Every year I’ve said wouldn’t it be awful to work so hard to prepare for Iditarod and have your team get a virus? It happens every year. I didn’t have to imagine that scenario. Full force out of Skwentna I watched my team violently vomit one after another. Skwentna. Only 60 miles in. A drop in the bucket for our team. I’d ran a very conservative 9.5 mph on the first run according to my plan and rested just over 6 hrs to follow my schedule. My intention going into this race was not to race. To rest. To keep the dogs fresh. To see where things would take me down the trail. I’ve always admired the racing style of my dad and Ramey Symth. Very much a work your way into approach vs hot out of the shoot. A much less aggressive approach than mid-distance racing.
By Finger Lake I told myself I’d overfed them in Skwentna, though very strange the entire team would be puking. I settled the dogs in and fed them. Prompt puking. Apollo started coughing. The worst sign. Vomiting followed by coughing. The scariest thing with vomiting followed by coughing is the dogs can get aspiration pneumonia very quickly, which is what progressively and rapidly happened to the team. I felt pretty isolated and alone in the situation I was dealing with. Wondering how can this be happening to our team? What can I do? As the race progressed other teams got sick as well. I already had the team on probiotics and started them all on metronidazole.
Bruce Lee came over for an insider interview and I stumbled through his questions my mind on my sick team. I had a vet check Apollo out and they told me he would need to be left behind in case pneumonia developed. Star leader. Gone. I shook it off and now an hour off my schedule I headed in to the hot afternoon sun towards the notorious Happy River Steps.
Iditarod isn’t really known for the monster hills in it. Hahaha. Let me say there are some endlessly steep hills that far surpass those in the Quest. I was pretty surprised. The steps weren’t too bad. The trail was pure sugar and that last step, which my dad told me was the worst, was very steep with nothing for the brake to grab into.
The dogs didn’t snack well on the way to Rainy. Once there they didn’t eat well and were clearly not feeling well. I decided to leave Kingpin behind. My trusty main leader gone. I was starting to feel pretty wiggy and unsure about what I was seeing happening so rapidly deteriorate.
I had a really strong run over to Rohn and thought maybe the dogs were feeling better. The gorge, I believe, is the most technical sled riding a musher could encounter. I was told by veteran mushers it was particularly difficult this year. I was thankful to have my beloved little Gatt sled that responds like a dream. I didn’t have any issues like my fellow mushers who told me they’d hit trees, fallen off bridges, and gotten stuck in big holes completely off the trail. Wow, I got so lucky I thought. The glare ice going into Rohn was the insanely slippery. We were doing fine until we came across Chris Parker who’d gotten off the main “trail” and was stuck down in the “weeds” off to the right. The dogs listened perfectly scrambling to the left in their booties when I told them no (don’t go down there!) – haw, haw. Losing momentum on the ice made for a little bit of mess. The sled swung widely pulling the dogs off course and I flipped the sled in order to stop the slide. Somehow for the second time in 10 hrs landing with the sled on top of my right leg. The first being going into Rainy Pass down a steep hill, the trail a trough of sugar and around a tree, flipping and pinning my leg under the sled. I carried a lot of extra gear with me. Three sets of boots. The weight of the sled in the deep sugar snow made it so I could just pull and rip my leg out from under it filling my bunny boot with snow and eventually blackening my leg. Back to the ice-The hooks dangled like a handheld logic game under the sled. The dogs waited patiently for me to fix things. I righted the sled and as we started off the sled went into a slide again. Will had made rough locks for me before the race, but one side had busted off a few hours before on an ice shelf crossing water. The slide wasn’t as significant as the first one and off we went. In the darkness a helicopter surged overhead above us along the narrow river heading into Rohn. Several of us were stopped there for about 20 minutes before being able to enter the checkpoint while my neighbor Aily was loaded into the helicopter and flown to the hospital for treatment. She’d gotten hurt on the glare ice coming into Rohn. Easy to see how that could happen.
I’d had a really strong run into Rohn and thought the dogs must be feeling better. This would be the first of the next few stops of performance looking normal and when stopped a different scenario. Have you ever heard a little kid with croupy cough? My team sounded like little kids with croupy cough. Rapid onset respiratory infections. Even after hours of rest the dogs had high temps, harsh sounding lungs, and accelerated respiration. I asked the vets to check over each dog three times. Taking their temps, checking respiration, and listening to their lungs. Three dogs were taken out of the team. Two with pneumonia who were put on IVs full of heavy antibiotics. Greg, the head vet in Rohn said in all his years of working the checkpoint he’d never had dogs need an IV and not only my dogs, but several others had to get them as well.This was after taking an ample amount of rest. The team was simply getting worse by the minute. Things were not getting better. I had another dog coughing, but her vitals were ok. Nobody had much of an appetite and a couple had horrendous diarrhea. I didn’t know to do. I thought this is a downward spiral I should scratch. I was told I’d have to wait 4-5 days in Rohn and completely take apart my sled in order to get out. I decided I should try to make it over to Nikolai. I was really nervous to do so. I was worried about the rapid progression of what my team was going through. Bruce Lee looked them over with me and pointed out they had a really nice fat layer that would help despite their appetites being off. I guess it’s a blessing we keep our team with extra weight on them. We had to wait a few days to fly out of Mcgrath in -30 with some wind and out of 90 dogs there our guys were by far the fattest.
The Burn-This stretch of trail was like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’m glad I got to see the most technical parts of the Iditarod trail. The steep, so steep, dirt and ice hills of the burn gave the dogs and I one heck of a workout. I’ve never worked so hard behind a sled in life. I was saturated in sweat. It felt good though. Personally I’ve never felt better physically in a race. Two weeks before the race I was diagnosed with a small fracture in my back and two herniated discs. I was a little concerned, but felt better than I had for many months of training.
I took Bruce’s advice, lots of his advice actually, and went 40 miles before pulling over to rest the team. In the tight trees for miles it wasn’t easy to find a spot. But we came out of the wet heavy snow and into the sunshine. It was a great place to dry out gear and rest in the heat of the day. It was the most peaceful camp of the race and I loved being completely alone with my team. More dogs were coughing as we rested there. I knew Nikolai would likely be my last stop. The trail going into Nikolai was perfect. Hard, fast, cold. The dogs felt on fire coming into there. I thought maybe I can make it to McGrath to at least send some more gear home. Had I left Nikolai I’d have had 6 dogs in harness and one more who could’ve stayed behind due to his diarrhea. It wasn’t worth it. At 4am I made the call to scratch, I knew my family would be going crazy wondering why I was so off my schedule and staying so long in checkpoints. I didn’t declare my mandatory 8 hour rests, but staying so long I guess I was marked down for them anyway.
The vets told me it was a bad idea to let dogs come and go in and out of other kennels. Which I had done. I naively never considered helping others with dogs and then getting them back after races might introduce illness. I was told there was a virus in Willow. I’m not sure if this was the cause or just a possibility. I certainly won’t ever do that again. The risk is 100% not worth taking any chances of exposure to our race team.
I have so many people to thank I don’t even know where to start. ITC was incredible to me. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive and wonderful group of people to spend a couple days with in Mcgrath. The logistics behind this event are enormous and all of the volunteers and organizers work endlessly to make everything run smoothly. The vet staff was incredible. Melissa in Mcgrath was a huge help to our team and to reassuring me. My parents, brother, daughter, and husband- I could not have embarked on this journey without their support. I met so many wonderful people in Mcgrath over what felt like the most idle time I’ve ever had. I helped down in the return dog yard a bit as they had 90 dogs there and were short staffed.
My mother in law referred to my experience as a catastrophe. There were a couple times I felt very confused, like I was circling around unable to decide what to do. Then I felt extreme disappointment at having made the choice to not race this season in order to preserve the team’s health as much as possible. To have put all of our time and more than all of our money into this race. I went into the event never considering having to scratch. I thought no matter what is happening I should be able to finish. I took a lot away from this experience. I found being on a conservative schedule in a long distance event to be easy despite what the team was going through. Time didn’t matter. Stopping and going not doing monster runs was easy. Getting quickly into a routine was easy. In some ways easier than a year of hardcore training. I saw places I have heard about my entire life and couldn’t really even imagine. I learned my “alternate” Pie is a superstar. I saw Spark lead every step of the way despite having the most awful diarrhea I’ve ever seen. I watched his cool head stay steady on the ice. I gained a world of respect for Loyalty, who I almost didn’t take on the race but who I decided to put with Spark on the last two runs. Together their experience and confidence made for a perfect frontend. I watched them navigate the gorge like a fine tuned machine. I learned our two best females are both Outlaw daughters- Lusa and Magic. Both are sadly spay. I learned I can stay awake even longer than I previously thought not taking a wink for 4 days. I’m very fortunate to not need much rest. A curse at times and a blessing at other times. My ambition led me to thoughts of recuperating the team and going to the 440. But we will stay home. We will rest and we will enjoy spring puppy runs. Will is busier than he has ever been on a project at work and can not even entertain a trip to the 440.
The dogs are on medications and are looking much better. We got home last night and they were very happy to settle in. This entire year has been one of stars not aligning and in fact one major set back after another. We just kept pushing forward. Despite the bad luck I feel I’ve reset something inside myself I’ve needed to do for awhile. I’m excited to continue riding this feeling better physically than ever wave. I’ve lost all interest in social media. I see I have a million messages to address and just don’t have the energy to do so. Besides putting this blog out I simply don’t feel like engaging in it anymore. I’ve felt this way for a long time. I deleted messenger a couple months ago to quiet the noise. There is a feel of obligation to share whats happening in the kennel and of course I enjoy my friendships. I appreciate everyone’s thoughts and concerns.