We’re number ONE, We’re number ONE!! Yep, but not in the sense you normally here this mantra. Nope, we switched it up a bit. We like to do that to keep things interesting. That damn number ONE haunted us this past week. First, my eight dog team lost by ONE second! One darn second. Do you know how many times you can make up ONE second? Ohhh, let me count the ways! Just as I was getting over that defeat, I was forced to face another defeat when the handling crew including none other than Bud Streeper beat my handling crew in stage one of the Handler Games by ONE POOP in the poop scooping contest. I was ONE poop short of a win; how many people can say that? It was humiliating. I was struggling with these two defeats. On day two I had to skip the Trivia Day to run dogs and it’s probably a good thing because as things progressed it would have seemed inevitable they would have beat us by ONE question. Day three of the handler games only got worse as we were beat by this same crew by ONE bowl in Dog Bowl Curling! Can you believe this? One second, one poop, one bowl; it feels so wrong. No one can be this lucky or should I say no one can be this unlucky.
I had tried everything from talking smack to a little psychological warfare, but it was met with defeat. All my attempts to make that prize wagon of the Streeper’s a little lighter failed miserably. However, I am not one to give up so easily. Let’s be real folks, it is just not right that they filled that prize wagon with not only the biggest race checks, but also the handling prizes to boot! It’s prize hogging and I intend to put a stop to it! I have tried the witchcraft; didn’t work. We’ve tried getting religious; didn’t work. We smudged; didn’t work. I tried intimidation; didn’t work. For Pete’s sake what the hell does one have to do? Bud suggested I take up knitting! Well, Budster I just might do that and then I’ll pitch to make that a handler game and then I’m taking you down!! SOoooooo get out your needles dude and start “purling”!! Yeah, bet you don’t even know what that is!! Ohhhh Yeah!! One purl, two purl ……
Ok, let’s talk about racing. In Kemmerer we woke up to temps in the twenties with overcast skies and no wind. This was great news since we heard it had been windy all week. We had some concerns about heat if the skies cleared up and the sun came out. We decided to go with eleven dogs in case Kemmerer threw a curve ball at us in those hills. The team was happy and raring to go. We had some sore feet after Big Piney, but nothing too serious. However, we were down to 14 dogs due to freak injuries and we had 4 dogs that we did not feel we could run back to back. This situation stressed us a bit throughout the race as we tried to strategically rest these dogs and fully utilize what they could bring to the table. The two dogs that were out of the race we had counted on to be everyday dogs for us and not having them threw a huge wrench into our plans. Once we saw that the deficit was too big earlier in the race, we made the conscious choice to be conservative and try to just hold onto third place. We intentionally raced conservatively as we knew that we were being held together by band aids and it could seriously jeopardize a top three finish if we really tried to race hard. Sometimes, the smartest thing you can do for your team is assess your situation and make the decision that will bring the best outcome and not necessarily the win. So the plan going into Kemmerer was to just be conservative and try to maintain 3rd place. We left with Sedona and her son Pfister in lead. She’s won this stage before and we wondered if she still had it in her. She was backed by Chepi, Durango, Aslan, Euro, Dime, Grover, Jasper, Peace and Kroner.
Bruce went out slow and warmed them up. As soon as he let them, the team started rolling. He struggled with one dog in the punchy deep snow as it was mentally wearing on him, but as soon as the trail firmed up he was fine. Sedona was on fire and the team just rolled through the hills. Much to our surprise Bruce came in 2nd place by ONE second over Dave Torgenson. There’s that number ONE again! The dogs looked good, but some of our power house boys were really tired as some were on their 6th day of running. As it turned out the deep punchy snow played havoc on a few rear ends and we lost 3 key players for the next day. Another huge disappointment.
Evanston was in the high twenties in the morning and it was snowing wet heavy snow. We heard that it was supposed to stop snowing by 8:00AM and warm up. Pretty typical for this stage. Bruce woke up sick and feeling like crap with a chest/head cold. At the driver’s meeting they informed everyone that the trail was 5 miles of ice under a thin layer of snow right out of the chute. Then there was 7 miles of plowed trail near the turn around. So the teams were looking at about 17 miles of crappy conditions. We went and investigated the trail out of the chute and nearly wiped out as it was extremely slippery. There are two huge climbs on this trail and some serious switchbacks so booting the dogs was a major concern due to the poor trail conditions and potential warm weather. This was not an ideal situation on the 8th stage as there are always some sore feet and we had to know who would run on them as we didn’t want to hurt shoulders or anything else. We decided to go with 10 dogs and stick with our conservative plan. We had a good cushion, but we never underestimate any of our competition and knew we had to be very smart and not make any dumb choices. We led with Pakwa and Fala and they were supported by Sedona, Pfister, Euro, Dime, Lumpy, Jasper, Peace and Chepi. The team was revved up and ready to go. This makes us so proud. All week long folks kept commenting on how amped and excited our team was in the chute; which speaks to the aftercare we provide post racing and this makes my heart happy.
Bruce had problems within 3 miles when a leader stopped to take a dump and caused a huge tangle. He had two dogs come out of their harnesses and they had to be put back on. This was, of course, on the icy section and his hooks wouldn’t hold and they kept dragging him down the trail until finally an official on the trail came and stood on his sled so he could get things in order. He got going and noticed they were flat. By the turn-around he could see JR had about 6-7 minutes on him and the rest of the pack was about even. He just kept them moving slow and easy. He was enjoying himself and having conversations with other mushers on the trail in no hurry.
Meanwhile, in the pits an official had informed me early in the day that Bruce was having trouble with a point dog before the turnaround. This left me with a pit in my gut as I started to worry and unlike my musher I was not enjoying the wait. JR was the 2nd team in at about 1:50PM and then all the teams started to follow. Nearly all the teams were in and still no Bruce. I was in a shear panic as I kept looking at my watch. It was now about 2:04PM and still no Bruce. I suck at the math and even though Bruce had a large cushion, I was freaking out that it was going to be down to the wire. I HATE the last stage with a passion and this was driving me INSANE. I started to prepare for the possibility of getting booted out of 3rd place on the last day. My imagination was on overdrive. Did he bag a dog, two dogs? How could this happen? Did he crash? Is the team sick? It was the worst feeling made worse by my wild imagination. Everyone kept reassuring me that he had plenty of time, but I was having none of it. I wanted to barf! Lannie even gave me a red M&M and told me to make a wish on it. I’d never heard of this, but what the hell! She’s probably still chuckling!
Just about when I had worn a rut into the snow I could see him coming in the distance. He didn’t have anyone in the bag, but probably should have put his point dog in. However, he said that the dog really didn’t start having issues until about a mile out so he chose to labor in. He was in a good mood and oblivious to the fact that he had given me a mild heart attack waiting for him. There’s the difference between mushing and handling right there! Despite the long wait, he managed to still finish in 5th for the day.
We finished in 3rd place overall and this was by far our most consistent and best race yet. We managed 2nd, 4th, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, and 5th place finishes. No one was more surprised than us as we didn’t come with a lot of confidence this year. We were very concerned about our front end as we were lacking driving leaders and we were counting on a 10 year old. We also knew that we were going to have to strategically run dogs as we didn’t have 16 everyday dogs and to top that off we were questioning some new training techniques that we had tried. So it was a pleasant surprise for us to see it all come together; which helps build confidence going into next year. We are still learning so much from this race and, believe it or not, it often feels like we have no clue what we are doing.
As usual the end of the race was bittersweet. We love seeing our Stage Stop family every year and we hate saying goodbye. These folks are truly some of the greatest professionals in the sport. I was blessed to share the trail this year with all of the mushers. Someone said at the banquet that there is no other race they’ve ever competed in where you truly feel the camaraderie out on the trail like you do at stage stop and I have to agree. It was the friendliest and coolest group of mushers I’ve ever encountered. On the Driggs stage when we had to head on pass everyone, we were high fiving, chatting, giving tips and cheering each other on. It really embodied what stage racing has meant to us. We love the level of professionalism demonstrated from the vets, trail crew, race organization, mushers and handlers. It is by far top notch. More importantly, we truly love this group of people and feel blessed to have the opportunity to come and spend 8 days with them every year. It’s much more than just a dog race.
Congratulations to the Streepers for taking all the prizes! ONE day we intend to lighten your load!