Tuesday, March 11, 2008

March Madness

I got home last Tuesday afternoon and had to hit the ground a runnin'. It's March, and the peak of the sled dog racing season, and that means busy times from Ol' Swanny.

My first and most important task was to spend some time on the trails with my own team. After all they are MY dogs, and MY dogs come first. We are in the midst of a record setting heatwave, so I gave my team some pretty easy training runs, just to stretch their legs and exercise their brains a bit. I'll post my entries in my training journal at the end of this article.

I promised to handle for Lynn Orbison, my friend and training partner. Lynn is racing in the 8-dog class in the Limited North American Championship last weekend. That kept me hopping all weekend. It was a lot of fun to do. I met some fun people and LOTS of very fast, very houndy dogs. The hounds and hound mixes are obviously THE kings and queens of sprint racing today.

Yesterday (Monday) I took my gang out for another training run in the hills. Their speed of off their usual 9+ mph pace by a full mile per hour, but they ran steadily and smoothly even though it was still very warm. Here's a photo of them at work, just before cresting a hill.

I didn't get a lot of sleep last Friday night. My dogs were raising a fuss all night long. Although it could have been that that teams competing in the Chatanika Challenge 200 mile race were passing on a trail less than 1/2 mile away, it's more likely a moose or perhaps even a stray dog wandering around the place. The latter wouldn't surpise me much, as I have a bitch coming into heat. She is isolated in a separate heat pen as I also have an intact male in the yard (Torus), and I really don't want to breed Dutchess. I plan to have her spayed in the near future, but until then I need to minimize the risk as much as possible.

The leaders of the Iditarod are in the last leg of the race, and apparently Lance Mackey and Jeff King are battling head-to-head toward the finish line. As I write there are 13 teams out of Koyuk. This year the field hasn't spread out nearly so far as I've seen in the past, which tells me the entire field remains extremely competitive. I'd love to be in Nome today and tomorrow, as I'm sure there will be some photo-finishes as the mushers battle it out to the very end.

So, March Madness is here, and there is more than enough to keep even a casual dog musher such as myself plenty busy. We have the Iditarod in process, where some of my friends and neighbors are racing well. We had the Limited North American Championship AND the Chatanika Challenge 200 miler both last weekend, followed by the Open North American Championship coming up this weekend. Also coming up later in the month are the All Alaska Sweepstakes, the Tok Race of Champions and more.

WHEW!!! It's enough to make a fellow wish he could throw away the calendar.

Here are the training reports from my runs earlier in the week:

3/5/07: 10 miles. Moving average 9.1 mph. Overall average 8.5. Temperature +34 at start, +38 at finish. Trail softening hardpack and punchy. Training toboggan with gear bag and musher. No additional weight.

From Lynn’s down PV Road to Paw Print Patch, around potato field to baseline. Loop south of baseline back to baseline, around the big field west of Aliy and Allen’s place, returning on Baseline to Swenson’s Field, quartered Swenson’s field back to PV road and Lynn’s.


Dutchess & Torus (L)

Rose & Nels (S)

Grace & Gump (T)

Sheenjek & Seamus (W)

A bit of confusion and difficulty at start up. Grace chewed through a neckline. Sheenjek got loose and when bringing him back to wheel Grace jumped him, starting a fairly serious ruckus with me in the middle. Finally got them separated and everyone on the line when Lynn came in with her race team. We got everyone past each other, my guys lined out, and pulled the hook.

Just before we launched the snap on the neckline I’d put in to replace the one that Grace chewed broke, leaving her running without a neck line. I decided to let it go and run some of the spunk out them before fixing it. That went well for the first mile and half, but then Grace dove off the trail to dip snow, got dragged backwards for a bit, turned to get back into position but got her tug tangled around Sheenjek’s leg. He let it slide this time, but I stopped them shortly thereafter to fix the neck line lest we have another squabble in the team.

Stopped the team several times to let dogs dip and roll in snow to cool. Sheenjek seems to have had the most trouble with the heat and was off his tug frequently on this run. I’ve never seen him run slack before.

Torus was much quicker on cues than was Dutchess, and even pulled her into a couple of correct turns that she didn’t want to follow. It was very well done.

All of the dogs were hot when we finished the run, and the leaders were not interested in treats until they’d had a chance to cool. I hooked them up on drop chains while still in harness, and Grace slashed her harness (#2). Lynn has suggested I just let her free run until I can get her harness off and I think I’ll try that next time.

I’m planning to give them a longer run tomorrow, out of our own yard. I’ll try to get out a bit earlier than today to advantage of the coolest temperature, but it’s not forecast to get cold anytime soon.

3/6/08 Thursday: 8.5 miles. Max speed 16.3 mph. Moving average 8.6 mph. Overall average 7.6 mph. Training toboggan with gear bag only. +33 degrees F at start, +37 F at finish. Home to Two Rivers Rd to Little Chena Ridge trail to Swamp Trail and return.

Hard glazed surface over punchy wet base.


Gump & Torus

Grace & Dutchess

Nels & Rose

Sheenjek & Seamus

Hookup was a bit of a mess. As I was hooking up harnesses Grace and Dutchess got into a row, but settled their score in due time. Most likely Grace scotched at Dutchie and she took exception. She chastised Grace pretty well, but no bloodshed. All of the dogs were pulling hard against their tugs. The damned quick release jammed up, and when I tried to pull it the split ring came apart. Of course this was the only time all season I didn’t have my Leatherman tool in my pocket, so had to dash into the house to get it. Interestingly by the time I got back all the dogs were lined out and settled down. We’ll call that one a lightbulb moment and I’ll be working on them to do exactly that on hook up.

Of course when I finally got the damned quick release to pop pieces popped all over the yard. I pulled the hook and the team took off like rockets down the feeder trail. They really wanted to run fast the first couple of miles and it was a fun ride.

Gump surprised me up in lead, he did very well and maintained a fast pace the first two miles or so. Once up on the Two Rivers Road extension he began running slack. I tolerated it for a while but when he started dragging Torus back I decided it was time for a leader change, so swapped him out for Grace, leaving me with;

Grace & Torus (L)

Gump & Ducthess (S)

Rose & Nels (T)

Sheenjek & Seamus (W)

Torus took advantage of the opportunity to make the canine version of snow angels in the loose snow beside the trail. That was very cute.

The rest of the run went pretty much without incident. All of the dogs worked very well today, even Gump once he was put back in swing. I kept their speed down to an easy trot on the downhill slopes as I didn’t want them overheating. They gave me a nice sprint home to celebrate.

When we got to the yard Torus tried pulling the team over the picket line and into the main yard. I got them stopped pretty quickly. Unharnessed Grace straightaway so I can use the same harness on her next time.

We did exactly what I wanted to do given the heat. A nice, easy training run over some terrain, finishing with dogs that were pleasantly tired, but nowhere near worn out.

3/10/08 Monday: 12 Miles. Max speed 16.4, Moving average 8.2 mph, overall average 7.9 mph. Home to school trail to logging road to loop before dozer trail, return via Little Chena Rd. trail & Swamp trail. Elevation change of 695 feet per GPS. Training toboggan sled, 80 lb weights & gear bag. Icy surface over slushy, granular base.


Torus & Grace (L)

Dutchess & Rose (S)

Seamus & Nels (T)

Sheenjek & Gump (W)

Stinkin’ Rose spun around and tangled her harness on hook up, requiring time to fix. Meanwhile Torus and Grace engaged in a low level squabble, but that never escalated to much. I got Rose back into her harness, got the dogs lined out nicely before pulling the hook. FAST dash down feeder trail to powerline. Wheel dogs cut the powerline turn tight and I ended up high-siding off the sled. I pulled the sled over and managed to plant the hook (still in my hand) to stop the team. They waited more or less patiently for me to right the sled and send them on their way.

My intent was to push them pretty hard for the first 7.7 miles (the distance they’ll be racing on Wednesday) and then let them take it much easier back to home. They gave me a very fast run over the flats but slowed considerably almost as soon as we got into the hills, but maintained a steady pace with only a few “cool off” breaks. I took them to the turnaround and was back to the beginning of the Little Chena Road trail intersection at 7.7 miles, where I let them have a long cool off break, until they had stopped panting so hard and Sheenjek was screaming to go again.

In spite of their break they took their time getting up the hill, which was fine with me. Had to use the bar brake as well as the mat in some places coming down Little Chena Rd trail and onto the Swamp Trail due to the icy glazed surface snow in the shaded areas.

There is a big, ugly stump sticking out of the snow on one of the early portages on the Swamp Trail. KEEP IT IN MIND, it’s in exactly the right place to grab your left runner and high-side you off your sled. Maybe a four-wheeler ride with the chain saw would be a good idea later this spring. A small bulldozer could do that trail a world of good.

A squirrel ran across the trail just as we hit the “gee” onto the powerline trail coming home and the dogs had enough reserve to give it a fair chase and a good scare. They came up the trail into the yard in good fashion and stayed between the pickets all the way in.

Torus, Grace and Dutchess all planted their bellies in the snow as soon as I unhooked their tugs. I got Grace unharnessed straight away so I can use the same harness again on Wednesday. By the time I got the team unharnessed they were cool enough to jump to their feet and give voice as I doled out meatball snacks.

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