What’s So Funny About Scratching?

“You know things are bad when the dogs start barking, wagging and lunging at the sight of the Rimadyl bottle”

                                                                                                                        -Monica Magnusson, The Handler 2010


A friend came to me this past weekend at the UP200 and told me he really appreciated my humor about this sport because you need to be able to laugh at most of it or you’ll go nuts.   That’s probably not verbatim, but it was something along those lines.   Little did I know that after the 200 I would be digging really deep to find humor in our race results or lack thereof.

So I ask, “What is funny about scratching?”  Just for clarification, I’m not talking about scratching as in scratching your ars.  Although, as mushers we may often do this as a result of minimal showering during a race and I guess that can be kind of funny or gross depending on your sense of humor.   I’m not talking about scratching your head either although mushers do tend to do that often too.  I think that’s why we all wear hats; to hide the bald spot from scratching our heads so often.  Here’s a piece of advice; always scratch your head before your ars.   No, what I’m talking about is scratching from a race as in Q.U.I.T.T.I.N.G……….oooooh that kind of scratching.  Yes, the worst kind of scratching.  So is there anything funny about that?  I am destined to find out.   I am on a mission to find some humor in the ultimate downer of mushing…..the big scratch!  We goin scratchin ….. and I’m doing this because I WILL NOT GO NUTS.  I refuse!

So, would ya care to join me on this journey?  Join me, come on……don’t be scared…..it’s fun ……REALLY!!   Are you picturing a pimp in full polyester pushing candy to the little kid?  Yep, that’s accurate.   Stay away from the Mushing Man, run, run, as fast as you can …….. DON’T go near that Mushing Man.

Our weekend started off on a good note.  I got Bruce off at the start, packed up the truck and headed out on the highway to the Grand Marais checkpoint 130 miles away.  I turned on the radio and an old ACDC tune started blaring and it was a very fitting tune at that; “Highway to Hell”!

It struck me how funny this was given that I was embarking on 36+ hours of handling by myself with no sleep; definitely my private little hell.  Regardless, I joined in at the top of my lungs…..”Hey momma, look at me.  I’m on my way to the promised land.  I’m on the highway to hell.  Highway to hell.   Don’t stop meeeeeeeeeeeee”.   I had the head thing going, the steering wheel was my drum and I was pumped!   “Highway to hell” badadabum  “Highway to hell”…….  

Should this have been a sign of bad things to come?  Well, I didn’t think so; it was just a cool tune that ironically spoke to my situation.

Then Whitesnake came on…YES….LOVE THIS SONG!   I continued banging my head and singing out loud……….

An’ here I go again on my own   
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known,
Like a hobo* I was born to walk alone
An’ I’ve made up my mind
I ain’t wasting no more time

But, here I go again,
Here I go again,
Here I go again,
Here I go…

Nope, still no clue, but still kind of funny the irony of the words  …………..

When the next song, “Cat Scratch Fever ” by Ted Nugent blasted through the airwaves….. I should have turned the truck around and caught Bruce at the next road crossing.

It’s nothing dangerous
I feel no pain
I got the chug chug train       ———- (I especially love this line – what a vision into the future)
You know you got it when
You going insane   ——————- (oh, this one too)
It’ll make a grown man cry   ————–(certainly came close)
Won’t you make my bad

Cat scratch fever

Cat scratch fever

They got a cat scratch fever

Cat scratch fever

HELLO….KNOCK..KNOCK.. KNOCK…it was as if someone was knocking on my door, but I was too oblivious to hear the knocking.   So I ignored it and continued to drive.   For about 2 hours, I was back in the 80’s and I was a teenager……well at least I was mentally!  The mental part was strong too because nothing else added up.  I was a teenager driving alone (who ever heard of that).  I was also driving in the middle of the woods in the darkness of night in the dead of winter going to a dog race.  Yeah, that almost sounds like my teenage days; NOT.  Now that I think about it, those 80’s hair bands are pretty powerful if they can make me feel 18 under those circumstances.   So for all of you suffering from old fart-itis, I highly recommend a dose of some 80’s hair bands!!

When I arrived at the checkpoint, I was rocking out with my bad self and had that teenage inspiration to just fly out the door and play some air guitar with the radio blaring.   At a checkpoint, this could get you killed.   Sort of like we wanted to do to the guy who left his headlights on all flaming night long.    This checkpoint stuff is serious business.  There are rules, unwritten rules, but you need to abide by them or else be shunned.   The checkpoint can be a very territorial place and somewhat frightening at times.  It can bring out the worst in handlers.  Frankly, they should have activities for handlers at checkpoints so we can work off aggression.   A punching bag would be nice.   One major rule you should never break is DO NOT TREAD on someone else’s space.   They have squatted there and claimed it so you best find your own.  There is always someone though that pushes the unspoken rule and treads on another.   They get on a list and we will all watch for this person at the next checkpoint.  It’s called “The Handler’s List”…..don’t get on it.  

I had done well staking out my spot and was fortunate to avoid being treaded on.  Whew, I avoided having to pull out my karate moves.  Then I retired for the night in my comfy back seat rigged with cushy dog beds and my laptop.   Ahhh, the lap of luxury or so I convinced myself.   Since I had been jamming to 80’s hair bands all night it got me thinking about the fact that I was sleeping in the backseat of my truck on a couple of dog beds in 16 degrees in the middle of the U.P. on a Friday night; boy had my life changed since the 80’s.   Back in the day, if I was in a back seat I was probably with my gang of friends and we’d be all gussied up in our Madonna rip offs, bangles and all, with our big hair singing out loud to the likes of Deep Purple, ACDC, Poison, BonJovi etc. heading to a party.  Boy, if my alumni could see me now!

The next morning I got up and proceeded to build Fort Magnusson.  You see the dogs need to sleep when they come in.  It will be broad daylight with people walking all over, talking and taking photos and yet they need to rest.  There will be snowmobiles and a whole host of other distractions to prevent sleep.  Our job is to create the most private sleeping quarters we can.   We need 33 Monica steps of space for the team and it all must be made as private and quiet as possible.   I took advantage of a huge snow bank for one side.  Then I had to build walls with bins and tarps on the other side and in the front and back.   This meant I had to literally haul every piece of crap out of the truck to build the fort and then put all the crap back in.  When I ran out of crap from the truck we had to build snow walls.  It’s called crap because after you’ve handled it so many times you lose any form of fondness for your expensive dog gear.

Do you remember learning about symbolism in your high school literature class?  Well, if the songs weren’t enough here’s another bit of symbolism for you.  Within minutes of my team coming into the checkpoint one of the many people crammed into our space looking at the team managed to completely knock down the snow wall to our fort.  How’s that for a sign that things were about to start crumbling all around us, huh!

Our problems seemed to have started when I was notified I had a dropped dog coming in from the first checkpoint.  However, there were two truckloads of dropped dogs that came in from that checkpoint, so I sought comfort in knowing it wasn’t just our team and, therefore, wasn’t worried.  I still had hope. 

The team came in and their speed was in the top 6 into Grand Marais.  That didn’t seem too shabby.   However, I could tell immediately when they came in that they were missing the “spark”.  They just looked flat, tired and worn.  The year before I had a different team come into Grand Marais and my gut told me there may be issues ahead.   This was when I first started to worry.   I got everyone bedded down in Fort Magnusson and they conked out immediately.  There is always one in our group though that doesn’t sleep.  This can be stressful.   See the dog doesn’t know that they have 120 miles yet to go, but you do.  There is no sleep command and since we don’t train to camp out, our dogs are generally clueless.   They look at me with those eyes pleading to go to their box.  It tortures me.  Needless to say, where ever the dog is that can’t sleep there will be a group of people socializing, a bunch of kids playing or some other distraction and the need to pull out karate moves starts to take over.  It’s that territorial handler thing.  “SHHHHHHHH, MY DOGS ARE TRYING TO SLEEP DAMMIT EYYYEEE YAH!”……karate moves!

When we got the dogs up, there were a couple injuries that showed their ugly head.   We worked on them and made the decision to drop dog #2.   Bruce headed out of Grand Marais with 10 dogs.   They seemed stoked in the chute and so I thought maybe there was hope that they would shake off their funk.

By the time they came into the next checkpoint, the team was shutting down and looked like crap.   They ate, drank and fell asleep immediately.  When we had to get them back up the Old MacDonald tune started blaring in my head, “…with a swelled foot here and a swelled wrist there; here a swell, there a swell, everywhere a swell, swell.  Old man Magnusson had a kennel eee eye eee eye ohhhh”   It became blatantly evident that the short time off between Stage Stop was not enough and the dogs were not ready for this race.  We talked and we agreed that we would make the best decision for the team after we went through each dog.   The team had all ate and drank well in the checkpoint.   None of the dogs appeared as if they could not continue, but they were still missing the spark.  They gave us a good show in the chute and off they went again.  Well, once out of sight they progressively continued to shut down.   Bruce had to check out of the game mentally on his way to Deerton for fear that when he arrived he would be drooling and talking nonsense.   When you train a stage team and you’re accustomed to running 14+ mph, 5 mph is just short of Chinese water torture. 

 Then as if the speed wasn’t enough to earn him a white coat, his best dog was done and needed a ride in the sled.  This dog had no clue he needed a ride and would have run on two legs if given the choice, which I suppose is why he’s one of the best dogs.  He’s was barely moving, but as soon as the team stopped he’d scream like an idiot to go.  Putting him in the bag was like watching a WWF wrestling match.  Bruce won and the dog was in the bag howling for all he was worth.   This, of course, kept taunting Bruce mentally as he thought,   “Man, he doesn’t seem like he should be in the bag.  He wants to run.  Should I put him back in?  No, don’t put him in.  He’s telling me he wants to go.  I’m putting him back in.”   So the dog went back in for one last futile attempt and that dog tried as hard as he could, but just wasn’t going to be able to do it.  So back in the bag he went and the howling continued.  It was then Bruce realized maybe the dog wasn’t yelling to get out, but was coaching his team mates to set a pace like in a rowing team; stroke, stroke, stroke.  Unfortunately, he didn’t know what the hell he was doing and the Woof, whoooooooooooo, whoooooooooo, WOOF, WOOF, WOOF sent a very confusing pace message, which could explain the “S” shaped track he left behind him as the team weaved and wobbled down the road.

The other dogs all looked with envy as their MVP was loaded in the bag and Bruce could almost hear their collective thoughts, “Can I have a ride too?”  This is, of course, was torture and he kept thinking, “Nooooooo, I can’t take you all.  Please run.”   Then he thought he could read their minds, “Great, we’re screwed now; an extra 62 lbs just joined Bruce on the sled, hope Bruce plans on running!”, “Who’s great idea was it to do this race?”  “Is this hell ever going to end?” “Next year I’m faking a tricep injury, the hell with the team.”

They wobbled along.  Meanwhile, Bruce was taking inventory of everyone and trying to be optimistic, but the painful reality kept torturing him.  His mind raced, “That dog has a minor hitch in the front right.  That dog doesn’t appear to be using the left rear normal.   That one is barely keeping up.”  Then he’d look again and they’d start to look good and he’d start to think they might be able to make it.   This, of course, was a mushing mirage; which is similar to seeing a pop stand when you’ve been walking in the desert for days.   You become so fatigued mentally with your situation suddenly the team starts looking like they could win the race.   It lasts only briefly as you’re thrust back into reality when you see that you may have to put two dogs in the bag. 

Finally, Bruce had to make the decision.  15 miles from the finish, 240 miles into the race when he’s still in the top 10 he has to pull the plug for the benefit of the team.  We are huge advocates of putting the dogs first and so it makes it easy to make a decision for the benefit of the dogs; however, a decision like this still sucks!   Finding it hard to find humor about now……….

For those of you who have been fortunate enough to never have to do it; scratching from a race is no easy task.   The decision is usually very tormented and it’s about as funny as watching someone rocking in a corner holding their knees; not very funny.   As a matter of fact, it can be one of the more difficult things to do in a race and has been known to bring even the toughest mushers to tears.   There is a whole host of emotions that come along with this decision and you get to play them out in front of the entire mushing world.   Now, does that sound like fun or what?  In other sports if you are booted out of the game it is usually followed by some dramatic incident, which is self-explanatory.   Jeff Gordon crashes into a wall and the car implodes; that’s pretty obvious and, therefore, acceptable.   Body Miller crashes on the ski hill at 70 mph and cart wheels to an injury; self explanatory followed with sympathy.   In mushing, the dramatic reason is often not obvious or self-explanatory and the musher almost always has to make the decision to pull the plug.  This leads folks to draw their own conclusions until the truth comes out, if it ever comes out, or until they are smart enough to ask.  Meanwhile, you inadvertently become the victim of rumors.   “Did you hear #12 scratched 15 miles from the finish; musher wasn’t happy with his run and quit.   #12 scratched; dogs just aren’t tough enough to do this mileage.   #12  scratched the dogs weren’t well taken care of; bad handler.   Hey, did you see #12 scratched; I knew that would happen did you see how thin his dogs were.” ………blah diddy blah…….  Kind of makes you feel like a victim of the paparazzi and you’ve found yourself on the cover of Star Magazine….”SCRATCH -Pouty Musher Not Happy With Top Ten

Once you do it and sign on the dotted line, it is final.  It is followed by the feeling of shame.  You have this mad burning desire to exit stage left and disappear.  You can almost hear the whispers ripple through the crowds…..”He scratched,   scratched Deerton, just 15 miles from finish scratched, scratched, scratched, scratched…………………..”  You feel like putting a big sign on your head, “YES, WE SCRATCHED AND PROUD OF IT!” or how about “Mr & Mrs. Scratcher” or “Scratcher Kennels”.    You feel like you let your dogs down, your family and friends, the president etc.  In reality, our dogs were like, “Hell YES, put us in the truck!”  I hadn’t seen them that happy in weeks.  As for the family, well this family member immediately saw beer and a bed dancing in her head and said, “Hell YES, this thing is over!”   Soooo Bruce did not have any reason to feel guilty, me and the team found the upside of the situation very quickly.   When you scratch we believe you must be a good sport and support your fellow mushers.  So went to the banquet despite the fact that we felt like lepers with a contagious disease.  “Pssst here comes the scratchers.   Hope it’s not contagious.  They must not have very good dog care.  Maybe, we should tell them these seats are saved.”    They all look at you with pity.  Next time I’m just going to put a big “L” on my forehead and smile.  Did I mention that scratching also makes you a tad paranoid and you really think you hear these voices in your head?

Your fellow mushers are usually very kind.  They either avoid you for fear of saying the wrong thing or they look at you with the “Pity Look” and some are ready to give the big bear hug.  It is somewhat funny when you realize that they are all watching to see if you crumble to the floor in a heap of sobs.   I’m picturing Bruce walking into the banquet and breaking into LOUD, heaving sobs.  He falls to the floor and begins rocking back and forth as his fellow mushers come to the podium for their checks.  As they get near 10th place he yells, “That could have…SOB…snort, snort….been been..SOB… MEEEEEEE!!!”    They haul him away in a dog truck with a special whirling red light and sirens. 

It’s an entire blog to tell you what scratching will do to the mushing marriage so I won’t go into details.  Let’s just say it involves some blaming, a few swear words, some tears and at least one will give up the sport for a brief moment.  After each of you has said every crazy thing that has come to your mind, you cool off for an hour and here’s the really sick part……….you start planning for next year!

I’m not sure of what the cure is for the scratching blues, but here’s what Dr. Scratcher prescribed for me…………3 Bud Light Limes with a honking slice of coconut cream pie.  You will barely get through the pie before you pass out from the sleep deprivation and alcohol combined.  You will wake up with coconut on your upper lip feeling pretty dang good about life.

Lesson learned;   the next time we embark on a race like this we will have Queen’s, “We are the Champions” playing the entire time.   WE WILL MAKE OUR OWN SYMBOLISM!

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