Wednesday, January 10, 2018

CHAMPION of the Gunflint Mail Run

Joanna started off her racing season with a bang, winning the Gun Flint Mail Run 8 dog class 64 mile sled dog race in Grand Marais, MN.  The race was full of different surprises and challenges for the mushers, with the dogs and with the weather.   It makes the victory much sweeter when you know you have beaten a good number of very tough competitors in the mid distance field. 

Her biggest challenge was Martha Schouweiler, a 62 year old grandma, along with her son Chad who trains the dogs and has a very impressive small kennel.  Martha and Chad have won about every race they entered in the last three years with Martha making history and winning the difficult Beargrease race along the north shore of Minnesota for three years in a row.

The race started on a chilly Saturday with temps ranging from 30 - 35 degrees below zero.  Even so the fifteen teams had a good start and were off to the races.  Meanwhile, I was patiently waiting at ground zero, Trail Center, which is a restaurant for the resort where the race began.

It requires at least 100 volunteers for this race in addition to the judges, time keepers, sponsors and trail officials.  Without these wonderful people who self sacrificially give of their time and energy, there would be no race.  From what I understand, as soon as the race is over, they start planning for the next year.  Amazing!!

During the race, several women are manning computers in the lodge, busily recording the times of each musher, called in by ham radio operators stationed at each road crossing.   I look over the  shoulder of these record keepers from time to time to see how fast Joanna is traveling in comparison to the other racers.

Joanna had the good fortune to be the second racer out of the chute, so I knew she would probably be the first one back in about two and a half hours.  The mandatory rest time between the two 32 mile legs is three hours, but those mushers who leave first end up getting a bit more time added to their rest because the teams leave in three minute intervals for the second leg.

You never really know how well each musher is placing until they all come back in from the first leg.  Chad is excellent at times and numbers and had figured that his mother, Martha and Joanna were pretty even that first leg.  As it turned out Martha beat Joanna by two minutes.  So, after the rest period, Martha took off first with Joanna leaving two minutes behind her.  But there were about five more very competitive teams behind Joanna leaving about two minutes apart.  It was going to be quite a race to the finish.

Joanna wasn't sure how her dogs would perform on the second leg because they looked tired after the first leg.  She also had two young dogs who had never raced before and two who had only been in one race previously.  But when we pulled them out of the trailer to hook them up for the second leg, they seemed full of life and ready to roll.

I spent the time waiting for Joanna in the Trail Center lodge reading a good book, trying to distract myself from the race.  Then Chad came over to me and blew me away by saying "they are neck and neck". 

I nearly fainted.  "What?  You're kidding me." 

He said Joanna had a fast time crossing the four miles of lake and caught up to Martha roughly halfway to the turn around. 

I could hardly believe my ears.  Now I could not distract myself and my stomach was in knots.  When I got up to walk over to the computers to check on times, my legs would barely hold me up.  Is it possible Joanna could WIN this race?   Every once in a while Chad would come over to me to update me, always saying  "they are neck and neck".   What a nail biter this race turned out to be.

Finally we got word that the first of the 8 dog teams would be arriving in 20 minutes.  I hurriedly went to the trailer to heat up water for the dogs so Joanna could feed them a hearty, warm supper once they arrived.  Then I beelined down to the lake to check for the teams coming in.

 It was dark by now and I could see headlamps of spectators out on the lake and headlamps of 12 dog teams that were just leaving for their second leg of the race.  I strained to see the mandatory red flashing light on the lead dog of a returning musher.  Finally I saw one and ran back to the shore alerting Chad that they were on their way in to the finish line.  In my mind, I imagined Martha and Joanna running side by side each hoping to make it to the finish line first.

Chad hollered out to me that it was Joanna.  I was shocked.  I asked, "How do you know that?"  He said he just knew.  I was rapturously shouting for joy as I ran up the hill preparing to greet Joanna and the team and lead the team back to the trailer.  Sure enough I watched Joanna's team come cruising across the finish line and I saw with my own eyes that she was indeed the Champion.

After unhooking the dogs, removing their harnesses, rubbing them down and feeding them, Joanna and I went back into Trail Center to grab some supper.   She recounted to me what happened on the trail.  As it began to get dark, she pulled her headlamp out of the pocket of her sled and turned it on.  To her dismay, the battery was not showing green , but orange which indicates there is not much battery life left.  Every musher has to have at least two working headlamps in their sled, so she pulled out the second one and it too was on orange.  She couldn't figure out what happened because they both had good or new lithium batteries in them.  It is required for mushers to wear their headlamps at dark for their safety, the safety of the dogs and other mushers on the trail.  She knew she would definitely need her headlamp on the lake before the finish line and decided to conserve by not wearing it until full dark. 

She had caught up to Martha by this time and even passed her.  They enjoyed each others company as they traveled along the trail and Joanna explained to Martha why she wasn't wearing her headlamp yet.  Martha kindly offered to let her use her spare headlamp.  Joanna thought it might be a good idea and they ended up stopping side by side to make the exchange and turn on the light.  Then Martha went on ahead of Joanna.

After traveling down the trail in this position for awhile, Martha suddenly put on the brakes to deal with some problem with her dogs.  Joanna waited behind her with the brakes applied but her dogs were gradually still pulling her alongside and past Martha's team, so she let them go and passed Martha again. 

This time Joanna took off and never saw Martha behind her again and zoomed on in to the finish line.  We found out a bit later that Martha had trouble keeping her leaders on the trail.  On the lake, the trail is marked with slender four foot sticks with reflective tape on top and about a mile apart.  They call them confidence markers to assure the musher they are on the right path. 

We found out the next morning at breakfast that Martha, who ended up coming in second, eight minutes behind Joanna, wasn't the only one who had trouble coming back on the lake. One 8 dog team was lost for two hours on the lake and many teams were zigging and zagging all over the lake trying to find the trail markers.  Snowmobiles had left tracks every which way, causing the dogs difficulty in knowing which trail to take.  Later that evening it started to snow with gusting wind making it difficult for the twelve dog teams coming back to find the trail as well.

When the trail crew back at Trail Center heard of the trouble mushers were having they went out on the lake to put out more markers and snowmobilers assisted teams by finding them and showing them the way back to the finish line.  Apparently the judges and vets didn't get to bed till 4 am. Unbelievable.!!!

The end of January we head to the Beargrease race near Duluth, MN facing the same competition as this race.  Who knows what will happen in this challenging 130 mile race?  You'll have to stay tuned for my next update on the Blog to find out.  :)