After a full week on the road participating in the IPSSSDR race, one doesn’t have to look hard to see the evidence of wear and tear that this race has wreaked upon its participants. The need for some sort of group counseling or therapy to help participants deal with post-race stress was obviously in order. I was the first one to sign up. The session was an all-day affair allowing teams the leisure of coming and going as they pleased so they could take proper care of their dogs. Nearly everyone showed up except those that took counseling in the likes of a bottle of alcohol.
“Good Morning!” No response other than a couple of grunts. As the doctor stared out into the group he saw a sea of wind burned faces. It looked like a bunch of red-faced raccoons staring blankly at him. The quiet was stifling and uncomfortable. The doctor continued, “Thank you everyone for joining us today. My name is Dr. Panacur.” He chuckles, “Yes, I know I have the same last name as a de-wormer. I find this particularly ironic since my job is to cure you of the negativity that worms its way into your souls. After I spoke to a few of you on the last day I saw a real need for folks like yourselves to get together and share the stresses you’ve endured over the course of the past week. It’s very helpful to hear that your competitors and friends are suffering from some of the same stress or having to deal with similar problems. I think I can say since most of you came that you all have something you want to discuss. I’d like to go around the room and give everyone a chance to share something they had to deal with that caused them stress. I’d like to start with the handlers and then move on to the mushers. Do I have any volunteers?”
Damn near every handler in the room raised their hand. “Wow, we might need another day folks! Let’s start with you.” He points to a young lady. Well, I think it was a young lady. She had on a pair of men’s Caarharts that were stained and worn, a very dirty polar fleece shirt covered in dog hair, bunny boots and her hands were dirty with crud under the finger nails. She had greasy hair and it was all disheveled under a knit cap. Her face was wind burned and her lips were severely chapped. She had a healing cut under one eye and what appeared to be a fat lip. The doctor proceeded, “Tell us your name and then share with us one stress you endured during this race.”
She spoke clearly with confidence, “Hi! When I left home over a month ago my name was Celia. However, today I have been programmed to believe my name is either HEY, YO or YOU. I have had many stresses this past week so it is hard to pick just one, but I’ll start with the responsibility of keeping the dogs on schedule in spite of an insane and hectic race schedule. I can’t sleep because I keep waking up with night terrors thinking that I missed a dog drop and the dogs are all sleeping in their own mess because I forgot them. In my dream I run to the truck and when I open the door gallons of poop and pee pour out onto the cement. It’s horrible. I have looked at my watch so many times that it’s become a nervous tick and I swear I’m checking it every 15 minutes. I look like something is wrong with me because I’m constantly bobbing my head looking at the watch and walking in circles saying, “When did we put the dogs in last? One day I took the watch off to shower; notice I said one day. In 8 days I think I’ve had one shower. I’ve used everything I brought with a pleasant scent and lathered it all over my clothes to try and cover the stink. Anyway, I couldn’t find my watch when I went to get dressed and I damn near had a nervous breakdown. I’m exhausted. I just want it to stop.”
“Has anyone had a similar experience?” asked the doctor.
A young guy dressed very similar to the gal spoke up, “YO!” There was laughter in the room. “I’m Calvin and I just shower with my watch on. I figure that the showers are so minimal the watch can handle it. I’ve had so few showers that I’m starting to like it. Bathing requires energy. You’ve got to take off all this stinky gear and then find all your washing crap and then get re-dressed. It’s way too much effort. I just shed the outer layer, sleep in my long underwear and call it a day. Way easier, man! My biggest effort in this department is putting my boots on in the morning. That’s a killer to bend over after bending over all day working on dogs. There are mornings I fear that I won’t be able to raise myself back up. I wouldn’t worry about the bathing, we all stink.” The group applauds loudly. The movement of all these people clapping and creating wind brings to realization that he is correct about the group stink as an unpleasant odor wafts through the room. You can see the doctor crinkle his nose.
The young guy continues, “What I found stressful are those damn dogs that decide they don’t want to eat or drink during the race. OH MY GAWD, I just couldn’t handle it. I swear that they talk to one another and they make bets on who can hold out the longest to see if I’ll crack. I was their puppet and their clown this week as I tried everything short of eating the shit myself just to get them to eat. I’m a big guy and I’m on my knees pretending to eat their food, making chewing noises and grumbling like I’m having the best meal of my life. I fed them in their boxes. I would take one out at a time to feed them. I tried every food option we had. I ran out of buckets because I had to have so many options. It took me so damn long to get food and water in them I was missing banquets and so I went hungry. It was messed up man. Then some nights I would just lose it and you could probably hear me in the parking lot, Drink you little bastard. Please f’n drink. Oh F, drink or I’ll pour it down your throat. I felt so guilty man. I’m cursing the hell out of this awesome little dog just looking at me and wagging his fool tail off oblivious to my stress. Why can’t the little buggers talk and understand; it would be so much easier. Well, maybe not. I can hear them now, “Listen Calvin, you don’t have enough energy to shower, which is particularly offensive to our sensitive noses. We just ran 55 miles and now you want us to drink and eat? Lump it, we just want to sleep.” Yeah, maybe it’s best they don’t talk.” The crowd laughs in agreement.
Someone yells from the crowd. “Shoot, I got one that became an anorexic this week in protest. I was so worried that spectators would think I was starving the dog. I didn’t think they would believe me if I told them that she chooses not to eat.” Lots of heads nodding in agreement.
Another voice pops up, “Good eaters are awesome, but they come with their share of problems as well. I got 24 voracious monsters on my truck and I can’t possibly watch them all. I got dogs eating other dog’s food and dog’s arguing over food. There were days I wasn’t sure who the hell ate and drank what.”
“Speaking of eating,” yells a lady, “I was stressed because I never got to eat. I’m trying to ask my dogs to eat and yet I was going on empty most of the day. If I see another jerky stick or bag of chips I might hurl.” There was no time to stop and eat and that leaves gas stations as the only option. I don’t do gas station sandwiches; that’s like a death wish. All I could think about was food. Then someone would offer me a cookie and I’d want to scream. “That’s not food. It’s a flippen cookie. A cookie is AFTER food. It’s not a food replacement.”
By this point the doctor had lost control of the group and handlers were throwing their troubles out one after another after another.
“Food? My face is so wind burned and chapped I don’t think I can open my mouth and chew. Even my nostrils are chapped. The weather has assaulted me daily. The skin on my hands is crispy from all the ointments and crap that we’re using on the dogs. I feared they’d have to amputate my fingers in Big Piney when they went numb after putting foot salve on the dogs in 40 mph winds.”
A guy yells, “I’d love to be suffering from just crispy skin. My sciatic nerve is throbbing so bad, I almost wished they’d amputate my legs. My right side is a constant ripping pain from lifting dogs in and out of boxes and my feet feel like I’m standing on little ball bearings. I’ve never been so sore in my life. Then driving in the car for 2-3 hours every night is like someone is sitting there stabbing me in the ass.”
“Driving is my stress,” yells a gal. “I have hands permanently cramped in the three and nine o’clock position from doing the death grip on these insane mountain roads. Nothing is funner than 6+% grades on an icy road with wind blowing your trailer all over the road. I damn near puked from fear. I figured we drove about 1,100 miles just during the race. When I sleep at night I feel like I’m still moving”
“Yeah, we spent so much time in our truck it is a total pigsty, yelled a burly guy. At one point everything made into the back seat and we couldn’t find anything. I’ve lost at least 6 pairs of gloves and every morning I go nuts throwing crap out of the truck looking for gloves or my headlamp. I’ve lost and found so much crap this week it’s ridiculous. I’ve lost my glasses only to find them in a safe place in the glove box. Why they hell did I put them there? I’ve lost my camera who knows how many times. This constant feeling of loss is making me lose my mind.”
An older lady speaks up, “Losing stuff is the least of my worries. When we got here all of a sudden one of our main leaders decided that she liked flirting with boys. My heart sank to my knees when I saw her waving her butt and flagging. She wasn’t even supposed to be in heat. Every day it got worse until the boys were literally losing their minds. Oh, and do you think the boys will eat when there’s a girl in heat? NOOOOOOOOO, they don’t! I had boys flying out of the boxes and almost knocking me over as they tried to reach her. My truck looked like that scene in the Wizard of Oz where all the flying monkeys leave the castle. They were howling and moaning all night. Then the girls; holy cow, what a bunch of nasty bitches. They all wanted to kill her. They must have been PMSing. She didn’t care though; she just kept wiggling her little behind. I had to put her at the front of the truck to keep her out of sight, but it was useless. We smeared her ass with so much Vicks; we cleared the nasal passages of every musher behind us for the entire week. Did you guys feel like you could breathe better in the altitude? My musher would get all stuffed up after the race!” he crowd roared.
“If you only had one bitch in heat, that’s nothing,” said a fatherly looking guy. “I had 6 out of 8. Try loose dropping with this situation. I’d open the box and dogs were jumping out of the box and using me as their step stool to the ground. I didn’t even get a chance to hoist them down. None of the boys will focus on the run. I probably have so many shoulder injuries because the bastards are always looking backwards while they run. We had actually celebrated before the race because one of our main leaders came into heat. Well, she’s in heat again! How in the hell do they come into heat 3 times in a year? That’s not supposed to happen. We are so stressed from trying to figure out who can run with whom and who will even run with a female in heat in the team.”
A voice from the back yells, “Injuries; now there’s some serious stress. Every drop in the evening I hold my breath as I open the door anxious to see what awaits me. Will the dog jump out and run around all nubile or will he have a peg leg? I slowly open the door and get the dog out and watch. Some nights I even imagine injuries. OH shit, I think he limped. Is he limping? Do you see a limp? Watch, I think his head is bobbing. Then you go through the dog and nothing. However, you are haunted by this mirage until the team returns after the next day’s run and you are just praying for that dog to not be in the bag. Then when there is a legitimate problem. You immediately wonder how in the “F” did that happen? That dog was fine after the run. What do they do in their boxes? Your mind starts with the small stuff and you just hope it’s something small. Maybe he has a split. No split. Is it the quick on the toe? Nope, toes look good. Is it a wrist? We can fix a wrist. Nope, wrist looks fine. At this point, you get that sick feeling in your stomach as you move up to the shoulder. Ohhhhh Nooooo, not a bicep or a tricep. Maybe it’s just a knot. We can massage a knot out. Bicep and tricep extension are good. At this point, you slightly slip into denial as you start massaging, extending and then wrap the dog up in heat pads and shoulder coats. It will go away in the morning you tell yourself. Meanwhile, your gut is doing flip flops with the reality.” Handlers are looking at each other and laughing in agreement.
A young guy resembling a beach bum in winter clothes speaks up, “Dude, that is so true. What really sucks though is when you’ve got three key dogs down with freak injuries before the middle of the race and a handful of other minor injuries; which means every healthy dog left needs to be kept in tip top condition. I’m a freaking traveling dog spa. I think I could get a job as a masseuse after this. One half of my truck looks like a hospital ward with dog’s on IV’s, dogs on drugs and dogs wrapped from ass to toe. The other half is the spa. After the race, all dogs that pass the physical check into the spa. They get a full body massage with aromatherapy oils, a body wrap, foot rub with soothing oils and a fresh straw bed. I’m up, at hours I typically only see when I leave the bar, working on dogs that require extra attention. I even play soothing music when I rub them down. Shit, they may as well have the full on spa experience and I should offer them frozen dog food on a platter while I rub their knots out. Wait, I’ve done that. Our non-eaters are getting frozen treats in their cozy bed. I think I’m going to change the logo and name on our trailer to Spa Puppies. These dogs are spoiled as hell. I’m drawing the line though, this dude does NOT paint toe nails!”
Another guy steps forward, “What I want to know is do the top teams struggle with this same stuff? Damn, I’m watching them put out the same dogs day after day after day and I never see them working on them. It’s like they have super bionic dogs. I was in the chute one day checking their asses to see if there was an antennae sticking out. I saw one dog that I swear ran all 8 days. Most of my dogs looked whooped after two days in a row. Then they never flippen wear booties. What the hell? Are their dogs pads made out of concrete? I don’t even see them putting stuff in the feet. I got so much crap in my dog’s paws it’s like their on stilts before they leave the chute and then they still come in looking like hell. I don’t even see them do physicals on the dogs when they come in. I’m breaking my back checking every dog and all their feet after every stage. What the hell? What the hell? When you ask they all have great feet, no injuries and they all drink and eat like champs. What the hell? It makes me feel like an inadequate boob. Am I the only one that feels this way? What the hell? He shakes his head and walks to the back of the room.
“Oh, you’re not the only one that feels inadequate,” says a quiet voice in the middle of the room. A lady wearing some sort of animal hat steps forward. “When I saw the one musher wearing the Turkey Hat, I almost asked him if I could buy it because I felt like a turkey most of this week. Between dog’s on IV’s, feet issues, scratched dogs, waiting for my musher to come in last, dogs that wouldn’t eat and dog’s that won’t even go in their boxes I felt completely inadequate.” Then she suddenly screams out loud, “FOR CHRIST SAKE I CAN’T EVEN BACK UP MY OWN FUCKINGTRAILERI” She smiles and then moves to the back of the room.
A grizzled looking man watches her retreat and proceeds, “Well, I’ve been doing this for 20+ years and we still can’t get our shit together. We watch teams with half the experience just bounce right up to the top and not have a single issue. It’s gut wrenching. There’s no way in hell they have the knowledge base that we’ve acquired over 20+ years and yet they have no issues. It’s like the drunk that has the car accident and never gets injured. Yet, the family man working himself to the bone winds up in the hospital. It seems so unfair. The man unexpectantly breaks down in a sob. Then he drops to his knees and begins beating on the carpet screaming, “This gig SUCKS! I don’t know how much more of this I can take. 20 fricken years and I got NOTHING!! I can’t watch another snot nosed punk kick my ass again. I’m done, I’M FUCKING DONE!” He is now laying on the floor face first and kicking and beating the carpet in two year old tantrum style!
The doctor steps forward with his hand up to stifle the onslaught of new comments. He puts his hand on the man’s back and says, “Folks, I am a so relieved that we did this. It is evident that many of you are under a great deal of stress. This is what can happen if you don’t let it out. You must share your troubles with one another. We’ve run out of time and must continue this tomorrow. Please join us for our next session. Good day!”
You hear the ambulance sirens approaching and then two men rush in and strap the guy to a gurney and rush him away.