Earlier this week Will and I were deciding what training runs we’d do over the weekend in preparation for our upcoming Willow 300 on February 1st. I suggested we take our 2 eight dog teams (main racing pool) and do the Two Rivers 100 just for training. I was in town on Monday and Will texted saying he’s decided to run the 200. Will worked at his 9-5 during the week and I quickly began putting our food drops together for the Friday start. Being a local event we didn’t need to pack quite as much as we do when traveling to an away race.
On Wednesday it rained and the trails became very slick, fast, and icey. Even with small teams slowing them down was a challenge. It snowed over the summits for the run starting from Chatanika Lodge helping to slow the teams down on the descents. There were a lot of downed trees and heavily tunneled up brush to clear after the weather shift. The trail scout turned back after cutting 20 trees out of the way for the mushers.
Uncle Lance drew number 2 and rolled onto into Two Rivers Lodge first with Will close behind. Will drew number 7. About 40 minutes before the bib draw I was at home still tying up drop bags and taking care of the dogs for the evening. The number 7 flashed through my mind. I texted Will and told him you’re going to get number 7. It must’ve been a premonition, because he did. The first checkpoints are always the busiest with lots of teams rolling in fairly closely together. Lance and Will came into the next CP literally at the same time. They parked their teams and camped side by side during the race. When you race and have good camaraderie with your competitors it enhances the experience greatly. We always have so much fun with Lance and crew that I wish we could spend more time racing together.
Both guys left the CP late. Lance 5 minutes and Will 7 minutes. I said if Aily beats you guys that’ll teach you to hurry up. Richie left 3rd out of the PV CP hot on their heels. In the last TR 200 Will ran I took note of Richie’s nice team and told my dad my thoughts on our way to Angel Creek. It had started to snow and add up. Lance broke trail for about an hour before Will passed him. The drive was very slow up to the Angel Creek checkpoint. When we got there I knew we only had an hour before they’d come in. Richie’s wife Emily was in front of us when we pulled up to the lodge. There was a gate across the entrance and a man standing in front of it. My dad said what’s going on? Turns out he was the trail scout and had been standing there waiting for help for 5 hours having just buried his snow machine in waist deep overflow about a mile from the CP. No one would stop to help this man. He and Emily jumped in our truck to go look at the situation, no one was at the lodge yet other than the 4 of us. We parked at the Angel Creek Trailhead and ran down the trail. His snow machine was indeed buried and right in the middle of the trail directly around a corner, which made for a blind spot for mushers- meaning lead dogs could run right into the machine without the musher seeing what’s in the way. My first thought was we’ll have to stay here and help teams try to get around it. I stepped into the overflow and didn’t go up to my waist as the scout had, but didn’t go any further. Shining my light across the river crossing it looked rotten, dark, and potentially very deep. The predicted temps were -20 within the next few hours. It’s not safe for dogs to get wet, possibly go under water, and then camp in those types of temps. I said we’re right at a campground. This could be the checkpoint. None of us were sure how to make this happen quickly and time was ticking. There was no phone service so we couldn’t contact the race committee. Emily said she gets service at the Hot Springs so we booked it up there and thankfully she did because neither my dad or I did and the lodge wasn’t open yet. She talked to the race Marshall, Scott Chesney, and he agreed. We drove back and as we were passing Angel Creek Lodge saw people had started to show up. I dropped Emily off so she could run and tell the CP manager, Sebastian Schunelle, what was going on. Then dad and I along with Lance’s crew ran back to the trail to wait for teams. Minutes later Emily and Sebastian ran down. He agreed it was way too deep and the snow machine being dead center in the middle of the trail was a disaster waiting to happen. He was going 100 mph grabbing markers and quickly setting up a new CP. There was a lot of snow and not a lot of room to work with. Within minutes I saw Pan and Kingpin loping down the trail towards us. I yelled for Will to slow down so we could maneuver his team around some trees and get him into the parking lot. It was a little chaotic. I was taking Aily’s time and telling her the scoop when a Blazer pulling a snow machine almost ran over our camping leaders, running right over their straw. Picture being parked around the bend of a corner and he just didn’t see them. He’d brought his machine to help pull out the stuck machine. The timing of Emily and us being there at the moment was almost uncanny. The trailhead being very close to the race trail was very lucky and made a potentially dangerous situation workout.
Will only had 2.5 hours of required rest left plus his 18 minute time differential. All 12 dogs were looking strong and he left with all the dogs. Our friend Matt Shawcroft said, “I saw Will for the first time on the trail he was going up a hill just rocking.” (Head on pass) I thought good. They’re doing their thing. Dad and I cleaned up Will’s straw and used booties then headed back to Two Rivers. The drive made me a little sleepy and dad looked really tired. Handlers don’t get to sleep either though handling is far easier than racing it’s still a big effort. We took the bags of straw to the transfer site and stopped to look at part of the trail that goes under Jenny M. bridge. My dad asked if I was sure this was the way they’d be coming. We didn’t see any markers and with all the snow there was no trail visible. Then I spotted a marker. With so much fresh snow and massive hill climbing my dad thought it would take Will awhile. I had a feeling he’d be faster. We came back to the house and my friend Juliah, who ran the 100, was here. We talked about her race. She got lost, but overall had an excellent run with 6 dogs who had never raced before 2 weeks ago, a tough 10 year old leader named Jane, and a yearling named Scarlet she bought before birth from us led her. That little pup, Will and I knew would be one special leader. We could see it on her puppy walks. Juliah has done a super job developing her into such a nice young leader.
I quickly took care of the dogs at home with Iz and Mirabel’s help. Then I made a special meal for the team of cooked beef and steak soup along with some of their other favorite ingredients. Around 4:00 I was like lets get moving. My dad was baffled by what he was seeing on the Kusko tracker and laughed saying I was too wound up and we didn’t need to rush. I hurried the girls to get going and packed up the dog’s meal, then ordered pizza for Will from our local pizza bus (super pizza if you’ve never had it). My husband has a huge appetite and not having a meal at the last CP, just power bars, I knew he’d be starving. 4:30. I wonder if we could see him going under the bridge. But thought no way he’s already been through there it’s been 6 hours. We pulled up to Pleasant Valley store and I saw a team in the straw where we’d camped the night before. On years passed local teams sometimes pull into the camping area. That was my first thought. But Lance’s partner Jenne was parked there. I asked what’s going on? She told me one of Lance’s dogs thew up and had some injuries so he decided it would be best to run them back to the store rather than continue on such a long, difficult, stretch of trail. I felt really bad for him and having spent so much time with his crew I felt the down affect, too. He’d been running in second place. Dad and I were looking at the Kusko tracker trying to figure out what was happening when I saw a light coming so fast it looked like a snow machine, but it wasn’t right type of light. I said I think that’s him. Dad looked up and said that does look like a team. He rounded the backside of the trail entrance and I knew when he looked across the way. We couldn’t see the dogs, just the light and they were flying. I yelled where are the timers and sprinted across the parking lot to meet our team. The dogs looked so fresh with tails wagging, rolling in the snow, and crazy Brave still making noise to continue. Will is always very emotional after a race finish because the connection with the dogs, the experience, the amazement of the team in front of him is just overwhelming. Will knew he had a solid lead leaving the last CP by about 48 minutes, but got into a zone and ran up every hill, literally ran. The climb out of Colorado Creek is so steep there are 5 switchbacks on the trail. The firebreak trail has some very steep, long, hills, too. He said it was just sugar snow (meaning no hard base) up the first big climb until the firebreak and a thick blanket of snow to break. He finished 2.5 hrs ahead of the next team.
The dogs. Wow. We went into this race looking for a training run. We do enter races under the intention of being as competitive as possible though. Recently leaving Hooligan and Outlaw out of the team I struggled with losing 2 such key dogs. We have a very small racing pool and took 3 dogs we’d never raced before. Will said, “You know how there’s a dog or 2 not as strong as he others when you race? All of them were on fire. They just gave me the best performance. It was incredible.”
Spark- The 2 year old so lovesick I left him out of my Knik 200 team two weeks ago. A lovesick male dog tends to focus an immense amount of attention on the girls. He never missed a beat in training but jumping, crying, and trying to get with the girls is something I didn’t want to deal with camping in the race. Well none of the girls were in heat during this race; however running next to Smarty he thought she must be! Every camping spot he was messing around trying to breed her. Normally Smarty is pretty clipped with the boys. For whatever reason she decided he was a fun guy and joined in the camp play. Will nixed that at the 2nd CP putting him by another male. He finally chilled out and had a very strong first race performance.
Pharoah- Another 2 year old on his first race. Pharoah missed going to the Knik 200 because he finished a very long run looking a little stiff. We gave him ample time off to try to prevent any type of chronic injury. I didn’t know if he’d be able to make the last leg (before the race) knowing without the fresh snow it’d be a tough section. His base mileage was solid and Will said he was excellent every inch of the way. It’s very exciting to have these youngsters finish their first race looking like they’re ready for more.
Monarch- I was really excited for Will to watch her and Sherpa lay it down like they did for me in the Knik. They were such a perfect pair in 2nd swing just propelling that frontend pace. The frontend of our team has never been so strong and it just came together unexpectedly. Will said to me, “Bren, Monarch is perfect.” She is something else.
Brave- The giant 2 year old you’d never want to have to carry and with his incredible stamina he’s proven to us we don’t have to worry about that. He’s only been with us since the end of October and not knowing him as well as the rest of our dogs and with his size, going into Knik I was a little hesitant. He is an interesting dog. This summer at my uncle Jason’s kennel he caught my eye over any dog in his kennel. He was bred in Lance’s kennel and given to Patrick as a little pup. After one of Lance’s Iditarod wins his dogs were screaming to go. This is unheard of. Dog teams getting to Nome have come along way and normally don’t have the energy to bark for more. This high attitude is a trademark from Lance’s lines. I think Brave looks a bit like Zorro and has boundless endurance.
Pan- I can’t say enough about 6 year old Pan. He’s just a dynamite leader who can set an incredible pace for the team. He’s very wise, very watchful, and very loyal.
Kingpin- Special K ran in lead with Pan every step of the way again. These 2 are a strong pair. KP isn’t crazy about CP’s and hubbub but has gotten much more use to it all. He is 4 now and at the ideal age for a racing sled dog. His physical strength and maturity have come together in his prime and he shines.
Salt- There’s no reason for 6 year old Salt to run in swing rather than lead however the boys just seem to have become the main pair. I often run her in training with Monarch in lead as set. Salt is a head down, push the pace, serious worker. She is 100% focused.
Fender- 8 year old Fen was the old man on the team and Will said it was the best performance he’s ever had out of him. I wondered how he’d do in the deep sugar snow because that can be more difficult for him. He’s had his best racing year so far and continues to scream to go upon checkout time at each CP.
Smarty- 4 year old Smarty is a quiet dog who always lopes, always, and seems to finish every race with flying colors. She and Grizzly were the only 2 in the team who needed a little encouragement having to pass the home trail for the second river loop after that last long section of trail. Instinctively it’s natural for people and animals to go home. We train the dogs to run by our kennel as do other mushers here in TR because we have to loop around to get enough mileage. It’s easy to do so in training but after a long race it’s not as exciting for the dogs to do a repetitive loop. But after a minute they get pick it up again and get back into the grove.
Grizzly- 3 year old Grizz is the ideal strong trotting beast. He’s something else to watch in action. His size, drive, strength, stamina, and fast trot make him a standout dog. This was his 2nd race with us.
Sophie- 4 year old Sophie the girl with the longest heat cycles, driving me batty this past month. Sophie missed some last long runs but being a solid veteran we were confident she’d do just fine. When we first got Sophie from Jason I pegged her as a distance only dog because she doesn’t lope. She can trot very fast and it’s smooth as silk, but she doesn’t like to gear up into a lope. That’s ok. She just proved she’s plenty fast enough for us which means she’s pretty damn fast, always happy, a super eater, and just a very nice dog.
Sherpa- 5 year old Sherpa is one of the best dogs on our team and has been since he was a yearling. He never gets tired, he eats anything, he’s very durable and a very fast loper with incredible drive. He is tough as nails.
Stinger- 5 year old Stinger raced with Juliah and she said he was a real powerhouse for her. Stinger is a tough and dependable dog who has raced with us since he was a yearling.
Flash- 6 year old Flash has been a key dog in our team his entire life. This was his 21st race in 4 years. He raced with our friend Matt Shawcroft. He’s been a little off ever since the girls came into heat. He thinks he’s quite the stud. He was so out of character I took him to the vet to see if he had a swollen prostate (which can happen to males too overboard for the ladies). They couldn’t determine if he had an enlarged prostate, but his other test results came back normal. So hopefully he’s back to his usual self.
Many thanks to all of the hardworking volunteers and the TRDMA making this race possible!