Annika Olesen, Northwest Territories, Canada
Junior Iditarod 2011: rookie year
From my blog written for friends, family, and sponsors:
The race was hard and a lot of fun. We were well prepared for the start and that went smoothly. In the first hour or so I was passed by a lot of people and passed a couple. We did our first 20 miles in about 2 hours, but then we slowed down in the warmth of the afternoon. I was in front of Meredith Mapes and Seiji Takagi for a while, but then Meredith passed me as I stopped to give my team some snacks. Seigi was behind me for the rest of the race. I stopped at Eagle Song Lodge Checkpoint (about 21 miles from Yentna) for a couple minutes to have the vet look at Rohn’s toenail. It was broken at the tip, but it did not seem to be bothering him.
After we left Eagle Song, we had a bit of a slump, then we picked up speed again and made it to Yentna around 7:30 at night. The first thing I did at Yentna was give everyone a meat and supplement snack that helps the dogs recover after intense exercise. Then I put a snowhook at the front of the team to hold them out and unhooked everyone’s tuglines so they could curl up. After getting my alcohol cooker melting snow, I gave the whole team big beds of straw and took off their booties.
Emily Krol helped me locate and carry my drop bags (the bags with all my dog/people food and gear that were sent out to the checkpoint before the race) to my team. I continued to add snow to the melting water and opened my drop bags. Getting my cooler out of my sled, I filled it with dry kibble, liver, ground beef, and another meat mix, then poured the hot water over top. I let it soak while I went to find the vet. He and I looked at Rohn’s toe, as well as Daisy, Bengal, and Munin. They had really faded toward the end. He put some powder on Rohn’s toe and then I fed the dogs. Everyone but Munin and Daisy ate everything I gave them, and I got them to eat some meat snacks. I heated some moose stew for myself and melted some more snow. Then I went over to the bonfire where most of the other mushers were gathered. After sitting with them for a few minutes, I returned to my sled to lay out my sleeping pad, bag, and a tarp. To be prepared for watering the dogs in the morning, I poured hot water over some salmon chunks in the cooler and buried it in snow.
I woke up around 2 AM and felt like getting up. I pulled on my warm clothes and tiptoed past my sleeping team to the bonfire. The other mushers and I laughed and talked; slowly the group grew smaller as the frontrunners left. At 4:07, two hours before I was to leave, I gave the dogs their fish soup and checked them over. I spent the next two hours packing up, sitting around the bonfire, bootying a few dogs of my team and laying on the straw with them.
Finally I hooked up everyone and tried to cheer them up about the prospect of leaving their nice soft beds. At 6:07 we ran out of the checkpoint and onto the Yentna River. My team was pretty disjointed and I was tired. After about 3 hours through frozen swamps and wooded trails, we arrived in Eagle Song. I had decided to drop Bengal and Munin because they were not helping me much. As I stopped to sign in, the vet said, “Do you know that your swing dog is limping?” I immediately thought the vet meant Daisy because she had been limping the night before. When I realized it was Shade, I was very disappointed. He is one of my biggest and most consistent dogs, but as we unhooked him and walked him around I could see that he was distinctly limping.
This was where I made my most definite mistake. When I realized that I had to drop Shade, I went back on my decision to drop Bengal. This would come back to haunt me later. As I left Munin and Shade behind, the checker warned me to “keep your eyes on the trail MARKERS, not the trail. Two teams are already way off track.” I assumed that it must be two of the trailing teams and I hoped that it would give me a chance to catch them. Bengal and Daisy did well at first, but they slowly faded. At one point I tried to load Bengal into my sled, but he would have none of it. When I put him back in the team he worked like a maniac. Maybe he saw the alternative (riding in the cramped sled) and decided to try harder! I snacked the dogs every couple hours and I could see that they were getting tired.
About 5 hours out of Eagle Song, I saw something on the trail ahead of me. At first I thought it was a snowmobile, but then I realized that it was another team. I could not believe it when I saw who it was. Conway Seavey, the leader out of Yentna, was resting his team on the side of the trail. He had left Yentna over 3 hours ahead of me. “What are you doing here?” I asked as my team approached. “I thought you were busy winning the race!”
“I was…but then Merissa Osmar [defending champion] and I took a 30 mile detour. I’m just resting my dogs, ‘cause otherwise it would a 105 mile run.”
“How long is it to the finish?”
“About 21 miles.”
We talked for a couple more minutes and then I continued on. I did not get to stay in 11th place for long. In about an hour, he came flying up behind me again and drew away.
After a couple more hours, I was seriously doubting the “21 mile” estimate. As my team passed a race official on the side of the trail, I asked him how far it was to Willow. “22 miles,” he told me. I groaned inwardly. I had Little Griz and Ernie in lead at that point and Little Griz was pretty sick of running so I took him out and tried Amaroq. That didn’t work either. As I was taking her out of lead I saw another team coming up behind me. It was Seiji. I asked if he wanted to pass and he said no. He stayed behind me to the finish.
My team was “running on fumes” as we crossed a road 10 miles from the finish. Every few minutes Daisy, Amaroq, or Bengal would quit and I would have to stop and cheer everyone up. Only Ernie would lead and he was the one who made those last few miles possible. Daisy needed a longer rest than she could have in the team, and when I loaded her into the sled she closed her eyes immediately. With Seigi still behind me, we ghosted down the trail. I kept hoping that the finish line would be around the next turn. Neither I nor my team believed my reassurances of “almost there,” which I had been repeating for 40 miles.
Finally we came down a small hill onto Willow Lake. On the other side, I could see the finish banner. I could also see Bengal, obviously feeling the effects of his healing cut from the fight, would not make it there. He was trying very hard, but he was just out of gas. He had no idea that 1500 feet away was the end of the whole run. My choices were to carry both Bengal and Daisy to the finish, or to see if Daisy had rested enough to run in the team the last 300 yards and load Bengal. I chose the latter and tucked Bengal into the sled. Daisy looked for a minute like I had made the wrong choice, but she bravely collected herself. We crossed the finish line a couple minutes later, with Seiji right behind me.
I was proud of the dogs and our accomplishment, frustrated with myself at not having brought them to the finish line in better form, and very glad to have made it. Dad called Grandma and my aunt and uncle and put the phone to my ear. They congratulated me and I talked for a minute. Emily Krol was out there to welcome me and she, Mom, Dad, Liv, Léne, and other friends who were there helped bring the team to the truck. Shade and Munin were there to meet us. We unharnessed the team and gave them a little bit of food, then loaded them into the straw-filled dog boxes. The banquet started at six, so we headed over there right away.
Inside, all the other mushers, the race marshal and I gathered in a small back room to vote on the Sportsmanship and Blue Harness (lead dog) awards. Amid much laughing and joking, we voted for our choices before filing out of the room in finishing order and sat down at the front of the room. After getting our dinner of ham and potatoes, Libby Riddles (first woman to win the Iditarod) spoke for about 20 minutes. Then we went on stage one by one to receive our awards and make a short “thank you” speech.
Merissa Osmar and Conway Seavey were tied for Sportsmanship and Merrisa’s leader Polly Pocket got the Blue Harness. Merrisa also got the award for Best Cared For Team. After these awards, the Jr. Iditarod winner, Jeremiah Klejka, went on stage to receive his new sled and other prizes.
After all the awards were done, we each laid our bibs on the table and every musher signed every other mushers’. Libby Riddles also added her signature. I said good-bye to everyone, and the whole family climbed in the truck and drove back to the house where we were staying.
My final running time was about 20.6 hours and my full time, including the layover was 30 hours 51 minutes and 46 seconds. We finished in 12th place. As my, and my dogs’, first race, it was a huge learning experience. I had a lot of fun, met 13 other awesome young mushers, and got a taste of long-distance racing.
Annika Olesen, Northwest Territories, Canada
Junior Iditarod 2013: veteran
From my blog written for my friends, family, and sponsors
“We plan our lives, but fate is not our own.
Each day still finds its destiny unknown.”
These words from a favourite poem rang through my head on Sunday night as I reflected on the day. That afternoon I scratched (withdrew) from the Junior Iditarod, on the Big Susitna River, 45 miles from the finish line. It is heartbreaking and shocking, and ultimately I know that I made the only realistic decision, and the only one that was fair to my dogs.
On Saturday the race went just as I had hoped. The dogs were peaking at the right time, eating everything we offered them, and excited to hit the trail. My family and I had prepared thoroughly for the start and there were no nasty surprises. Cadico and Little Griz led us out of the start, and through the first 40 windy miles. I was very proud of them, and especially Cadico, who usually falls apart when faced with wind. We were the 3rd team to leave the starting line, but as I expected I was passed by the ten teams behind me within the first four hours. I rode my brake for nearly four hours, keeping the dogs at about 9 miles per hour. As we planned, I stopped to rest the dogs after four hours, but they were still so eager to go that resting was not an option, and we continued down the trail. After another hour of running in the hottest part of the day, they were happy to rest. We rested for one hour 34 miles from Yentna. The rest was not as peaceful as I had hoped – two groups of recreational snowmobilers and two groups of race official snowmobilers had to squeeze past my resting dogs, waking them all at about 15 minute intervals. Despite the interrupted rest, we had a fairly nice 14-mile run to Eagle Song checkpoint, but the best run of the race was yet to come.
We passed through Eagle Song about an hour after Jonathan Biggerstaff, the team in front of us. The dogs were slightly reluctant to leave Eagle Song, and I experimented with several pairs of leaders before putting Opal and Amaroq in lead together. The rest of the run was magical. My girls led us along at about 8.75 miles an hour and even after 55, 65, 75 miles, the dogs still felt like they could go on forever. I was thrilled with them, and grinning, singing, and laughing aloud as I pulled into Yentna. Some people probably thought I had gone crazy on the trail, but I was just feeling the thrill of arriving at Yentna the way I had dreamed.
I signed into Yentna and completed the sled check, while race marshall Melissa Owens told me that I had surprised the Yentna officials – they hadn’t expected me to arrive there so soon. Looking at the sign-in sheet, I saw that I had made up 30 minutes on Jonathan on the 20 mile run from Eagle Song to Yentna. Melissa led my team to our resting spot, and I spent the next hour and half getting myself and my team bedded down and fed. I never really fell asleep, but I rested until quarter to five, when I got up to water the dogs. They ate everything I fed them eagerly, which is the best sign of a happy, healthy dog team. I was also pleased to see that they were alert and well-rested.
Pulling out of Yentna at 6:52, we ran onto the river and then the swamp trail to Eagle Song. It is a common sentiment among mushers that when leaving a checkpoint, you don’t even want to look at your team for about 20 minutes, until after the dogs have warmed up and gone to the bathroom. It can be depressing if you doesn’t have confidence that they will loosen up and look like a team after a few minutes. For about 30 minutes, I attributed the slight sluggishness of the team to this “checkpoint-itis,” and then switched leaders. We still weren’t moving very fast, and this was during the coolest part of the day’s run. The magic of the night before was gone and I knew it was going to be a long day. I decided to drop Daisy at Eagle Song because she was not pulling, and a liability when I needed every dog in the team to be focused on moving forward. Leaving Eagle Song was the beginning of the end for me and my team. The dogs clearly hoped Eagle Song was the finish line and I had a tough time convincing them to continue on down the trail. There were still 55 miles to the finish.
In the next hour, we only traveled about 7.5 miles and the pit in my stomach got bigger and bigger. Everyone was pulling except for the leaders, whose tuglines were so slack that the dogs behind them were tripping on them. I chose to take a 20-minute rest, having had success with that when training at home. The day continued to get warmer, and it was humid and snowing. If anything, the rest made things worse. I only ran for another 15 minutes, trying different pairs of leaders with the same dismal results, before I was forced to stop again. It was at this stop that I started to seriously consider my options. Given enough time, I knew I could rest the dogs through the heat of the afternoon and run the final 45 miles that night. I also knew that the trail sweep and race organizers would have to stay out there behind me until I arrived at the finish. There was no way that we were going to run 45 miles in the 6 hours remaining before the finishing banquet, but the idea of scratching was so repulsive to me that I pushed it out of my mind.
After sitting there thinking and resting for 15 minutes or so, I put Little Griz in single lead and roused the dogs. As Xtryder stood up and shook himself off, he yelped. I realized as I watched him run that he was seriously injured and could not continue to run. My heart sank even further. As my biggest dog, he was the very last dog I wanted to carry in the sled, but I had no choice. I tried to get him settled in and tied down before asking Little Griz to lead us forward. We ran about one more mile, with me pushing the sled up hills, poling with my ski pole, and knowing deep down that I was not going to make it to the finish with this team in the given time frame. On one downhill, Xtryder panicked, struggled, and managed to wiggle his way out of the sled. As I stopped to try to get him back in, the trail sweep team of three snowmobiles caught up with me. I told them that I was in trouble, and they said that the Big Susitna River was just a couple miles ahead, and we could make a plan there. I clipped Xtryder to his neckline in the team, and we ran the last two miles of my Jr. Iditarod.
On the river, I snacked the dogs and got them resting before walking over to the trail sweep crew. Explaining my situation to them made it clear to me that I only had one option that was fair to the dogs, and to all the people organizing the race and waiting for me. I knew that the only reason for me to stubbornly keep trying to finish was for my own pride and ego. I looked at my dogs sleeping in the hot sun, Xtryder with his unknown injury, my watch, and the trail sweep crew who had to stay out there until I finished, and I scratched.
The next couple hours are a tear-blurred haze in my memory. We loaded the dogs and the sled onto the two snowmobile toboggans and drove along the race trail to the finish. The toughest moment, besides making the decision itself, was crossing under the Junior Iditarod finish line banner while sitting on the back of a snowmobile, with my dogs riding in a sled behind me. All winter I had dreamed about crossing that line with the kind of team I ran into Yentna less than 24 hours before.
My family came out to meet me and as we settled the dogs into their boxes in the truck, I told them what I have just told you. Throughout the evening, I felt like someone I loved had just died unexpectedly. I went along, feeling quite cheerful and enjoying being with my fellow mushers, and would almost forget until the truth hit me again. Everyone I saw, from vets, to my family, to the other Jr. I mushers, to adult Iditarod mushers, assured me that I had made the only right choice and that there were no mushers who raced and never had to scratch. Their support helped a lot, but this race will always have mixed emotions for me.
So what happened? How did I have this fantastic team who fell apart 10 hours of rest later? I do not have a clear answer. The best explanation that I have is that the combination of the very warm, humid weather, Xtryder’s unexpected injury, and a lack of unshakable leadership all contributed to my team falling apart. In 2011, when I ran this race, I had my 11 year old leader Ernie, who saved the race by keeping my team moving when the rest of the dogs had given up on me. Little Griz, my main leader for this race, has some of Ernie’s talent, but not his experience. He was willing to lead us on Sunday, but just as I put him in lead by himself, Xtryder was injured. Xtryder will be fine and make a full recovery, but unfortunately his injury was the final blow to an already shaky situation. I so enjoyed the six months of training, and the race up until Sunday morning. I am very proud of my dogs and do not blame them in any way.