Anyone who knows me, knows that running has been a huge part of most of my life. I’ve raced many distances over the years on track, roads, cross country, trails, snow, snowshoes and mountains. I’ve had much the same progression that others have had with increasing in distances, and now find myself drawn to trail ultras. Winter, and northern ultras/stage races have been the type of races that have spoken to me most and that I find myself searching for.
While, I’ve only been running ultras for about 10 years, if there was one thing that I look back at that probably pulled me into the winter ultras most it’s dogsledding. I got into dogsledding beginning in the late 1990’s. My first time out was a guided tour near Algonquin Park, and I was hooked. I was fortunate enough after that to be able to help a friend train his dogteam and had the opportunity to race some of the dogs at races that he wasn’t going to be racing. This often involved some of the younger dogs or the dogs that didn’t make his A team. I just loved it! I was still training and running competitively, but dogsled racing gave me an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors in a way that was different and I loved deeply. I raced mostly mid-distance races of 30-50 miles/day, in one or sometimes two days. I really liked being out on the sled on the trails for the day. Just me, the dogs (usually 6-8 dog team) and some gear in the sled. As you can tell, this laid down the foundation for me wanting to do winter ultras where I get to drag the sled (pulk)…not the dogs.
I had the opportunity to train and dogsled race in some very cool places. I was thinking about that while I was out dogsledding a few days ago with our dogs and was thinking of some of my favourite dogsled memories.
Raven’s Watch Dogsled Tour – My first time dogsledding. I took out a four dog team and covered 50 km in a half day. I knew that I had discovered something that spoke to me deeply.
Eldorado Cup Dogsled Race – My first dogsled race. I actually have a video of this somewhere of my start that was on TV. They showed me starting off the line and leaning like a pro into the first corner. Thankfully, they took the camera off me when I tried to cross a road and the dogs decided they wanted to head up the highway. Luckily, I had some help to get them stopped and across the road.
Kearney Quest Dogsled Race – This race begins in downtown Kearney. The start was extremely icy one year. My team went out super hard for the first 400 meters before making a 90 degree turn. Well, we made the turn, but I flipped the sled and got dragged for the better part of a quarter mile. I was finally able to stop the team and get the sled upright again, but I had some nasty bruises and cuts from the fall. The #1 rule of dogsledding is DON’T LET GO! I didn’t….this time.
Marmora Dogsled Race – I was racing my friend Duane’s B Team. The conditions were very icy and I flipped the sled again going around a corner. I got dragged for probably 100 meters and then finally hit a snowbank very hard and couldn’t hold on any longer. I remember my lead dog Cody, who we’d eventually adopt, looking back at me after I let go. I could have sworn that he smiled and then accelerated quickly. Luckily I was only a mile or so to the turnaround, so I hoped that I could run there and that someone would have stopped the team for me. I was terribly embarrassed by this and didn’t want to admit that, even though they were safe, that I had been thrown from the sled and let go during the race. The funny part was that Duane had been thrown off his sled too in the same race, so I felt better.
Can Am Crown 30 – The Can Am Crown is a huge race that takes place in Fort Kent, Maine. There are 30 teams in each of the 30, 60 and 250 mile races. Fort Kent can be very cold. I remember one year that it was below -30C at the start of the race. Add the wind chill, and the wind chill from the speed of fresh dogs and you have a very cold race. This race is amazing though. I remember getting off the sled and running up a very long hill/mountain beside the dogs. I’m not sure what they thought of this, but I felt more like a part of the team by doing this and making it easier for them. My favourite part of the race was crossing a remote lake at about the halfway point. I remember getting to the middle of the lake and not seeing a team in front of me, or behind me. It was just one of those amazing, surreal, moments. I’m pretty sure that it was that point in time than made me think I’d like to go and explore the north in a race sometime. My best placing was finishing 7th in this race in 2002. I actually won more prize money at this race than at any running or ultra race I’ve ever run, which was kind of exciting and surprised me that day.
Training Runs – Aside from the races, just getting out for regular training runs with the dogs is such an incredible feeling. Even if I’d never raced a dog team, I would have been thrilled to just get out with the dogs on the trails on a cold winter day. Nothing makes you feel more alive.
I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to do this and to have learned so much about this amazing sport from my friend Duane.
If you ever get a chance to go to a dogsled race to watch, or take a guided tour, be sure to do it. To see the dogs so excited to run at the start is inspiring. As a fellow runner I find that I can really relate to the huskies and draw on this during an ultramarathon as well.