The Willow 300 is the first 300 I’ve ever finished. I finished the Quest 19 years ago and frankly it was so long ago, I was so young, I feel it hardly counts. Back then to qualify for the Quest you just had to do a 200 miler. I do have a lifetime of experience reading dogs and acting quickly in situations and that is a huge asset.
The Copper Basin was Will’s first 300 as well as our team’s. It was a very slow, slog it out in mounds of fresh snow type of run with 50 mile runs taking most teams over 8 hours. Other than going slow on the ATV in fall training we just don’t run our dogs slow. This made going 6.5 mph extra challenging for the team and for Will. It is important to train slow at times and we did, to get everyone use to it, but we enjoy going fast and you have to do what you and your team enjoy in the sport. Will and team got 10th place and the rookie of the year award. The dogs came off the Copper feeling a little flat and less sparkly. Particularly Folsom and Pan who our are main leaders. I felt thankful to have Salt to rely on because she seemed to have a lot of zest still and young Kingpin who we hadn’t raced in lead yet.
I had signed up for the Tustamena 200 (Will as well hoping with the lottery style drawing one of us would get in) and it was a tough choice to decide between it and the Willow 300. I had already paid the $500 entry fee for the 300 and the Tust doesn’t require entry fees until they know the race is a go. Logistically we couldn’t do both races with Will’s full time job and no dog handlers. I couldn’t be happier with going into the 300. I’ve never seen such an amazing trail system. It’s absolutely breath taking and you can travel for hundreds of miles, when there’s snow in the valley anyway. Maybe after Iz’s has finished high school we’ll be looking to move into that area. Huge thank you to Wade, Sophie, Sam, Seth, and all of the volunteers, check points, and passionate people who have dedicated so much time to making the Willow 300 a truly awesome race to be a part of. By far one of the most fun I’ve been in. Wade and Sophie were so well organized and put so much heart into this race, for a first time race it went flawlessly. The checkers, including our wonderful friend Juliah, we’re fantastic. Everyone was dialed in and knew exactly how things should be done. Thank you to the vet at Yenta for giving me the various stomach meds for myself. I think they really helped get me down the trail. When I signed up for this race one of the rules of this new style race was that you could have a handler pit crew to help at check points. I shrugged that off when I signed up thinking oh I don’t need any help. Being very sick on the trail having Will’s help was a difference maker in my race. He had dog food ready to go, helped with booties, and had to work very hard himself with basically no sleep driving quickly from checkpoint to check point on the snow machine.
The morning of the race I started vomiting and continued to do so that first day. Will said I think it’s nerves, but I felt very calm and I’ve never gotten so nervous I’ve puked before racing. By Yenta outbound the stomach problem moved south and if I thought vomiting was bad the other was a 100 times worse. Just looking at food was revolting. So I couldn’t eat and drank very little. Thankfully I have a very high tolerance for sleep deprivation and it’s just easy for me to stay awake otherwise I probably couldn’t have handled it with a smiling face. However I felt incredibly weak from lack of nutrients which really helps keep you revitalized out there. My brain was in the game but my body had to be pushed.
The first run to Knik I rode my drag hard staying just far enough behind Nic that I wouldn’t have to pass him. I don’t carry a gps, but lets face it there’s no need to go any faster than quick Nic on the first part of a race. The second leg was very foggy with low visibility I briefly took a wrong turn going onto the river and fiddled around there with a tangle and a hook pull. Again I rode the drag hard and felt very “high” after a strong run into Yenta. The next leg we were moving good, but started to slow down towards Talvista Lodge. It didn’t feel like an on fire type of run and leaving there in the heat of the day the run felt sluggish. I overfed the dogs and they had awful diarrhea on that section. When I pulled into Yenta inbound Salt had peed brownish colored urine twice and I had the vet look her over. I’ve never seen that, but knew it must be sled dog myopathy. She had been leading the entire race and I felt very dependent on her for perfect control and reliability. The vet said she needed fluids, but another musher had used all the available fluids already. So Wade worked very hard to get Salt out and to the the clinic in what could have turned into an emergency situation because once they’re myopic dogs can go into kidney failure. Thankfully Salt looks great and healthy as ever now.
I only had 2 hours of mandatory rest left to take before the final 6 hr requirement at Sheep Creek Lodge. I felt torn about staying longer or taking off, because I could’ve left 20 minutes behind Nic and 3 minutes behind Travis or rest my dogs longer which I felt they needed after what felt like a lolly gag type of run, however we still we had the fastest run time on this leg and 3 of the other legs, all a matter of learning and perspective because most mushers had a less than stellar run on that leg that I talked to. I enjoyed talking to Pete Kaiser a lot on this race. He’s someone I really admire as a racer because he’s very patient, calm, genuine, and forthright. He too was deciding to stay or go and opted for more rest. I was tempted to stay even longer when we were talking and he decided to stay. I stayed 4 hours and 35 minutes rather than 2. The next 62 miles I had a dream run. The dogs poured it on and I felt what I like to feel running dogs; strength, momentum, and flow. I passed Emily and Scott on the river with what felt like a sprint team, funny enough that’s what Scott was thinking too! Super guy, that Scott Smith, great energy, honesty, and just a first class dude. When I reached Sheep Creek Lodge I felt better physically and was feeling again, very high from such a strong run. I ate some soup and like all the mushers in my group laid down for a nap for the first time in the race. As Rick said, this was not a format for getting rest for the first 250 miles. After about an hour I got up and began vomiting again, completely taking the wind from my sails. I couldn’t wait to finish, but after we got moving the cool air on my face felt good and the dogs got into a solid grove. I was confident I could make up the time on Travis on the last 43 mile run. He had 35 minutes on me and I made up all but 12 minutes on what turned out to be a 33 rather than a 43. I made up 2 hours and 24 minutes on him in the last 90 miles. I was a little disappointed with not having the opportunity to get off the drag matt sooner (conserving rather than letting them roll thinking I had another hour to go) and let them lope hard for the last hour of the run, because they were rocking. Oh well, that’s racing and I’m very happy with our race.
I left Sheep Creek Lodge with Folsom and Pan in lead. This will be Folsom’s last major race as his 2 year undeterminable respiratory illness caught up with him on that last leg. I could see it on his face and in his attitude. I’m truly amazed he has even been able to run with us at all considering how sick he was this past summer. We’ve done every test available and tried at least 8 different types of antibiotics, many, many trips to the vet and consulting with no answers. It is difficult to see Folsom at 7 struggling when at 2-5 (before his illness) he was so flawless, so strong, and put lumps in my throat many times finishing in single lead victories. He has given his all to us and though he appears “normal/healthy” most of the time his stamina and recovery rate have been affected because it’s harder for him now. He will continue to train pups, do shorter training runs, and shorter races if he’s up to it because he loves being a sled dog.
I put Kingpin up with Pan on the last couple hours of the run because he was driving like a demon, stretching for more. He had run up there out of Talvista with Salt as well. He performed like pro with the strength and speed of youth. Pan also rocked the last 3 runs in lead responding like the little champion he is and showing me I can trust him to be the take charge kind of leader Folsom and Salt are. I started with 13 dogs and finished with 10. I dropped Flash on the Yenta inbound with a slightly sore shoulder. He had the same sore shoulder after the last run in the Copper and though it was very slight I felt it was best to drop him, this was the first race he hasn’t finished. Unfortunately this shoulder injury was caused last spring during a fight between him and Folsom. This happened during breeding season while breeding a female for another musher, basically the males lose their minds and these two boys normally get along fine. He was very sore on it for about 6 weeks after a bad bite along a tendon. He’s a beautifully moving dog and I think he could’ve gone a lifetime without getting an injury had that incident not occurred. I dropped 2 year old Walrus at Deshka because he seemed a little puppyish to handle the speed we were dialing into, but he rocked the first 240 miles and I dropped him at Deshka as I went through. His first race was the weekend before with our friend Matt Shawcroft who took 2nd place in the Two Rivers 100. He will be solid next season for us.
I’m happy my dad was able to take time off form work on a very busy weekend for him with the basketball tournament in Nenana. Like myself he had fun catching up with old friends and meeting new people as well as doing what mushers do, admiring dogs in a racing atmosphere. Will and I have learned so much in this last month through experiences and talking to other mushers. A five minute conversation with an experienced racer can lend to a lot of valuable insight.