Friday, March 14, 2008

First Ever Race = First Ever Red Lantern

Photo by Dave Partee

I'm so proud of the 'bigguns' I could just burst. We did our first ever race Wednesday, and they were incredible. Especially considering that some of the teams they were running against are among the fastest sprint racing teams in the world.

"Jeff's Race" is a fun race put on by the Alaska Dog Musher's Association each year in the week before the Open North American Championship (ONAC). It is a passenger race of 7.7 miles on the Jeff Studdert Race Track (the "Jeff" who this race commemorates). It's a passenger race, and the number of dogs is determined by the combined weight of the co-drivers.

One driver takes the team out, and then the driver/passenger switch roles. The passenger is not allowed to get out of the sled except to do the driver change at the 1/2 way point.

7 of the teams were experienced racing mushers carrying inexperienced passengers - ADMA and/or ONAC sponsors or sponsor's reps. The other 7 of us were a mixed bag, though looking at the names I'd say co-driver Donna Thompson and I were among the least experienced - since this is the first race I've ever run, that seems a fair assessment.

Wouldn't you know it - we drew bib #1, so were the first to leave the starting line (no scent for the team to chase). We could have qualified for up to 10 dogs with a bit of help from the race marshal, who was leaning his hand on Donna's shoulder hard enough to easily add 50 lb. or so to our combined weight, but of course we only had 8 dogs with us, and I'm not a big fan of borrowing "strange" dogs to mess up the team dynamic.

We actually made it to the starting line on time. Even my shy dogs were nicely behaved while waiting, though everyone was screaming at the tops of their lungs. Torus and Dutchie are experienced race dogs, and they had the count down pat. 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 they were already moving as I cued them "let's go".

I think I might have heard Donna mumble "Oh My God" as we launched, but I'm not sure as I was kept busy keeping my stiff toboggan sled under control as we dashed down the hill out of the starting chute. I'm sure we weren't running at "sprint dog" speed, but we weren't very shy of the mark either.

The team kept to a high lope for the first three miles of the race. That's awesome considering that they usually slow down to their working trot after the first mile or so. Even when they dropped to their trot it was a FAST trot, not your 'everyday haul the musher around the woods" pace. They knew something special was up, and they were out to do their best.

We had gone maybe 5 miles when the first of 7 teams to pass us went by. I wanted to pass on the fly because I was concerned that Sheenjek would try to peck a fight with a strange dog team. As it was Sheenjek was fine, but Nels was curious and turned toward that team, and Grace tried to scotch at their leaders which prompted me to tap to brake to bring her back in line. Meanwhile some of the team dogs on the passing team got a bit balled up (they had 11 dogs on the line), and one of their dogs slammed into the back of my right knee. Fortunately I was able to keep my balance and they just FLEW past us. (That team won the race by a considerable margin). I just can't get upset about being blown off the track by a team driven by Mark Lanser or Arleigh Reynolds.

We were required to change drivers at the half-way point. As I called the team to whoa and stood the brake Donna dashed over to the turn-around judge to hand over our bribe. Part of the tradition of the race is to give the turnaround judge a small gift as a "bribe". Ours was a Raven's Brew "Wicked Wolf" coffee cup, filled with a sample packet of Wicked Wolf coffee (the BEST) and a small airline-sized bottle of Bailey's Irish Creme. Our goal was to give the judge a very good cup of coffee.

She dashed back to the sled, I jumped into the basket, and we were off again. It took Donna just a bit to get used to the sled. She is a very lightweight sprint musher and this was her first time driving 8 dogs, and first time driving a freighting type sled. Such sleds are much stiffer than sprint sleds, and require more upper body strength to drive.

Female mushers tend to drive sled with their hips - taking advantage of their lower center of gravity. Donna is slight on a good day, and had lost additional weight racing in the Limited North American Championship the weekend before, so simply shifting her butt to the side did little to steer the sled. I helped as much as I could by shifting my own body weight, and it worked well enough that we were able to keep the sled behind the team for the most part.

During Donna's turn to drive we were passed by 6 more very fast teams, all on the fly. That was excellent training for my dogs, as we are only rarely passed by faster teams on the back-country trails we normally run. I was initially worried that Sheenjek, my "mega-mutt" wheel dog with attitude would be a 'gator', trying to peck a fight. That was never a problem on this run, but yearly Amazing Grace running up front tried to get teeth into a dog or two. Donna was literally bouncing on the bar brake to jerk her enough to get her attention and change her behavior. Fortunately Grace didn't draw any blood that I know of, and I know we need to do a lot more passing training in the future.

Tammi Rego, who gave me Torus and Dutchess, was the last musher to pass us as we were going into the home stretch. She "called up" Torus and Dutchess, and those two put their heart and soul into the job. They were "chasing Mom" while "that guy who lets us run" was cheering them on from behind. We could feel the sled jerk as they put everything they had left into an exciting dash for the finish.

We won the red lantern, but we won it FAST for this team. Through the course of this season the team has run at a moving average (not counting stopped time) of 8.4 mph, over a variety of terrain. Today they ran the 7.7 mile race course with an overall average of 9.6 mph, which includes the stop to change drivers and another stop to let a team ahead of us clear a tangle. I'd guess that they maintained a moving average of 10mph or slightly more during the race. Not bad for a bunch of ole village dogs, eh?

The winning team averaged 18 mph over the course, and the fastest team in the "race" (versus sponsor) division averaged 16.2. Of course we're comparing apples and oranges here - those fast teams are mostly Eurohounds or Eurohound / Alaskan husky mixes and my guys are just good old fashioned, hard working freight dogs. Those other teams were faster, but ours was much better looking.

The most important thing is that the dogs had a GREAT time, and so did Donna and I. I can see how easily one could catch the competitive bug and very quickly turn a fun, easy-going hobby into a full-time job of work. I think I'll stick to running my "bigguns" out in the woods, exploring Alaska. Nonetheless, I suspect the occasional fun race will become part of our future agenda.

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