Those are the three questions I’ve been getting constantly for two weeks. Yesterday while laying back in the dental recliner my usual hygienist popped in, while my mouth was getting picked at. I looked up at her with my mouth sprawled open and tried to answer her questions.
Why, why did they get sick? The look of confusion played across her face as she stared at me. I don’t know I said. It happens. Bad luck. She’s a great gal and I like her a lot. By some error at the front desk I didn’t see her yesterday but for the pop in. She didn’t understand how the dogs could get sick. She has a young daughter so I did my best to make it more relatable. Dogs are like little kids going to daycare- it doesn’t matter if they’re perfectly healthy one day and vaccinated they can get sick. I saw her comprehend the scenario. Then she asked what others have asked- will you run next year?!
When I signed up to run the Iditarod in June I did so feeling it wasn’t our dream team. It was one of the reasons I signed up. Sound strange? It’s the opposite of my usual thought process. Some of the dogs are getting older. Like Sherpa, who has given us 30 competitive races. From 18 months of age to 8.5. And then the 2 year olds, just coming of age to race. A perfect team to just go run a rookie race with with no pressure to race hard. A team full of leaders. 8 really knock out leaders and 4 pretty darn good. I can tell you that is a great feeling. It’s really nice in training too because you can constantly rotate leaders.
The other question I’ve gotten a lot is why this year or what took you so long to finally run? The why- times a wastin’- that’s why. The what- perfection- I can be too much of a perfectionist. It helps me to be patient, but I can wait forever for perfection too. I realized this summer, what finally gave me the push is why would I want my dream team this year, my rookie year…? That would be a waste. So over the course of several thousand miles of training the team came together to be one of our best.
I got antsy in January. I didn’t like putting “all our eggs in one basket”. Meaning just running the Iditarod while all the 300’s passed by and knowing we had a team ready to compete. It was very hard to watch the races pass by. My two key leaders, Spark and KP, I wanted as fresh as possible. They were. They were so fresh and healthy. Limber and no lingering issues. We traveled quite a bit chasing more snow than Two Rivers could offer. We dialed the dogs down to a slower pace. We weren’t as pushed for time getting ready for a straight 100 mile runs by January first. The training was better than I could’ve asked for.
We didn’t just train the main race team last year. In August we started training our yearlings too. We mix adults and yearlings together for about 3 months, this fast tracks the yearlings to maturity and also sets a really high standard- can they hold up with the adults? Sound like too much? If they can those will be your best dogs. If they can’t they probably will never be your best.
Last fall…I knew last fall the yearling team was going to dictate plans with our race team and with the number of puppies from last summer. I sold over half our pups from last summer by September because I saw in our yearling team this big group of dogs we wouldn’t sell any from. Managing kennel numbers is vital. I knew then we’d sell most of the race team this spring and I did. I’ve never sold so many race age dogs all at once. It’s surreal. They’re mostly young dogs who will give many years to those who can add them to their teams. Someone asked me why we didn’t sell this one or that one. We wanted to keep a diverse selection of males to breed for one thing. Brave, Luke, Apollo, they’re not any better than the dogs we sold, but they bring different genetics if we want to breed them. We kept a little bit of all the genetics we like. We also have a retired group, like Sherpa, who’s happily enjoying the life of a stud.
It’s been awhile since we had a big pool of all the same age dogs. Since our first team back into dogs bred in 2011/2012. Our 11 yearlings. This team. This team makes me nervous. Nervous as in I don’t want to do anything wrong. I don’t want to mess it up. Perfectionist! Lol. I’ve never had anything like this yearling team. I’ve had championship teams since I was kid, since helping my dad train his too. I know what it takes in a dog to be a champion- that standard is something everyone ought to experience. Imo. That doesn’t mean I’m blind to thinking winning is everything or anything foolish like that. I just enjoy being ambitious and I enjoy setting the bar high. I don’t settle.
When I was 13 I didn’t want to do junior sprint anymore. I wanted to do something different. My dad put me to the task of training the yearlings. I can tell you I’ve messed up in so many ways. He gave me a “leader” I’d not consider a leader at this point in my life. That dog! I had to pick a yearling to run up there with him. Paycheck. A male from my first litter. The first litter I picked to breed. Did I ever spoil that dog. He was a perfect canvas of drive and desire, but I spoiled him too much as people tend to do with first leaders and by giving a young dog the freedom to lead daily and by not having a solid partner. It became my responsibility in the kennel for a decade, along with shoveling poop and the other yard duties. I’ve worked with hundreds of yearlings. I trained two- Viking and Dak- who would go on to finish in my dad’s winning Quest team at 18 months old. I’ve always enjoyed yearlings. I love watching them develop into race dogs. A top yearling shows you their innate ability right away.
What is it about this team? They’re very uniform for one thing. All cousins from repeat litters, but for 3 of them. All 11 move in sync. They move so well together. They’re generally smaller than our dogs have been. There are way more females due to high % of females born. They all eat like ravenous wolves. They have very high natural stamina. They’re an exciting an unexpected surprise. Will feels it with them too. It’s a peaceful feeling, a calm. They’re a calm group. Well behaved. Mellow.
It is easy to get overly eager with young dogs racing them as yearlings, as two year olds. What did Thomas Warner say? He said he was really careful with his dream team. He was very, very, patient. Having only a couple young ones to mix in it’s easer to ask them to step up. To view them as “adult”. A dream leader or a dream team is something a musher is lucky to get once in a lifetime. It’s not easy to sustain a top team. The proof of that is in the standings, the turnovers consistent with sports in general. Time will tell, of course, but this is our current direction. Continuing to develop these yearlings. Our little pups just being harness broken are a nice group, too.
Next year…I don’t know. I just know we’ll be careful and patient with this young group. I do plan to run the Iditarod again and Will plans to run it. I enjoyed it quite a lot, which might sound strange. Of course I didn’t enjoy seeing our dogs get sick. But I enjoyed other aspects. People address me with a degree of sensitivity and an expectation that I ought to be “depressed” or that my experience was all negative. I just don’t feel that way inside. I tend to move forward very quickly in life. Sure it sucks to spend many, many, thousands of dollars out of pocket and more so every drop of our beings to race in this one event, but I still have many positive takeaways. I’m lucky to be an optimist. It actually annoys me when people just expect the negative and address me that way. Can we keep in mind these are first world problems…what I did is a luxury. A luxury. I soaked up every ounce of it. Glass is half full baby! The experience was intense. It has imprinted in my mind. I see the trail, the dogs, I can feel it because the intensity was strong for me. How can I not be happy with those feelings? They’re mine with the dogs and it’s a special place in my memories. The experience sparked more interest than I previously felt about the Iditarod. That’s right, more.
Last night I had a nightmare I’d sold Spark. In my dream I thought no, how did that happen, who will train the the young dogs as well as Spark? Thank you to everyone who has added one of our longtime or short time race dogs to their team. These dogs have done so much for us and with us. It is extremely difficult to see them go, but knowing they’re going to loving homes helps tremendously.