Part Four of Four
What a Mess!
From the outside looking in, everything must have looked great as we pulled into the checkpoint. We were first to the coast, twelve happy dogs trotting along and a musher with a smile. But, in reality, I was a mess.
I have tried, over and over, to analyze this point in the race. But, it isn’t all that clear. I don’t remember too many details from those few hours in UNALAKLEET. Several people have come up to me since the race and told me that they talked to me while I was there. I do not remember them.
But I know four things for certain:
Number One. I was tired. All Iditarod mushers are tired by UNALAKLEET. I had slept 4 hours in the last 3 days.
Number Two. I was physically exhausted. The 14-hour run from KALTAG had completely zapped my physical strength. I needed to rest. I had run, kicked and ski poled every moment of the way. If there had been a hill, I ran up it. If there was a flat stretch, I ski poled. My body was numb from exhaustion.
Number Three. I was cold. It was almost 40 below zero when I arrived. I had on appropriate clothing and normally I stay warm in these extreme temperatures. But I had sabotaged any hope of this when I decided to take “No Doze” caffeine pills. A lot of them! Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor. It reduces the size of your veins and arteries. In other words, the amount of warm blood that circulates from your heart throughout your body is severely reduced. I was chilled to the core. Clearly, I had overdone it with the caffeine pills.
Number Four. I was dehydrated. I had packed a half gallon of gatorade in my drinking thermos. Thinking that the run would only take us only 10 hours, I incorrectly slurped up the remaining beverage after 7 hours. The remaining 7 hours I had nothing to drink. I sweated a great deal in that time. My mouth was parched, my throat was dry and my legs were cramping.
All of these made for a pretty shaky Aliy.
I wish that I had been a little more “with it” simply because Scotty, my son-in-law and good friend, was the Wells Fargo employee assigned to present the “Gold Coast Award” to the first musher to the coast. The ceremony happened right after my arrival, as I recall. I won gold and a trophy. I don’t remember if I even held the trophy. I don’t think so since my hands were too cold to grab much. Anyhow... thanks Wells Fargo!
Allen was there. He had flown to Nome and then hopped on a flight down the coast to UNALAKLEET. I felt his gaze on me as I tended to the dogs and repacked my sled. I was fumbling a lot and circling. I didn’t want him to see me like this. I felt like I was letting him down.
We all walked inside and it was warm and bright. Mark Nordman showed me a place to sleep and basically told me to lay down. Allen was mostly worried about my hydration. I had told him about the caffeine pills and he wasn’t pleased. In a quick heart-to-heart before I laid down, I told him that I needed to rest and the dogs needed to rest. If we didn’t do this right now, we were in jeopardy of not reaching Nome at all. I was serious.
I lay down and set my alarm. I was determined to rest the dogs 6 hours. That meant that I could sleep 3 hours. Three hours would be a God send. I believed that my team needed the rest, but more accurately, I needed it. Strangely, I wasn’t concerned about my competition at all. Right then, in UNALAKLEET, I didn’t care if I finished Iditarod in last place.
When I woke up everyone looked at me like “Are you okay?” Bridgett was at the checkpoint as well and she tried to pep me up. I was still pretty “down and out” as I sat and ate some food and drank at least a gallon of water. (I remember that there was lots of good food in UNALAKLEET. I really should have taken advantage of it.)
Get Your Act Together
Finally, I must have realized that I had been indoors for a heck of a long time. I needed to go out and see the dogs. Allen keep telling me that the dogs looked great. He had checked on them while I had slept. I went out to see the team and they were cozy in their straw beds. Stepping outdoors the best move that I could have made because the cool fresh air perked me up. I looked around at my competitors and I focused on the race again. I eyed Aaron as he was bootying up his team. And Dallas didn’t look like he was very far behind with his chores. Several dog team was arriving from KALTAG right then. Then it hit me.... we gotta get outta here!
I told anyone who was listening that we were going to run checkpoint to checkpoint now. No more 14-hour runs for this crew. The next checkpoint was SHAKTOOLIK and that was our goal. I started to get excited about the run. I remember saying that this twelve dog team was going to pull me up every one of those hills in between here and there. Personally, I just wasn’t up for running right then.
As I fed the dogs again and repacked my gear, I watched both Aaron and Dallas leave ahead of me. I walked Quito and several other dogs around to stretch them out and show them the correct path. UNALAKLEET is a challenging checkpoint to depart from and I wanted every advantage. I moved some dogs around. Beemer and Rambler were in wheel. I put Biscuit and Willie just in front of them. Then came Tatfish and Boondocks. I ran Olivia and Nacho next to each other and in front of them were Chica and Scruggs. Still in lead were Quito and Dingle.
All in all, they were a very nice team. We struggled just a little when we left the commotion of the checkpoint. But, I just let them go at their own pace. I didn’t ask them for more than they wanted to give. We slowly trotted onto the frozen slough and out of sight. I didn’t ski pole or pedal. I started to believe that the doubt that I had in these dogs only 8 hours ago was completely unwarranted.
I continued to let them set their own pace and we moseyed along. I wanted the dogs to know that I had confidence in them again. I didn’t help them up the steep hills or ski pole on the flats. I wanted it to be their strength and determination that would get us where we were going. This feeling was extremely refreshing to me and probably the team. They clambered up some incredibly steep sections of trail, never looking back at me or asking for my assistance. I started to feel great.
To top it off, it was a beautiful day. The sky was baby blue and the frozen ocean was a brilliant white. I believe that this area of the trail is by far the most breathtaking for me year after year. There was still a healthy amount of snow in the trail so we were not moving at a record breaking speed. We neared the top of the Blueberry Hills and I stopped to snack the team on large chunks of salmon. I gazed out to the north and could see Norton Sound encircled by land in all directions. From this perspective, KOYUK seemed close and so did GOLOVIN! Nome was probably just a stone’s throw away as well. But, first we needed to head down the hill and cross the lagoon to get to SHAKTOOLIK. So, when they finished their salmon snacks we took off.
At the bottom of the hill, the trail parallels the ocean for several hours before reaching the village. I started to feel some additional energy in the team, so I began to ski pole. They responded well and Quito took us to a higher gear. Sebastian Schnuelle caught up to us with his snow machine and took a few pictures. I could tell that the team was 100 % because neither the snow machine or his photography antics bothered them. (And as it turns out, he got some pretty awesome pictures.)
I was back in the race now and was thinking about my strategy. I had told the team that we were stopping in SHAKTOOLIK. Therefore, we were stopping. But, our rest would be a short one. I mentally planned the remainder of the race. We would run shorter legs and abbreviate them with varying length rests. Since we had a long rest in UNALAKLEET, I would follow it with a short rest in SHAKTOOLIK. Then we would cross the flat frozen ocean and barring any mishaps we would need a little longer rest in KOYUK. Too short a rest in KOYUK would mean that we would need to stay in ELIM. That was a decision that I would make later on.
As my mind reeled, calculating runs and rests, I also thought about SHAKTOOLIK. It would be challenging to stay only two hours. Once the team was parked and fed, I would really need to focus in order to get my chores done. I kept this in mind as I pulled into the checkpoint.
The volunteers are great in SHAKTOOLIK. It is a village that I would love to visit some day when I have a week to walk around and drink coffee with folks. But, it is a difficult village to visit when you are in a hurry. I was slightly rude as I made my way around my team, taking off boots and putting on dog coats. Even if we were staying for a short time, my dogs needed the extra protection from dog coats while on the western coast. I gave the dogs dry Eagle Pack kibble as I had done the entire race. They gobbled up the calories from the snow. I made a watery meal for later on and put it in my bucket. I would need to add extra time in my equation to feed this broth before I left the checkpoint.
I shared a few stories with some faithful friends from the village and then Iditarod volunteer, Mark Cox, walked over and said that I was needed inside the checkpoint. I finished up and went inside. When I walked in they said “There’s a cot ready for you to sleep. Do you want to eat anything first?” Pretty nice! I looked around and saw that Aaron was already asleep in another cot. Apparently Dallas had gone through the checkpoint - which is what I had expected. This would mean that he would rest longer in KOYUK and that I still had a chance to catch him.
I ate something quickly and drank a lot of Tang. I was very focused on staying hydrated. My low point in UNALAKLEET was eye opening and I certainly didn’t want that to happen again. I went back to the cot and lay down. I didn’t take off my boots nor my outer pants. When I fell asleep I remembered hearing a group of veterinarians talking about vet school. When I woke up, they were still having the same conversation. Of course, I only slept for 20 minutes.
Since I had left most of my gear on when I napped, it only took a few minutes to wrap myself back in winter gear. I grabbed all of my personal items - drinking thermos and gloves - I didn’t need to waste time now. Before leaving the building, I peeked in at Aaron. He was still sound asleep. When I went outside, another musher had just arrived. John was in SHAKTOOLIK.
I didn’t take too long to feed the team and put on their booties. I had to adjust a few leggings since I was still battling the strange phenomenon of chicken legs. But, before long I lead Quito out around the building as Mark stood on the back of my sled. It is a sharp turn to bring twelve dogs in basically a “U” turn. We managed alright and I situated the team just above the frozen lagoon. I went back to the sled, gave Mark a hug and we trotted down onto the ice.
Not too far from the village I saw an interesting sight. Off to the right, along the trail, were melted indentations on the ice. Those indentations could only mean one thing: Dallas stopped his team here. There was a melted spot where his cooker had been and a few “dog beds”. It looked like he had spent a little bit of time here too. Interesting.
The trail to KOYUK, literally, went in circles. I knew that this was going to be the case because I heard a trail report from a race that used the same course a month earlier. Some racers had told me that they circled for hours directly in front of KOYUK. Apparently this winter, the ocean had frozen with enormous - house sized - icebergs drifting in the bay. No way could our dog teams navigate over these hazards, so the trail avoided them and circled around and around and around. The lights of KOYUK glowed from the distance. But as the trail circled the lights would move to the left and right. The dogs never knew if we were actually destined for KOYUK or some other place. Honestly, I wasn’t sure either.
As we were weaving through the icebergs when suddenly I saw a headlight in the distance. There could only be one headlight in front of us. It was Dallas! It was nice to be back in the chase. So, we weaved and bobbed and weaved and bobbed. I never got frustrated and neither did the dogs. We had a destination: ahead.
When the lights finally got close enough that I could differentiate houses, I let myself get excited. That, of course, got the dogs excited too. There were several routes off of the ice and into town. I gave them a “gee” at the first trail. I knew that I had made a mistake right away, but for some reason, I didn’t correct the team. They were so excited to be headed to town! So, the team came up on shore and directly into the village of KOYUK in the wrong place. We were no where near the Iditarod checkpoint. It was early in the morning so no one was awake. I didn’t get too worried, I knew that the checkpoint was in the far western part of the village, so I asked the dogs to “haw”. We jumped up over a snow bank beside a building and then down onto a plowed city road. They were loving the adventure. It took a few minutes but we soon came upon two people standing in the road. “You came the wrong way!” We turned there and immediately found the checker. I don’t think we lost any time here. And the dogs and I were quite entertained.
The volunteers parked me just up the road from Dallas. His team was resting nicely. Every dog was covered in a fleece blanket. I did my chores rather quickly. The villagers even brought me a bucket of water, so I was able to make dog food pretty quickly. Since the run over from SHAKTOOLIK was pretty steady I decided to give the dogs a four hour break here. They would enjoy sleeping for a spell and so would I. But, their attitude was great and so was mine. Four hours would be plenty. There was still a chill in the air so I covered all of my dogs up with blankets as Dallas had done. As I walked away and looked back at our two teams, I saw no sign of dogs, just two sleds and a bunch of fleece blanket “bumps”.
I brought all of my gear inside. I hung up my clothes to dry since I hadn’t done this since UNALAKLEET. I microwaved some tasty snacks and drank a lot of water. I wanted to look at the race standings, so they printed me out a copy. It was interesting to see who stopped in SHAKTOOLIK and who was now on their way across the frozen ice. Ramey Smyth looked like he was turning on the afterburner as he is known to do. My plan to stay four hours was just perfect. I could now take a nap for an hour and a half.
I went in the back and lay down six inches from the heater. It blew on my face. Boy did that feel good! I saw Dallas stretched out a few feet away. He had run a great race, but I thought I could catch him. My team was solid. They weren’t fast at this point, but they were steady. I wondered how his team was moving. I wondered why he had stopped on the pack ice outside of the SHAKTOOLIK checkpoint. I wondered if he’d stop in ELIM.
My mind was reeling. It went from one topic to another in seconds. I had to focus on one thing in order to calm down. For some reason, I thought about Chica. She was such a fantastic dog. She was the silent type that a musher forgets about sometimes. I wasn’t going to forget about her. Chica was such a Rock Star for us this season (and seasons in the past.) What a great dog. I feel asleep.
My alarm went off in my ear and I woke quickly. I was warm for the first time in a while. I scurried around, dressed and gathered my gear. It’s amazing how much stuff a musher will bring into a checkpoint. I usually tote all of my gear in my blue bag. I’ve used the same bag for all fifteen 1,000 mile races. I bought it years ago for a lot of money from Apocalypse Design in Fairbanks. Back then I thought, “How can a bag be so expensive?” Fifteen years later, I understand. I have most of my personal stuff in this bag: dry socks, extra hat, spare headlight, chemical hand warmers, aspirin - you name it. I usually carry my parka inside as well, but I had left it draped over my handlebars for a quick exit.
Lastly, I carry in my drinking thermos. It is a cumbersome apparatus that is a pain in the neck to carry here and there. But, it is critical. It is very important to fill it with hot water just before leaving. When the water is too cold, it will freeze in the straw, or even in the bottom of the thermos. Then the team is stuck hauling around a gatorade ice cube. I am always the one to fill it with water. I walked over to the kitchen area and started to heat up some water in the microwave. I knew this would take a while, heating cup after cup. One of the volunteers asked if I’d like to have him heat up some water. I hesitated but then accepted the kind offer. I handed him my thermos and he placed it back behind the counter near the stove top. He said that he would make sure the water was super hot when he filled it. I walked around and gathered the remainder of my drying gear: hat, neck gaiter, socks, boots.
Dallas was looking at the race standings, so I went over to chat. I asked him how it was going. He said “Great.” You gotta love that positive attitude. He is the absolute opposite of Lance, who will look you in the eye and tell you that his team is falling apart, then beat you by 10 hours. Different personalities. He asked me how long I was staying, so I told him “four hours.” He said that he was staying five. In my head, I calculated that he might then run through ELIM. I’m sure he was doing similar calculations for my strategy.
I went outside soon after. Aaron’s team was parked near us. My team ate their watery broth and I rubbed some of their muscles with Algaval to loosen them up. I started to booty the dogs and looked over at Dallas. I tried to harass him just a little. Maybe I could shake some of that confidence. It was all in good fun. We chatted about booties and dogs.
ELIM is another tricky checkpoint to depart. The teams are parked along a plowed road. The first team in must then pass all of the teams that arrive more recently. For a well trained and confident team this isn’t an issue. I watched as Dallas had his little leader “Guinness” pull his team out onto the road and walk right past Aaron’s and mine. I still had a few more booties to put on and coats to take off before I pulled the hook.
As I worked on my squad a few more teams pulled into the parking area. Suddenly it was a flurry of activity. Pete came in and parked off to one side. Minutes later, Mitch arrived and parked further up the road on the other side. I started to worry about the clutter. I wanted my team to leave and all these other dogs were here to stay. Then in a burst of excitement, Ramey showed up. His dogs are very well trained, so when they arrive in a checkpoint they know the routine.
During this commotion, I maintained focus and adjusted the team with Quito out front. It was now a little challenging for her to zig zag between these new arrivals as they rolled around in their newly laid out straw beds. A few of my dogs wanted to stop in Pete’s and Mitch’s straw. I couldn’t exactly blame them. So, it took some urging as we walked through the ruckus and up the road. The turnoff to the left brought us down onto the pack ice again. Once we got down on the ice, the team gained its composure again. Once again, I let them have their own speed and we slowly headed toward ELIM.
After only an hour of traveling on the ice we made an unexpected turn off to the right. This was not the normal Iditarod route. It was actually a bit exciting to see somewhere new. As it turns out, the normal route was littered with the same house-sized icebergs that complicated the previous section. So, we climbed off the ice and headed straight up a long hill. This was perfect timing to stretch my legs. I got off the sled runners and ran the length of the hill. It felt good. I leaned down to get a sip out of my drinking thermos as I usually do to reward myself for a hill run. It wasn’t there. I had never walked back over to the kitchen area to ask for it. Totally my fault for letting my routine slip. A routine works because it’s the same thing, over and over. Changing it here towards the end of the race was dumb. Oh well. It would be another thirsty run.
I didn’t let this get me down. So, I would be thirsty. Big deal.
I looked ahead on the trail and tried to navigate where this new trail was leading us. There had to be a point where this trail intersected the normal route. I looked across the vast landscape and closely followed the trail with my eyes. And then, oh my, I saw a dog team. There was Dallas. He was only one ridge over from us. He was heading up a long hill and was pedaling and poling like a demon. I memorized where he was in relation to several bushes and I looked at the time on my watch. I didn’t know how many minutes ahead of me he had left KOYUK because I had been focusing on my own departure, not his. But, now this was information that I’d like to know. Right now, he seemed awfully close.
I arrived in that spot 10 minutes later. He was close! I kept up the running and poling. The dogs and I needed to work like a true team again. I watched our route carefully, no need to make a careless error now. On the horizon I could see a shelter cabin that I was very familiar with. We were back on the traditional route. As we traveled down the hillside and out onto the open flats I started to notice a change in the wind. There are quite a few “blow holes” on the western coast and perhaps this was one of them. I continued to follow, literally, in Dallas’ footsteps. At times, his team was only a few hundred yards in front. I knew that he saw me. I just kept telling the dogs to remain steady.
The wind really started to blow. In this section the trail parallels the ocean. The heavy, salty, wet snow began to blow in across the trail. Both Dallas and I were slow moving as our dogs broke trail every step. Little did I know that back in SHAKTOOLIK the conditions were much worse. The mushers and teams were shut down by this wind and some teams didn’t leave the checkpoint for 20 hours. Dallas and I were only 50 miles northwest but obviously we were more protected than those folks in SHAKTOOLIK.
The trail continued to get worse and the team slowed. I tried to stay positive but I had a few team members who didn’t look 100%. Both Boondocks and Olivia were not pulling as they normally do. Just to clarify: our dogs always pull. If they aren’t, then something is wrong. I stopped a few times and took off booties and rubbed muscles. Olivia had been rather stiff for much of the race, but normally after she warmed up for 10 minutes, she was a smooth, solid worker. She clearly wasn’t smooth now. As a matter a fact, she looked back at me periodically to say “I’m not feeling good.”
Boondocks never gets hurt. She is a tiny little pipsqueak who knows how to manage her body in many circumstances. But, she wasn’t pulling now. I adjusted her harness, took off her wind jacket and watched her closely. I couldn’t pinpoint anything.
As I continued to stop the team over and over, Dallas pulled out of sight. It was a shame to watch him go, but I had bigger concerns now. My two little girls were not acting as they should. As a team, we continued along the ocean side trail. It was a slow trudge. We then went through the little summer fishing village called Moses Point. We passed cabins and fishing nets ready for the season to change so villagers would return. It’s a somewhat sad little place that seems vacant and lonely in mid March. I tried to picture it in the summer when it must be a bustling place.
We finally came up off of the beach and onto the road that lead into the village of ELIM. This trail wasn’t much better however and we continued to travel very slowly. Olivia just ran along with her head was down. She wasn’t really part of the team. Boondocks still acted sassy, she just wasn’t pulling. I worried about them constantly. Then, like a white flag of surrender, Dingle started to run with his tail in the air. I again stopped the team and looked him over thoroughly. “Come on kids, let’s hold it together!” This section was obviously quite tough on them. Any thoughts of passing through ELIM without a stop were erased from my mind. It was obvious that I needed to have the veterinarians look through my squad.
We trotted down the road and towards the checkpoint. The last mile of the route is downhill. I was looking forward to that. As we crested the hill, the road maintenance began and our trail was now a plowed “race track”. Quito instinctively started to lope, along with Scruggs, Chica, Nacho, Tatfish, Biscuit. My fast trotters, Willie, Beemer, Rambler, Dingle, quickened their gaits. Boondocks kept focus ahead with a slack tug line. Olivia started to limp. “Oh no!” I slowed the team down. We were so close to the checkpoint, I couldn’t watch her if she limped. So, we gradually made our way down the hill to ELIM.
I pulled the team into the crowd and was immediately surrounded by kids and adults. I looked around and it was obvious that Dallas had gone through. The checker immediately asked if I was going through as well. I said, “I’m staying. I need to have a veterinarian look at a few dogs.” I could tell that a few folks were disappointed that I was “giving up the chase”. But, in the back of my mind, I knew that Dallas’ team had a challenging run from KOYUK as well. I thought to myself, “If he runs straight over to WHITE MOUNTAIN, there’s a good possibility that I’ll catch him.” I knew that his team wasn’t any stronger than mine. But, we both had to manage our own squads correctly for the next 100 miles.
It was late afternoon and it seemed to me that everyone was in ELIM: fans, race officials, Iditarod Insider guys. It was a busy place. The veterinarians were great. They came over and I immediately asked them to look at three dogs: Dingle, Boondocks and Olivia. The two girls were sore. It looked like both of them had strained their triceps in the deep snow. I did the release paperwork for Olivia right away. She didn’t even eat her meal. I didn’t like to see that. Boondocks confused me. She didn’t act injured. After she ate, she snuck back towards the sled and ate Olivia’s meal as well. Then she walked back next to Rambler and cozied up next to him to sleep.
Dingle was another issue. I couldn’t understand his tail in the air. That seemed to tell me that something was wrong. When I first talked to the vets about him I thought that perhaps he was overheating. I asked them if it was above freezing this afternoon. They looked at me like I was crazy. “It’s barely zero.” Oh. When a person spends all of their time outside in the elements, their gauge is skewed. Obviously, my gauge was broken. The vets spent 20 minutes examining Dingle - tooth and nail. I sincerely appreciate that. But, they found nothing. They also stated that Boondocks seemed a little sore, but wasn’t favoring the tricep that I thought was injured.
I was determined to stay 2 hours. Quite a crowd gathered around as I tended to the team. Of course people wanted to know what I was planning. One person looked me with anguish on his face. “Will you get in trouble if I tell you something about your competition?” I eyed him and said “You are going to tell me that Dallas is camped outside the checkpoint, aren’t you?” “How did you know?”
Dallas doesn’t like to make long runs on his team. He had camped outside of CRIPPLE, he had camped outside of SHAKTOOLIK, of course he will camp outside of ELIM too. I also knew that his team was in the same shape as mine. The overall quality of our dog teams was identical. I knew that he didn’t have that much more in his “doggie arsenal” than I did. So, when I needed to stop in ELIM, he needed to stop as well. He just choose to do it a mile farther down the trail.
Dallas said later that he did it to “tempt me” to run my team harder than I should have. Perhaps if I saw that he went through ELIM, I would forget everything that I planned to do regarding my team and copy his maneuver. Dallas knows me better than that! I am competitive, but not stupid.
So, I went into the checkpoint building. My next priority was to gather a few drinking bottles for the last 100 miles of the race. I found some plastic water bottles and a larger Gatorade container. I would fill them with hot water and bury them in my beaver mitts for insulation. I talked to Bruce Lee for a short spell. He asked me why I had stopped. I told him that I had to. The team needed assessment and perhaps, regrouping. He asked me about Dingle. I told him that he would leave with us, but I would watch him like a hawk. I needed to make a final decision about Boondocks. But first, I wanted to lie down for 20 minutes. I went into a little corner near the back of the building and found a parka to lie on and a pair of boots for a pillow. ELIM comfort. I was asleep immediately.
When I woke I spent very little time indoors. I walked out to the team and put Boondocks on a leash. She was only slightly favoring her tricep. Very slightly. It looked like she could possibly loosen up. I walked her and rubbed her muscle and she pulled like crazy on the leash. She acted normal. She looked fine. Then in a rash moment, I turned to the veterinarian and asked for the release paperwork. I was going to leave her in ELIM. She hadn’t pulled for several hours, I couldn’t figure out why right now, but clearly she had a reason. What a pity.
I also walked around Dingle. He seemed normal. He is never a super excited dog. He just looked at me like: I’m ready. “Alight, you’re going.” I bootyed up the team. I was down to 10 dogs so it took me very little time.
I asked them to stand up and they did so. The crowd was still in place and the dogs weren’t all excited about leaving such fine company. Especially Beemer and Rambler who looked back longingly at the spectators as if to say, “Come meet us down the trail... please. We love you.” The rest of the squad was more business-like. Quito in charge with her first mates, Chica and Nacho, and second mates, Scruggs and Willie. Biscuit and Tatfish were steady, as usual. Dingle ran beside Quito periodically flagging me with his tail.
We walked out onto the frozen ocean and skirted the village trails. The pack ice was frozen in small iceberg jumbles. It was a little dangerous should a dog slip a paw into a crack or slide across a glare section.
It was still daylight and there was a lot of activity in the area. An airplane on skis buzzed over us again and again. I was too focused on my team, watching every step that they made, to look down the trail very far. But as the airplane continued to buzz us, I finally realized why. Dallas had just left his camp and was only a few hundred yards ahead. Soon we passed another spot on the ice with melted indentations and little straw beds. It was obvious that Dallas either stayed exactly two hours (the same amount of rest that I gave my team in ELIM) or he just waited until he saw me coming. I’m not really sure which I believe. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, and believe that he planned to stop for two hours.
So, now we were in chase mode again. The team was not however in full speed yet. They were warming up and I let them do so. I ski poled and cheered a few of them on. We climbed up off the ice and started up Little McKinely. That is one heck of a hill at the end of a race. The dogs did very well however and pulled with all their might. I ran and pedaled and did my fair share as well. I keep the lids on my new drinking bottles “lightly tightened” so that they wouldn’t freeze shut. I sure appreciated a few swigs of water while climbing that hill.
I could see Dallas in the distance. I had dropped two critical dogs. But, I noticed on the race stats that he had dropped one. Was his team now faster than mine? “Let’s not give up.”
The airplane was interesting to watch as it circled Dallas as he climbed ahead of us. For much of the way through these hills, he was just out of reach and always one ridge ahead of us. I’ll give it to him, he was steady. However, my team was warmed up now and making some excellent headway. We climbed the remaining hill with ease.
At the top of this ridge is an amazing sight down into Golovin Bay. The mountains that surround the bay were glowing with sunset pinks and purples. It was a gorgeous moment. I shared it with the dogs. They ate their salmon snacks as I watched the sunset and drank slightly frozen water from my bottles.
We ran down and onto the frozen bay. The lights of Golovin lit up the horizon. The dogs knew that we were getting close. As we made our way toward the village I looked for any sign of people. Sometimes there are people to greet us in Golovin, sometimes there aren’t. But, then I saw a few specks of movement and knew that there was a crowd.
I pulled in and the dogs were happy to see more people. Some of the kids asked me to sign their parkas. I signed their gear and they petted the dogs. That was a fair trade. I was glad to see that Dallas had stopped to sign some stuff before me. It’s a shame when mushers don’t spend a little time with the locals whose village we travel through, right down Main Street. But, I didn’t stay there long. We trotted off, through the town, around the corner and back out on the ice.
I always stop my team after Golovin. They need to have a healthy snack and refocus on the trail ahead. Once again a few dogs looked back at the town, but after munching some meat and readjusting some booties, they looked ahead. We were off.
I had no way of knowing how far ahead Dallas was at this point. If I were him, there is no way that I would ever glance back, at least not with my head light turned on. So, I never saw any sign of anyone that night. We kept an even pace for much of the time.
I did start to feel rather sleepy as we trotted into a white haze. So, I ski poled and pedaled in a regular rhythm. I would count and this kept me awake. But, I caught myself dozing off more than once.
Soon the wind picked up. I was in a groove “Pedal 1 -2 - 3 - 4”, so I was hoping not to take time out to put on my wind jacket. But I soon felt a chill from the icy breeze right down my back. I didn’t need to get chilled again, so I dug through my sled to find the jacket. When I looked down, my headlight beam disappeared from the dogs’ view. They drifted to the side and off the trail. The headlight that I had attached to my handlebar had run out of battery power. So, I grabbed my spare light from my chest pocket and used this light to rummage through my sled. I kept the larger light shining down the trail for the team to follow. After a few curse words and a long time, I found it. The team really slowed down during this escapade.
The wind picked up even more. It was very eerie out on the frozen ocean that night. All I could see was my dogs trotting ahead into hazy whiteness. I could not differentiate the ground from the sky. Everything was one uniform color. Occasionally we would pass directly by an Iditarod trail marker. I had complete confidence that the dogs were following the trail by scent. They never took a wrong turn, but they were now moving quite slowly.
Then I had a downright argument with my wind jacket. Of course I didn’t want to stop mushing as I put it on. But as I held it over my head it acted like a sail and nearly blew me off the sled. So, I bunched it up and tried to jam the neck hole over my head. Then my large headlight was in the way and the jacket knocked it from my head which again stole the light from the dogs. This went on for what seemed like an eternity. It was probably only a few minutes, but boy, was it frustrating.
Finally I managed to put the jacket on and kept my headlight shining down the trail to maintain focus. All this time my excellent dog team was trotting into a brutal windstorm without the slightest hesitation. We got off the ocean and down onto the Fish River. This lead us around a bend and in ten minutes we saw the village lights. We were there.
To the Finish
WHITE MOUNTAIN is a significant place. There is no doubt about it, when you reach WHITE MOUNTAIN you are on the home stretch. I pulled in and was happily greeted by some of the best checkers on the race. Of course the media was there and a few spectators. But, it was one in the morning, so the “masses” were in bed. It was relaxing to be there. I wasn’t anxious or upset.
I think the dogs felt my relaxation because they rolled around in their straw beds and made themselves at home. I fed them quite a bit, both dry kibble and a moist meal. I rubbed down their feet and wrists. I extended their lines so they could stretch out a little. They had an eight hour rest ahead of them and I didn’t want any strange soreness to arise. Some people tend to think that longer rests are better for dogs, but I’m not sure that’s true. I think more frequent rests are good, but longer rests tend to slow their metabolism and stiffen their joints. I find this the case for myself as well. Of course, there is a fine line between a short rest and no rest at all.
I spoke to the media. I wasn’t ready to concede the race completely. Just like back in KALTAG, I wasn’t ready to claim the race, here I wasn’t ready to concede. 77 miles is still a long way to travel by dog team. I thought that it would be challenging to overcome the one hour lead Dallas now had. But, you never know.
As I stood watching the team, I was also watching my watch. Ramey Smyth was the next musher scheduled to arrive. The Smyth brothers are notorious for screaming into Nome with a blistering last run speed. Ramey arrived 52 minutes after me. He was catching up, but I’d worry about that later.
I went up to the checkpoint building and ate some food. I hung up my clothing and tip toed over all the snow machine trailbreakers’ bodies that were covering the floor. I thought to myself “When you catch up to the trail breakers, you know that you’re doing pretty well!”
I had brought my sleeping bag into the checkpoint for my nap. This time it would be longer than the 20 minutes that I was accustomed to recently. I set my alarm and wrote a time on the “wake up board”. I didn’t want to oversleep here. I let myself sleep for over three hours. It was great.
I wanted to be ready to leave exactly when my eight hours were up, so I started to prepare early. I gathered my gear - all of it. It takes longer when you have to repack you sleeping bag and haul all your stuff back down to the sled. I also went through my sled. What didn’t I really need? Dallas weighs at least 30 pounds less than I do. Perhaps I could shed a few pounds in packing? I rearranged a few things and left a few things aside. I didn’t really want to pare down too much. I like to be prepared for anything. So after 20 minutes, I was happy.
Aaron and Pete had arrived while I slept. They were now sleeping, as was Ramey. It looked like it would be this one last section and we were there.
I watched Dallas leave the checkpoint. His little dog Guinness was again the super star. It was obvious as he called her by name, that she was the key to this moment of the race. The team walked out of the checkpoint without a hitch. Pretty impressive.
I gathered my team together and stood them out on the line. I think I did this a little too early because they were enthusiastic at first, but then as we stood there waiting for the countdown, they seemed to lose their flare. So, we didn’t bolt out of the checkpoint as I would have liked. I pedaled and ran as they stopped periodically to poop and pee. Each dog has to poop and pee at different times. So, the movement down the first 1/8 of a mile looks very disjointed. One of the best things I could do is to train my dogs to poop on command. Very unlikely that this will ever happen, but it would be helpful. Finally when their systems were caught up with their motion, the team became a fluid unit. I let them have their own pace for the first few miles. No sense in rushing them to warm up. All in due time. I thought that we had every possible chance of catching Dallas, and we had 77 miles to do it.
The trailbreakers came from behind us about an hour into the run. I was actually hoping that they would oversleep just this once because the trail had set up nicely during the night. But, it was daylight now and it was time to travel.
Our run over the hills toward the coast was nice. It was quite pretty. This is always an amazing section of trail for me. The enormous rolling hills are abbreviated by steep creek beds. There are no trees and few bushes. When it blows on the western coast of Alaska, nothing wants to stand in its way. So, nothing grows. The trail is a highway for the villagers in this region so it is thoroughly marked with tripods and tall poles. You can tell that people have been lost out here and they don’t want it to happen again.
I felt like we were really motoring down the trail. I was running every hill and pedaling constantly. I watched the runner tracks from Dallas’ sled that were carved into the snow in front of us. Was he slower than we were? I convinced myself that he was.
We came up over Topcock, which is no small feat, and zipped down the western side toward the ocean. The race officials in WHITE MOUNTAIN had mentioned that there was quite a bit of glare ice on the lagoon before SAFETY. I could see the ice gleaming in the sunshine from a ways off. The trail markers were stuck into the center of the ice skating rink. As far as I could see, the marked trail traveled on sheer ice.
Quito clambered up onto the ice and immediately slipped off to the side. She eyed the trail marker and tried it again. My sled slid out to the side and pulled the team along with it. I didn’t like this mess. I decided to disregard the markers. I knew we were headed straight down the beach towards SAFETY. I had traveled this route eleven times. Unless I mistakenly turned out to sea, I was sure that I could come up with a better route.
So, I asked Quito to “haw”. She skated off to the left and down onto an area covered with driftwood and rocks. We couldn’t travel there. But, there was a thin section of snow that had blown off of the ice and not quite reached the driftwood. We proceeded to follow this ten-foot wide slice of snow. It zigged here and there, but Quito understood that this was our new route, so she diligently followed it.
I continued to peer down the trail in front of us. Where was he? When we got back on a manageable trail I again studied his runner tracks. Was he going faster or slower?
As we neared SAFETY my hopes rose. Just a little ways ahead of me was a helicopter. It was hovering in one place, looking at something. I was convinced that the helicopter was watching Dallas and his team. I must be catching him! So, I ski poled and pedaled and we leaned into the wind and continued forward. I could see SAFETY checkpoint across a frozen lagoon.
I readied myself and the team to quickly pass through this final checkpoint. I had my vet book in hand. I came up and the checker and veterinarian were waiting for us. They seemed so cool and calm. They greeted me with sincere smiles. I blurted out, “How far ahead is Dallas?”
“About an hour.” The air burst out of my ballon.
I’m not sure how friendly I was about then. I probably wasn’t. Sorry.
So, it was at SAFETY that I conceded the race. I was going to place second. That is, if Ramey didn’t catch me! All of a sudden I remembered that Ramey Smyth was probably barreling down the trail after us. Oh my, we better get a move on. I didn’t stay in SAFETY very long. The team somewhat ran through the pink flagging barrier that was supposed to “fence out” dogs from the actual building. My dogs snooped around and ran threw it. Opps.
We left in the same manner that we had arrived. I started to pedal and pole rather religiously. I looked ahead down the trail towards Nome. We were really close now. There are actual mileage markers along the road and it read “19”. Only 19 miles until we would reach the finish line. Only 19 miles out of 1,000. Only 19!
The wind had really had an effect on the trail conditions around Nome. There were large two-foot drifts every ten to twenty feet. The dogs would pick up a fast gait only to be halted by a snowdrift. This happened over and over as we made our way down the trail. I periodically looked back and scanned the horizon behind me for a dog team. I saw absolutely no sign.
The rumor at the start of the race was that the last few miles into Nome would stay on the road. But as we came upon the turnoff to Cape Nome, it was obvious that we were going to climb one more mountain. So, I asked the dog to “gee” and we started towards the hill. It was a long slow climb. I think that I was a tiny bit bummed and the dogs picked up on my mood again. As I ran and they pulled we made pretty good headway up the mountain.
At the top I had a clear view of Nome. How glorious! I also turned behind me and looked back across the sound for Ramey. I didn’t see him. We ran along the ridge top of Cape Nome. I felt like we were floating high up in the air above the ocean and the valleys. It was a clear and gorgeous late evening. The sun was shining on the western horizon. I would see one last sunset from the back of my dog sled on the Iditarod trail.
We came down the mountain and the team charged ahead. They really started to pick up speed. I think they new where they were. I certainly did. But, Dingle wasn’t charging ahead like the rest of the crew. His tail was flagging and he, once again, didn’t look right. I decided to load him in the sled. His weight wouldn’t slow us too much and I wanted to give him a break.
So, I looked ahead at my 9 dogs and one grey little head sticking out of my bag. They trotted down the trail. I put Beemer back in lead with Quito. Beemer had been so excited about the crowds and fans at the previous checkpoints I decided that coming into Nome with a thousand fans cheering for him would be a dream come true.
The snowdrifts were like barricades across the trail. I knew that these drifts would keep Ramey from catching us. He has trained his dog team to speed at specific times with certain commands. But, as I looked at the trail conditions that we faced, I knew his team wouldn’t be able to keep their speed through these drifts. No matter how fast they ran on the good trail, they would slow when they hit a drift. He wouldn’t catch us. This however, didn’t keep me from pedaling and ski poling at a frantic rate.
We passed over the Nome River and closed in on the buildings on the outskirts of town. We started to parallel Front Street and there were cars and people everywhere. Everywhere! I waved to as many folks as I could and said “Howdy” from a distance. Race fans were out in force. Everyone was smiling and happy for us.
I stopped here and took Dingle out of the sled bag. He seemed alright and I wanted him to be a part of the team as we crossed under the burled arch finish line. I moved him into the middle of the team with Willie. I moved Biscuit back to wheel with Rambler. Tatfish and Chica were one spot above wheel. Nacho and Scruggs were directly behind my leaders, Quito and Beemer. I gave everyone a good pet as I walked back down the team saying “good dog” to every one. I stopped at Rambler and told him that I was incredibly proud of him.
Of course, it couldn’t have been a prettier evening. It was a spectacular evening to mush on the frozen Bering Sea. The sun had now set and the sky was a pink and purple glow. The frozen ocean with its various iceberg pyramids glowed an amazing hue. Finally, I looked ahead and realized that we were now only a mile from the finish. My stomach sank and my eyes watered just a bit. Wow. Here we were.
The people of Nome were so excited and shouted their congrats with the utmost sincerity. It was difficult to not become very emotional. The houses along the ocean had people hanging from their balconies and windows. Families were standing on the ocean applauding. They all cried out my name like we were best of friends. “Aliy we love you!”
We trotted up the snow ramp and turned “haw” onto Front Street. The street was lined with spectators and rows of lights hung down over the team. The dogs were true professionals and trotted directly down the center of the street. They weren’t distracted by the crowds along the sidewalks. They were fully focused ahead - as they had been for 1,000 miles.
I didn’t say much to them at that point. Each dog was flicking their ears and listening for my commands. I let travel at their own speed. I asked them to “gee” and then “haw” in order to keep them in the center of the street. My leaders were dead on. Beemer was happy to be running straight into a joyous crowd. Quito was doing her job as she had for the last 2,000 miles.
We got closer and the noise was louder and as the dogs ran up the ramp, we were encircled by the crowd. What a glorious finish! I was extremely proud of my entire team, myself included.
I can remember smiling. Of course, I was smiling.
Fans reading this might think, “Aliy sure is an emotional person.” I am. I have highs and lows and I am not always good at hiding my feelings. I have watched other mushers as they act out a false character for their dogs, or talk to them in high pitched “baby” voices. But, that’s not me. We are a team and I have no need to lie to them. They probably know me better than I know myself.
My dogs are phenomenal. Their physical and mental toughness and dedication is amazing. I know very few people who are as tough as a sled dog. I raise my dogs with a special bond that links them to me. I utterly respect every one of my dogs - from the most seasoned to the least experienced. I think that they know this and in turn they pay me back in loyalty. They don’t run out of fear or threats, they run because I ask them to run.
Our success was a combination of superior dogs and a well planned strategy. Allen and I thought a lot about how best to run this particular team. The Iditarod strategy that we implemented was not a last minute decision, but completely calculated from the start. As a matter a fact, our entire racing season, from December through March, was calculated. We trained and raced, dogs and mushers, with utter dedication. We were able to move throughout the season, from race to race, with only minor hiccups. Each race was the main goal at that particular moment. Iditarod just happened to fall at the end of a very successful season.
During Iditarod, I did my very best to hold the team together. The weakest link of the team was myself. I am very keen and observant when it comes to the dogs. Their overall attitude and physical well-being has always been my main priority. That being said, it is most likely a flaw when I do not look after myself with the same dedication as I do my dogs. After all, I am really just team mate #17.
The thing that I am most proud of for this year’s Iditarod is the fact that I ran an extremely competitive race and looked out for the best interest of my team. Many teams have scratched from this incredibly challenging event only to claim that it “was in the best interest of their team.” I will not dispute their claims. But, I would like to say publicly that I raced my team to a 2nd place finish because quite simply: it was in the best interest of my team.
I have always said that winning Iditarod would take a perfect race. We were very close to perfection this year. Very close.
I won’t lie and say that I am jubilant with second place. I am not. I know that I should be pleased. I should be ecstatic. But, I am what I am. As I am told by many of my fans and supporters, “You did beat 64 other mushers.” I will take that knowledge, and someday it will mean more to me.
A year ago I chastised myself for not asking enough of my dog team. This season I learned to trust the strengths of my dogs and myself, and ask them for the moon. I must continue to have faith in both the dogs and myself. Underestimating my talented, fit, well-trained huskies is a disservice to them. We only have one chance at Iditarod per year, so we must make the most of it.
The Yukon Quest was an incredible race and a story unto itself. The ten dogs on my team that raced this event just weeks before Iditarod were better off because of it. Their attitude and general physical health was stronger. The normal “sled dog” excitement and adrenaline race craze was much less. This worked in our favor because these dogs had an overall demeanor that was more like: “let’s just get the job done.”
The sixteen dogs on this 2012 Iditarod team were ready to roll at the start. The SP Kennel team is a fun group of canines. Each one is an individual with quirks that make me smile. I could probably talk for hours on end about each pooch, but I will keep it to a minimum:
Quito was my MVD (Most Valuable Dog.) If there was one thing that really bothered me about a 2nd place finish; it wasn’t the money, the new Dodge truck or the limelight; it was the fact that Quito wouldn’t get a necklace of roses. I completely understood that they only go to the lead dogs of the winner. But, by golly, it upset me that she didn’t get crowned. She was smart and driven this entire season. She ran in lead for 1,000 miles on the Yukon Quest and over 1,000 miles in Iditarod. She never missed a step. As we’ve always said: “There is no quit in Quito!”.
Nacho was a big goof. He was happy from start to finish. His silly antics made me smile. Nacho is an amazing sled dog. This race he was powerful, dedicated and confident. I watched Nacho race the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, back to back, and never lose his smile.
Chica was the sweetheart of the team. This season, she was one of the hardest working dogs at the kennel, but got the least fanfare for her efforts. Her siblings (see above) usually “steal the show”, but the team would not have had the success that it did with out this fantastic dog. She was steady from start to finish and never asked for anything.
Dingle came into Iditarod without having the Yukon Quest under his belt. He was a steady team player for the first 3 /4 of the race and then took the reins for the last 1/4. He had me really worried when he started to flag his tail outside of ELIM. To this day, I am pretty sure he was telling me that something was wrong. Either he stubbed his toe, sprained a joint, or took a mis step. I don’t know. I could never pinpoint the problem. Whatever it was, it seems to have cured itself . He rested only a week after he got home and then lead a 20 mile fun race the following weekend. He is a delightful dog.
Biscuit has finished six Iditarod and two Yukon Quests. Confident and unyielding. He is a dog’s dog. He has never fancied the “ohs and ahhs” of the crowd and would rather just push down the trail into the wilderness. He made it easy to camp out on the trail and stay out of checkpoint because I knew that’s where he’d rather be.
Tatfish always has fun. We would be trotting down the trail 500 miles from no where and he would jump up into the air and grab a willow bush. He is unpredictable, to say the least. He never takes anything seriously and I could probably learn a little bit about life from him. He will always be there in the long run because it wouldn’t occur to him to be anywhere else.
Beemer is “my” dog. When I’m tough, he’s tough. When I’m emotional, he’s emotional. When I interact with fans, he interacts with fans. In the long run, he did everything that I asked of him. I wish that he was just a little stronger willed in the end (but, then again I wish I was too.)
Rambler came into the Iditarod behind in training miles. The consensus at the kennel was that his spirit, not his physical prowess, would enable him to be dog sixteen on the team. I was able to gauge him exactly right. I managed his energy by giving him a lift in the sled early on and he paid me back 100%. This race, Rambler was a darn tough guy and a nice dog to be around. I enjoy him.
Scruggs had a racing season to envy: a Yukon Quest and Iditarod finisher. But, he didn’t seem to draw the attention that some of the others did. He was fun to watch for thousands of miles, trotting down the trail with his high-stepping gait. He has always been naturally a prancer and this makes him appear light-hearted and jovial. But, Scruggs has the desire to win. And he was only an hour and 26 seconds from his goals. We’ll do it again next year buddy.
Olivia tries her absolute hardest regardless of anything and anyone. She has a drive to compete all of her own. Her shoulder soreness outside of ELIM and the loss of her from my team was a painful realization of how much she meant to this squad. Not only was she a perfect worker, but she was somewhat of the “head down, non complaining” cheerleader of the squad. The Big O is a canine Wonder Woman.
Boondocks defies logic. Her character is what every human should aspire to: absolute confidence despite a “non perfect body”. None of us are put together flawlessly and we have to live with what we’ve got. But, Boondocks doesn’t see her self as others might. In her eyes, she is gorgeous, strong, talented and she can truly do anything. So... I guess she can! She is remarkable.
Bonita has finished Iditarod with Allen, but never with me. I continue to root for her and try to coach her to the finish. Perhaps, I need to understand her needs more. The entire race she was dynamic, excited and liked to be part of the team. We will work more one-on-one and let’s do it next year next year Bon-bon!
Scooter was a youngster who really shined this season. She knew very little and learned quite a lot. I think she’ll learn even more this coming year and be a valuable player in the future. Overall, Scooter was always happy to be there, which was great to see. Whenever I saw a tail wagging in the darkness, I knew it was her.
Nutmeg must not have been 100% coming into Iditarod. Either that or she just got a kink in her neck near the start of the race. She has run the Iditarod six times and the Yukon Quest twice. She is no slouch. Meg will be 8 1/2 years old this racing season. She’ll be back and probably better than ever.
Viper was the weakest dog on the squad. I left him in RUBY because he just hadn’t eaten enough to keep his fuel tank full enough or his body healthy enough. He probably could have continued with the team, but I’d rather drop him while he still “wanted to do more” than the alternative. There must be a training technique or coaching method that would suit him. I will do my best to learn how to train him because Viper deserves another chance.
Yearly, I have to remind myself and the readers that I write these Trail Notes primarily for myself. Originally, I kept all of this insight and self revelation to myself. I learned a lot from writing down and remembering my actions, thoughts and feelings. I guess it is in my nature to always improve and these trail notes help me do so.
Several years ago, I shared some of these pages with a few friends and sponsors. They appreciated the narrative and I thought it was a fair trade for their support.
Now, in our computer generated world of bloggers and the internet the best method for me to share these notes with select folks is to post them on my website. It makes me a little nervous that they are now completely public and for the world to read and judge.
So, I ask that you remember that this is my story - my opinion - my views.