Thursday, March 13, 2014

Rookie Race Nearly as Exciting as the Winning Finish

The race within a Iditarod race, for the title of Rookie of the Year was a really good one, almost like a movie plot. Nathan Schroeder wearing bib 25 started out ahead of Abbie West as she was wearing bib 69. On the run to Rainy Pass, West overtook Schroeder. When the start times were adjusted during the twenty-four hour layover, Abbie gained an hour and twenty-six minutes on Schroeder although she’d already moved ahead of him.  Nathan Arrived at White Mountain six minutes ahead of West. After the mandatory 8-hour rest they departed with the same margin. West checked into Safety 1 minute ahead of Schroeder but they departed at the same time. Somewhere on the trail, Abbie dropped her bib. Nathan tried to retrieve it but missed. He shouted at West and she was able to return to recover the wayward bib. Nathan took the lead and maintained it to the finish line. 

I have a dog from Abbie's kennel in my team, and he's quite an interesting fellow. When I was first considering bringing him in, Abbie described him as "a big, goofy black dog". She was rehoming him only because he had outgrown his litter mates and his longer stride disrupted the teams rhythm out on the trail. Jay Cadzow, Abby's kennel partner and friend, is an Alaskan Native musher from Fort Yukon who has been maintaining his families old line of "river dogs" all his life. when I asked his assessment of Aumaruq he simply shrugged and said "he runs fast and pulls hard." Both were spot-on in their descriptions.

At this point of the big race, the puppy drivers are starting to stream into Nome, giving us a look at tomorrow's superstars. These mushers are generally handlers or family members of competitive mushers, running teams consisting primarily of yearling and two year olds. The puppy driver's job is to get as many of the young dogs as possible over the length of the trail while giving them a positive racing experience. Allen Moore, Aliy's husband and partner in all things, was the first that I can clearly identify as a puppy driver to come into Nome, with 12 happily grinning, tail-wagging pups on his gangline. Only 1 musher to arrive thus far had a larger team on the gang-line. That was Peter Kaiser of Bethel, AK.

I'd like to share something I've noticed during this year's race that I've either overlooked or just hasn't been so common in past years. Several of the teams that have performed well have been led with a single lead dog, rather than a pair. Running single leaders was common up until the 1960s or '70s, when mushers started putting a second leader up front, usually to obtain the additional pulling power than one more dog in the team offers.

Two mushers with single leaders really stand out in my mind. Aliy Zirkle ran her marvelous microhusky leader Quito in single lead much of the race, and particularly during the bad blow on the coast. Allen also ran Quito in single lead through most of his victorious Yukon Quest run and he loves to quip that "There ain't no 'quit' in Quito." Quito is just a wee little thing, but it isn't the size of the dog in the race that matters nearly so much as the size of the race in the dog.

Wade Marrs, now a 3-time finisher who broke into the 'Top-20' this year and is in contention for the Most Improved Musher award ran his dog Puma in single lead, and crossed the finish line in 16th place, ahead of Abby and Nathan. Puma also faced the blow alone at the head of the team.

Conventional wisdom is that lead dogs gain confidence from each other when paired. I agree that in many cases they do. On the other hand, I believe that they display that confidence, sometimes to an astonishing degree, when given the opportunity to work alone, without the interference of another dog at their sides. I think the old time dog mushers had a reason for running single leaders, and it's being rediscovered by some of us today.

Over the past couple of months I've given each my three 'born Stardancer' (from the only breeding I've done thus far) opportunities to run in single lead and I've been impressed by all three of them. Cassiopeia had her first opportunity during one of those days when I ran several teams, and was simply running out of qualified gee/haw leaders. I decided to try her in single lead to see what might happen, and she gave me a nice, solid run in front of a small (5-dog) team. Capella got her chance one day when I was running a tour for our friend down the road. Cassie was planned to run beside her, but during hook-up Cassie slipped her collar and then her harness. Rather than spend time trying to get her redressed and hooked back up I elected to run 'Pella alone to get the darned outfit moving. Her performance that day, in front of a big team with two tourists in the sled, was eye-popping.

Yesterday Orion had his chance, leading in a 7 dog team trying to stay ahead of Trish's potential 6-dog race team. Holy Smokes - he knew exactly what he and his team mates needed to do the run. He launched well under control, which is in itself remarkable as he's an outrageously exuberant dog during hook up and launch (and hard to handle due to his sheer excitement). He picked up the pace at the right time, when muscles are warmed and everyone is ready to expend some excited energy, and then he slowed to a nice working pace at the right time, before all that extra energy is wasted in a burst of unnecessary speed. He hit every single direction cue spot-on and gave us one of those runs we remember - the kind that reminds us of why we do this stuff.

Since my own goal is the accurately demonstrate historical mushing practices between the years 1763 and 1963, the ability to run single leaders in front of sizeable teams is important, and I feel that we've reached a milestone toward that ultimate goal. Like Aliy and Wade and several other mushers who relied on a single dog to guide their teams, I think we've rediscovered something those old timers either learned or just intuitively knew. 

Trish and I both had a rough night last night. Damned leg-cramps. We both spent a lot of time trying to ease the cramps and chugging tonic water (quinine in tonic water is helpful for leg cramps) and grabbing sleep in fits and starts. The dogs are going to be fed late and I don't know if I'll run a team today while Trish is at work or not. All of the dogs save 4 have had good training runs two days in a row. I really should give Just, Chetan, Selene and Friday a run today. I'll just have to see how the day progresses. A nap might be a smarter idea.

1 comment:

  1. I'm tickled to read of Orion's success - I "met" that dog when he was just a BIG puppy (and he was pretty exuberant, then ;-) How cool!