, what goes up must eventually come down. After about two hours of running at high elevation, we start to drop back down the other side of these hills. And when i say drop, I mean DROP. I don’t think I have ever been more out of control on a dog team before. Some of these downhills were three to four hundred feet of trenched out, 45 degree descents with two feet of sugar snow that had no base to use the brake or drag for slowing down. There were times where for a few seconds we were probably going close to 22 miles per hour. YIKES! The dogs rolled through this area, but I ended up loading our hardest worker, Beaver, with another sore tricep (a pretty common injury in soft snow and steep downhills). The last 30 miles of this run follow the Alyeska pipeline, and has a nice firm base where the dogs can move pretty easily and make up time for some of those slow slogs through the deep snow. We got into Meiers Lake at about 6 a.m. after traveling for just under 8 1/2 hours over 75 miles.

a couple of people that are standing in the snow

Meiers Lake to Sourdough- This 45 mile section is one of the more hilly sections of the race. Leaving Meiers at about 1 p.m., we run across the lake and immediately start climbing and are soon above tree line. This portion had some of the best weather on the race (the freezing ice/mist let up for a few hours, and I was able to get a couple miles of good visibility and enjoy the terrain). After an hour or so of up and down, we drop back into the forest, and run along a small creek through one of the tightest trails I have ever driven. I remembered this section from my previous Copper Basin in 08, but it was still amazing we could make it through with no problems and an unbroken sled (the trail is so windy in places that you literally cannot see beyond your wheel dogs in places as you try and avoid 18 inch spruce trees just waiting to destroy your sled). These trail conditions serve to keep the musher wide awake, and the dogs get a thrill out of racing through tight turns to see what lies ahead. The remainder of the run to Sourdough is pretty smooth and travels across a few lakes and swamps and finishes on the Alyeska Pipeline into the checkpoint. Because Alaska has so many vast areas of rough topography, many mushers and rural travelers use the pipeline, power lines and old mining roads to make their way across the state, connecting from one to the other with small, rough trails used only in winter.

Sourdough to Mendeltna- (85 miles) My plan throughout the race had been to examine my team and our run time on the way to Sourdough, and make a decision as to whether or not I would stay at the checkpoint based on the run. As I saw the lights of Sourdough after about 4 hours and 45 minutes, and struggled to look at my watch while riding the drag with two feet, I made the easy decision to blow through the checkpoint. While this sounds straight forward, in theory you just sign in, sign out and keep running, there are a few other factors at play: As I pulled in, I needed to leave George (one of our yearlings) with a sore knee. He had been having trouble with this injury on and off for a few weeks, and the race was going to be an experiment as to whether he would hold up for the distance. A little bit of stiffness had shown in Meiers after resting, but he stretched out and seemed okay. However, as we picked up speed on the last few miles of the run into Sourdough, I could see that he showed the slightest sign of favoring it, and did not want to risk having to load him in the sled on the upcoming 85 miles to Mendeltna. Also, because I was planning on resting on the trail, I had to grab some of my provisions in the checkpoint before pulling out. So, upon arriving into Sourdough, I had a lot on my mind. The first thing that a team must due when arriving into any checkpoint, is to sign in and show the required gear traveling in the sled (cooker, ax, sleeping bag, etc.). As I went through the sign in process, I made it very clear I was going through, and only needed to leave George and grab a few things. It took a few reiterations for this to sink in, but then it seemed to click, and I filled out George’s paperwork, gave him to Katti, grabbed my food and gear, and left the checkpoint. Everything in Sourdough is very spread out, so we ended up making three stops in total to first sign in, then grab gear, and then grab straw and leave George. The dogs were alert, though, and had no problem with the multiple stops, and left the checkpoint in second place with ease. While this momentary jump in positions was great fun, it would not last long. Every team in a long distance race has a little bit of a different schedule, and ends up running their dogs a little differently from one another. All of the front teams in the Copper Basin rest exactly the mandated amount (18 hours), which must be taken in checkpoints. So, for these most competitive teams, there would be no reason to rest on the trail unless their team was having problems. For me, it was important to give our young dogs a positive experience and teach them new things (like pulling through checkpoints). So, our run took us two hours out of Sourdough, and into a nice pullout that I found from a wandering snowmachine. This proved to be a great spot for the team to rest, and pretty entertaining for me as the fastest teams started to roll by about 45 minutes after we parked (it was great to see the front runners and compare their teams as they went by). Camping on the trail works very much like resting in a checkpoint. I start by immediately feeding the dogs some dry kibble and a meat snack, and then strip their booties and get them on straw. Once they are resting, I start melting snow in the cooker and go back to the team for some massage and muscle therapy (certain dogs also get jackets with heat packs to keep their muscles warm and prevent stiffness). The whole process takes little more than an hour. Once the cooker is boiling water, I add my vacuum packed meal to thaw out (thanks Wife!), and then prepare their watering for a few hours later (primarily meat with a little kibble). Sleep for the musher comes last, but I find a couple hours to stretch out next to the team in my sleeping bag. In this particular case, I over slept a bit and spent seven hours at our camping spot (goodbye front runners). The dogs really enjoyed a peaceful rest, though, and shot off their straw with all the spunk and motivation of a well rested team. The remaining 70 miles to Mendeltna were definitely the easiest on the entire race, and consisted mainly of running from one large lake to the next. As I have said before, our team trained the entire season on hard packed trails, and loved traveling across smooth lakes at over 11 miles an hour. We arrived into Mendeltna at about 10:30 after traveling for just over 7 hours.

a group of people cross country skiing in the snow

Mendeltna to the Finish- The Mendeltna checkpoint was AWESOME! Not only was this a nice Alaskan lodge, but they were super hospitable and thrilled to be apart of the Copper Basin, opening up their home to volunteers and racers alike.

Coming into this checkpoint, every dog looked healthy, alert and energetic. I had, however, been nursing some small dog issues that showed themselves more prominently after a few hours of rest at Mendeltna. Simon, one of my main leaders on the race, had been dealing with a tight hind end on and off through training, and showed quite a bit of stiffness getting off the straw for a walk around (I will often times leash walk the dogs in a checkpoint to get a feel for the flexibility and muscle health). Due to his age (he is now 8), and the level of tightness in his hip, I decided it made sense to drop him and get him recouping for the later part of the season. Dome, my other main leader, has the draw back that his feet are very soft and prone to cuts and nicks both in the pads and the webbing. He was off his tug line coming into the checkpoint, and upon looking at his feet, I saw that he had cracks under his nail bed, causing painful irritation and limiting his performance. So, he was also dropped. This left us with seven dogs, six of whom had never raced before and none of whom I considered solid leaders (although, 5 of these guys had all run up front at different times). Looking ahead to the next 60 miles and the run times from the top teams at over 7 and a half hours, I knew we were going to be facing a challenging run. Indeed, my expectations were met.

Leaving Mendeltna, I put Rockwell (a dog I borrowed from Amanda Gecas) and India in lead. They were perfectly eager to go, and hopped right off their straw. India, not being the strongest leader even in the best of conditions, only made it about 100 yards before she decided the middle of the team looked far better. She was replaced with Scorch, whom, to the best of my knowledge, has never run lead a day in his life. He was eager and the best performing dog on the team, so I figured, why not try him. Scorch and Rockwell seemed to click, and off we went. The next 35 miles were probably the best traveling we had had the whole race (nice hard packed trail). The dogs clipped along at about 9 to 10 miles an hour, and despite the small size of the team, we had no issues with power.

Just as I was beginning to picture crossing the finish in a few more hours and the meal I was going to eat when we got there, we came upon another team. Typically, passing teams is not a problem (we do it all the time in training and, of course, do it in racing). However, as we got closer to this team, the dogs and I realized there was something different about them. First off, they were pointing our direction, head on, and screaming like banshees (excited to go). Second, the musher was off the sled and standing in front of the team looking right at our team as it approached. Combined, this was way to much for fragile Scorch, and he bulked as we got within 100 feet. I put the hook in and spent a minute untangling and rearranging dogs while the other team barked, howled and screamed. Finally, after trying a few unsuccessful take offs, I hollered to the parked musher asking him “what he was up to.” He responded with, “not much.” Expecting a bit more of an answer, I asked him as politely as I could muster, if he wanted to get back on his little sled and take those annoying idiots by. Apparently, the thought had not crossed his mind, and without hesitation he hoped on the sled and called his team by. Easy enough I thought. But, the dogs had gotten flustered at the unplanned stop, and it took the next 3 hours to get smoothly rolling again, moving dogs in and out of lead and taking little pep breaks. Not a common occurrence in our team, but something that comes up for every musher once in a while. In the end, the dogs finished the last hour of the race strong, and Rockwell ran in single lead for the last 15 miles (good job, bud!).

a group of people standing in the snow

At the finish line, I told Katti I probably wouldn’t be back to the Copper for years, but after a nights rest and a look at the team in the morning, I am already thinking about next year.

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