On The Trail With Mary

This blog is in memory of our dear friend and mentor, Mary Gilberston, who passed away this past Monday.family

I remember when I first got into mushing I was in awe by all the gals that bravely stood on the runners and headed into the wild woods on their own, just them and the dogs, for hours on end.  In my world, men did crazy crap like that without a care in the world, but not chicks.  Us girls are …. Ummmm …… smar …… more careful!!  I would listen to their tales of adventure and near misses and I’d wonder why they weren’t scared to death to stand on the runners.  When I met Mary, she was no different, except that she was much tougher.  Here was a gal in her 50’s running 12 dogs like it was nothing and I was near puking with the thought of getting on a team of four.  I remember feeling quite inadequate as a future musher.  I would watch her expertly handle and hook up her dogs calmly and always smiling.  It quickly became my aspiration to be Mary on the runners someday.  I wanted to step on the runners with 12 dogs without fearing for my life.  I wanted to calmly and with good humor hook up 12 maniacs with expertise.  Yes, I wanted to be Mary the musher!

As I slowly made my way through the college of mushing mishaps I continued to watch Mary with admiration.  This lady was one tough cookie.  I watched her walk away from running a high powered, string of dogs in the Midnight Run after crashing into a tree where she received a concussion and some broken ribs.  Was she crying?  Oh no, Mary still found the humor in this moment.  Not only that, but here she was with a sled wedged into a tree and herself down the side of some crazy hill and she still had the wherewithal to take care of those dogs and get them home safely.

MaryThen there was the UP 200 where someone put in a trail that should never be run by dog teams and she took a major spill and thought she had broken her arm. The lady was still smiling.

In the last Grand Portage race there was minimal snow with a hill coming out of the checkpoint that was so steep it was a sled destroyer.  I saw men mushers concerned about taking hot teams, in icy conditions, in the dark, down the hill from hell.  Well, Mary just laid that sled on its side and rode down in style; probably smiling!  In the same race, less than ¼ mile from the finish in No Man’s Land, she let Bruce pass her on a hill and yelled, “Don’t let Lloyd know that I let you pass me!” followed by her great laughter.  This lady was a class act on the trail.

She once told us a story, that I thought only MacGyver could pull off, about when her team got on an icy road and she couldn’t stop them as they careened towards the highway.   She climbed over her sled and got to the gang line and then shimmied her way up the line unhooking tugs while a rooster tail of down feathers followed her as her down coat was being shredded by the road.

Then there was the time out west when she was supposed to do a 15 mile training run and was gone for several hours because she got lost in the mountains by herself.  Then the year of the Epic Storm at Stage Stop when the teams were out in blizzard conditions and Mary’s team just quit on her.  She struggled for hours trying every leader combination there was before finally throwing in the towel.  Did she cry?  No, she was disappointed, but never without a smile.dog-smile-2

Yes, this lady was a mushing goddess in my books.  Nothing phased her and through it all she was always smiling, laughing and the epitome of good sportsmanship.

So in reflecting on these memories I have to ask myself if I’ve achieved Mary Mushing status and the answer is, “Hell No!”   I have learned a few things and I’d like to share one of them with all the newby mushers out there.

All of those lady mushers out there that seem so calm, cool and collected before a race; that doesn’t really exist!  It is a façade.  Even Mary got super nervous before a race.   As a matter of fact, most chick mushers I talk to are super nervous before the big race.  There’s frankly nothing more terrifying than your imagination and all the mishaps it will put you in on the big day.

Mary’s service was Saturday, but Lloyd told us to go to the races and win some for Mary and so we headed out with the mission in sight.  I didn’t really get nervous until I woke up at 4:30AM and my crazy mind had me dragging down the trail, missing turns, lost in the woods, dogs not passing, bones breaking, dogs dying and me losing the team.  I told Bruce when he woke up that I was retiring because I hated racing and didn’t understand why in the heck I put myself through this crap.  I then remembered my first race and Mary and her friend Judy telling me that nerves were something everyone dealt with; which led to pukesome crazy story about drinking pepto bismal and puking on race day.

I decided retiring would have to wait until after this race because this one was being dedicated to Mary.  So after an evening of worry about massive snowfall; which left us with the possibility of another Snowmaggedon, in the words of Frank Holmberg, we woke to clear skies and bitter temps and some wind.  The kennel had been training 21 adults and another 21 dogs made up the yearling team.   We lost a couple dogs to injuries and pulled two in from retirement so that we could field 5 teams.  Bruce ran a 10-dog team that had some young leaders and other question marks that we were trying to determine if they should go to Stage Stop.   Al ran a 10-dog team consisting of 6 yearlings and some B team veterans.   I had an 8-dog team of veterans with two 2 year old leaders; which I lovingly refer to as unguided missles.   Kat had an 8-dog team led by a couple of crack gee/haw B team leaders, 3 dogs off the A team, 2 yearlings and another B stringer.   Al-Jo’s 6-dog team consisted of a group of dogs coming off the injury list that we were working back into the mileage; an A-team leader and a healthy 11 year old retiree, two yearlings, a retiree that had broken his wrist in the spring and had it pinned and another A-team dog.

All of us were unsure of what we had going into this race.  The dogs had been running nice, but like many mushers we were worried about our front end and what we would discover, with the exception of Kat and Al-Jo who had phenomenal leaders.   We had the opportunity to do some passing training when the Fortiers came to visit over the holidays, but it did little for the confidence meter.

The hooking up of 5 teams with zero handlers went flawlessly!  I am in awe at our team and how each one of us held our composure like professionals and got every team to the line without a hitch!  It was pretty awesome to see us all function like a well-oiled machine.

We chose to boot all 42 dogs given the temperatures. This, of course, led to my near loss of composure when I saw every single 8-dog team hooking up without booties.  I must have jumped in the truck 5 times checking the temps.  I stripped the boots off of one dog and then changed my mind and re-booted.  I was entering freak out zone and then I just said, “Stick with the plan!”  Man, I REALLY HATE THE BOOTIE DILEMMA!

My little black missiles Packwa and Fala were super exited in the chute.  As we got situated in the chute, I realized that the team in the chute next to me was Kris Sampson, a serious contender.  I had heard that this was one of those athletic guys that spends as much time running behind his dogs as he does on the runners.  I knew he would be gunning for me and I wondered how long it would take.   However, I have a rule when I’m racing; NEVER look back.  This allows me to maintain my focus on the team, my race and how we’ve trained and I accept that the cards will fall where they may.

The first handful of passes went fairly well; which eased my mind working with two young leaders in very tough passing conditions; the trails are very tight and there is a lot of snow when you get off the trail.  This makes for ugly passing sometimes and especially as the race wears on.   I quickly realized that despite the fact that I had tried on 50 different clothing options; I chose the wrong one.  When I left the cabin I was sweating and almost changed to something lighter.  Thank God I didn’t because I would have died of hypothermia out there.  I was frozen before the 5 mile mark and quite miserable.  We only had one issue when my leaders were insisting on trying to run through some lathe that led down the training trail we had been using all winter, but a gracious volunteer helped get me out of that potential mess.  As we neared our cabin; which is about 12 miles out I contemplated saying the hell with this and pulling in to get warm as I could no longer feel my big toe or a couple fingers.  I thought, “What would Mary do?”  Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now she would have kept on smiling and continued.  So I did ….. maybe without the smile.smile 4

We got by our cabin with no issues and quickly after I passed Kat, without a hitch, and her team was moving nice.  Then I hear, “Hey Monica, can I get by?”   I turned and there was Kris Sampson.  I let him by and then I hear within seconds, “Trail!”  I’m thinking, “Who the hell is that?”   I realize that it is the gal that traveled with Kris to the race, Keri.   I let her by.  I then see Kris notice Keri and she threw her arms in the air; which appeared to me, at that moment, like a mini-victory dance.  I proceeded to watch as they both ran and poled up the hills pulling away from me and the wind left my sails.   In a moment of pity I thought, “I’m flipping old and I don’t have a pole.  Their team is not booted and mine is; this is hopeless.”  I then spoke out loud to Mary and said, “Hey, Mary it isn’t supposed to never give upgo down this way!”  Suddenly, my competitiveness kicked in and I thought, “Ok, this isn’t over until the finish line; so bring it!”  I weighed my options and decided that if I could keep them in sight without over running my team that this was doable; then I lost sight of Kris.  Within a very short time after the pass, as we entered the hilly section of the trail, I could see that Keri’s team wasn’t climbing well and we were reeling her in.  I was pumping and running for everything my old body was worth; which on the open market wouldn’t be much!  We completed the pass and I never looked back.

The team wasn’t flashy, but they were consistent and we kept a great momentum and rolled through the hilly section picking off teams here and there.  Meanwhile, all of my digits were freezing.   I mildly started panicking when I couldn’t feel my middle finger any longer.  I tried everything to bring life back, but it wasn’t happening.  As it started becoming painful I was freaking out, “Does this mean it’s thawing or does this mean it is dying!?!?   OMG, WHAT IF THEY HAVE TO AMPUTATE MY MIDDLE FINGER; I’ll never be able to drive again or truly express myself!”   I thought, “What would Mary do?”  I chose to tough it out and THINK about smiling.   After about 30 miles into the race and no sign of Kris, I spoke to Mary and said, “Hey Mary, we’re running out of time!”  Not long after this I noticed a couple mushers in the distance and one appeared to be running and poling.  I thought, “No, this can’t be; it’s a mirage.  Pure wishful thinking!”  As I got closer I realized it was Kris Sampson and I became possessed.   I yelled to Mary, “Mary, that’s him let’s go get him!”   I called the team up and they responded.  Slowly we reeled him in and Kris greeted me like the ultimate sportsman with, “Nice racing!” and then we high fived.  We made the pass and I never looked back.

I figured we were about 7 miles out at this point and from here the team just started rolling.  I think they were feeding off my energy and that Mary was giving us an updraft.  We hit the main road home and they picked the speed right up to 14.5 mph, which was awesome given what they just ran through and given the conditions and booties.  I refused to look back, but kept hoping that Kris wouldn’t be able to call his team up and make for one of those neck and neck races; I’m too old and out of shape for that crap!  By the time we hit the plowed road they were rolling at 17 mph and as excited as me to get back to the truck.  We rolled through the finish line without stopping straight to the truck!

This has come down to my favorite win as I really felt like I did a great job keeping my head and managing my team like they had been trained.  Several people commented that the team looked like they were ready to turn around and do it again; which is an awesome compliment.

Mary had her work cut out for her on Saturday watching over 5 Magnusson Racing teams all running in her honor so she was stretched a bit thin.   Being the consummate professional that she was, she still  somehow managed to bring three of our teams to 1st place.  Al Borak took home 1st place in the 10-dog.  My guess is that since Mary knew Al much longer than Bruce so she had to leave Bruce on his own for a few; which resulted in some delays!  I pulled off 1st in the 8-dog and since Mary didn’t know Kat; that was a no brainer.  Then for the icing on the cake she was there for Al-Jo who took 1st place in the 6-dog.

After the race that evening, I was so sore I could barely move.   My toes hurt, my fingers hurt and every muscle in my back.  I wanted to whine and complain, but instead I thought of Mary and went to bed with a smile instead.

Morale of this story; when you’re on the runners just keep on smiling no matter what!smile dog

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