Iditarod 2018 – Part 1: The Start to Rainy Pass
March 23, 2018
The Iditarod is unlike any other race I have ever participated in. The fan base is unreal, and the race has a start that is really set up to showcase the sport of mushing, and show off the participants of the race. The “ceremonial start” takes place on Saturday in downtown Anchorage, and is setup entirely to raise money and support the relationship between the Iditarod and the Anchorage downtown business district. The mushers park their dog trucks in the heart of downtown, and hookup a 12 dog team to mush 4th Avenue and the streets of Anchorage with an “Iditarider” (a person who bids to ride in your sled for the 12 mile, urban mush). It is an absolute blast for everyone involved (although a bit stressful as you have to guide your team through tunnels, over bridges, and around crowds of thousands of people). We train our team for many different situations that we will potentially experience, but we do not have a lot of opportunities to teach our dogs how to run through crowds. Thankfully, our dogs were on their best behavior for the weekend, and did a perfect job running through town. Knox and Pogo took charge in lead, and were a great combo, as Knox tends to be overly-friendly and run right at people, and Pogo tends to be very serious and determined (Knox would take the team right for a cheering crowd of 300, and at the last minute, Pogo would put his head down and remind Knox to power through the middle and not stop to say hi). Katti was on the second, “tag sled,” and said that I “need to run this every year just for the Anchorage mush!”
Mushing through the BLM during the ceremonial start (notice Katti’s beer)
The official, Sunday start takes place on Willow Lake. 67 dog trucks drove out onto the frozen lake between 10 and noon, and began prepping their sleds and dogs. Although you do not have the proximity of large buildings like you do in Anchorage, there are still thousands of people that show up for the start, and hundreds of snowmachines, paragliders and planes. So, it is loud and chaotic, and feels like the beginning of something crazy. A few of our team members were calm and collected, but many of the dogs were a bit stressed by the noise and closeness of other trucks and teams. They had started to suffer a stomach bug a few days prior, and very few of them felt much like their pre-run meal (this would become a theme for the first half of Iditarod, and made for one of the toughest things I have had to deal with in a race).
An important part of prepping for the start of a race like Iditarod, is making sure that you have a very consistent hookup routine, and have as many details as organized as possible. For instance, we arrived to the start with our race sled 100% packed; my personal race gear all organized and in one box for me to put on and put away; and the dog gear all prepped and in its own box. Basically, we don’t want to have to think too hard about any details on start day, and want to act purely on instinct and good organization.
A handful of our close friends and family came out to help us hold the team (the dogs get pretty amped to go), and wish us luck and cheer us on. We had a great crew that helped make our walk to the start line, and our exit onto the trail, a breeze. Knox and Pogo were again in lead, this time in front of a full team of 16 dogs. Although the outbound trail is fairly straight forward, following a series of lakes and swamps to the Susitna River, the addition of thousands of fans and “tailgaters,” make it an interesting challenge for the dogs. People setup camp on these lakes, and have huge bonfires and parties to watch the race go by. Their energy is amazing, and they hand out powerade, beer and hotdogs to every passing musher. However, the noise of music, machines, and screaming voices can be quite distracting for an inexperienced team (like I mentioned earlier, there is no place we can train for this situation other than in the race itself). Knox and Pogo did an amazing job leading the team through 25 miles of partying, and the other young team members were really encouraged by their confidant leadership, and passed the numerous obstacles with little to no hesitation.
After the 25 mile mark, the race trail bends north and starts up the Yentna River. This intersection, known as “Scary Tree,” cannot be mistaken, as you pass about 300 energized spectators (aided by more than a little alcohol, no doubt), who are burning about 10 different fires, shooting off fireworks for every approaching team, and also racing snowmachines and “buzzing” the dog teams with powered paragliders (it is absolutely WILD to run past their party!). The trail then quiets dramatically, and it feels like you are returning to Alaska. Because we start the race in two minute intervals, teams tend to be quite close to each other at this point, and I think we passed, and were passed, by well over 15 teams for the next 10 miles.
Approaching “Scary Tree”
Yentna is the first checkpoint on the race, at mile 34, and is a spot to drop off our race bib (we get it back 20 miles before the finish, in Safety), and grab a half bale of straw if you plan to camp further down the trail (as I did). We then try and leave the chaos of people and other teams as quickly as possible and get back on the trail. I started this race with a very clear plan, and a schedule that put me resting the dogs out of checkpoints for the first 150 miles of the race. This would allow for a much better quality of rest for the dogs, and coincidentally give me a chance to sleep as well, easing into what would be my toughest race ever with a little extra rest (it paid off dramatically down the trail).
Katti and I do a lot of camping with our dogs in training, and our race team is expert at sleeping on straw regardless of how “not tired” they happen to be. After 45 miles of running, I called the dogs off the main trail and onto a smaller track, and setup camp to eat and sleep for about four hours. Although Elton immediately started to bark and scream as other teams went by, they soon settled down and curled into their straw. After a quick snack and light meal (which only about half of them chose to eat), they were peacefully resting. I then methodically went through my routine of eating, prepping my personal water, and getting my gear organized for the next leg. This becomes an important part of every musher’s camp, and saves time and stress as you wake up from a short nap (you want to have to do as little thinking with your tired brain as possible). I managed to actually sleep for about 45 minutes on this first camp, which for me, is a record (I am usually way too excited at the beginning of a race to do any sleeping).
Our next leg of the race took us through Skwentna (where we made a brief stop to grab straw and food), and up towards Finger Lake. After about 45 miles, I started looking for our second camping spot. Although some people tend to stop right at the side of the trail to rest, I prefer to find a track and move far off the main trail, giving more room to passing teams and better rest for my dogs. At about 6 am, I spotted a perfect off shoot, that clearly reconnected to the main race trail after only a hundred yards (this is a pretty important detail you don’t want to overlook: make sure your side trail returns at some point!). This particular detour took us right over a little wooded island in the middle of a swamp, and made for a perfect resting spot in the trees. The dogs were snacked, bedded down and sleeping within about 10 minutes, and I went to work on their meal and my checkpoint routine. As the sun started to rise, I got to watch team after team roll by, and get a good look at other people’s dogs. The beginning of Iditarod is so interesting, because every competitor has a different schedule, and a lot of very good teams run the first 150 miles pretty conservatively (making sure to keep their team well rested as they go over the Alaska Range). On this 5 hour rest, I got about 2 ½ hours of sleep, and all of the dogs got some type of food (what I had at first thought was a slight stomach bug and some amount of food pickiness, appeared to be a bit more serious, and about half of the team were on anti-diarrheal meds at this point). Although the dog’s stomachs were bothering them, their attitude towards running was exceptional, and they were loving every minute of the trail!
Pulling off the straw at 11 am, we were setup to run through the heat of the day into the Alaska Range. Although this is something we try and avoid, especially in the southern part of the state, this upcoming section of trail would take us through tight mountain passes and deep river gullies (some heavily wooded), so I knew we would be protected from the direct sun for most of this run. A part of this trail includes the infamous “Happy River Steps,” a series of steep drops that deposit you and your team from an alpine swamp onto a frozen river valley. I figured that if there was any place in the race that I may want to have a slightly warm, and slow moving dog team, this would be it. In the end, it did not matter that the conditions were warm, the dogs seemed to fly down every hill as if it were the first one they had ever seen (no holding back).
Leaving the checkpoint of Finger Lake, after a five minute stop to sign in and out, we immediately drop onto a small creek. This 300 foot drop gives you a quick taste of the upcoming trail; moderately out of control drops where every attempt to use your brake is completely pointless. What happens on these steep descents, is that every team rides their brake trying to slow their own team, and subsequently tears up the trail for the next team. Every passing musher has the same reaction: ride your drag and brake with everything you have. Therefore, the 40th team traveling through this area has nothing but a sugar luge to follow, and your brake does nothing. Thankfully, the dogs don’t usually have very good footing, and often don’t pull too hard to get down the hill (don’t worry, though, every hill still felt plenty fast).
Mushing towards Finger Lake
The run from Finger Lake to Rainy Pass is perhaps one of the most beautiful in the entire race. In between the white-knuckle drops, we travel over alpine lakes surrounded my amazing peaks that loom thousands of feet above us. The rock formations, and shape of the peaks, is truly stunning, and at points you have to remember to hold on to your sled and watch the dogs (just as I would relax, there would be another windy, wooded section of trail that would hold multiple surprises to bring my attention back to the trail). You are aware that you are approaching the Happy River, as you work through the trees and look off to the north to see the trees drop away and a very obvious valley emerge. It takes a surprisingly long time to actually reach the valley, so the whole time you mush in dread of the upcoming drop. A side note: I last ran this section in 2008, and much preferred doing it in the dark, not being able to see what lay in store (this piece of trail is not something you want to try and prepare for, mentally or physically). So, for about two miles I could see this approaching valley, and with every turn, I was anticipating a drop. When they finally arrived, I was not disappointed. I could look through the trees and see the river bed about 750 feet below, and know that in about 1000 feet of trail, we would be on the river (wahoo!).
I have to give a lot of credit to our dogs for being experts at navigating their lines, and understanding exactly how to place their feet around soft holes and deep trenches. They handled the steep drops with no issues, and I was somehow able to keep the sled upright behind them. Together, we landed onto the Happy River with no incident and only a few tangled tuglines. The dogs got a quick break, a big pet, and I got all of our gear quickly sorted out (there were three more teams close behind me, so we didn’t stay stopped for long). The remaining 16 miles to Rainy Pass felt like a breeze. Although there were more steep climbs and steep drops, nothing felt close to the “Steps.”