I knew that the first day's
run was clean and the dogs came into the finish line much fresher than
last year, but being in the lead out of 40 starting teams is making me
soar -- and also sleepless. Manfred brings things to the point: Let's
find out how the team does the second day, and then we know for sure if
it works! All summer Iong, he had fed the computer with the latest data
available about the newest research in sleddog nutrition, calculating
the needed calories, vitamins and minerals for the proper fueling.
After having the team "run out of gas" at the Beargrease '92, he found
out that the dogs were underfueled by 40 percent. Our conclusion was
that the team could improve significantly, since they had done
reasonably well with the feeding faults of our preceding years.
He had the company
update our mineral
and vitamin mixture and we started feeding different types of
short-chained fatty acids and oils (linseed, wheatgerm, fish oil).
Snacks made out of butter, coconut fat, and hamburger (beef) were given
after about every two hours of running while we were training in Utah.
We had the impression the teams came home stronger, but did not know
for sure if their performance might also have to do with some dogs just
being a year older.
Some from Manfred's 1992
moved up to the first string. We managed to have almost the same
mileage (760) on the main team as the year before. As for training, we
changed nothing except that we made more back-to-back runs and did
rotate the training trails as much as possible. In 1993 we arrived in
Solon early and had the dogs out for a training run on Friday before
the race. We drove to Amnicon, the halfway point, and -- with two
persons on the sled -- gave the three teams 90 minutes to limber up. I
was not going to make last year's mistake again! No more running a
fast-paced race with dogs that had not been exercised and had been
hauled in the dog truck for four days.
Sunday morning, the
second heat of
Solon Springs awaits. Agor's joint is hot and he moves carefully on his
left front leg. I regret not having put on the sweats (leg wrappings)
because he had not shown any signs of problems at night after resting
from the first day's run. (After this experience with Agor, some dogs
got sweats anyway after each race heat run.) I decide to start without
Agor, although I realize this might cost me first place. But I need him
desperately for the Beargrease, so I can't risk severe damage to his
joints by running him now.
We had fed for three
powder and later a horse cartilage support product named Flexxion. lt
seemed to help the older dogs with joint problems, since they all
managed the tough training without any days off. Later, it turned out
that Agor had his best season ever and only missed the second heat of
the Empire 130.
Being out the second
does a better job leading than I expected. He passes without hesitation
and young Opium is supporting him well his first time in lead in a
race. Without Agor we actually go faster and I start worrying if we
will have anything left for the return trip from Amnicon. (Editor's
note: 10-dog class at Solon Springs is a two-heat race comprised of two
32-mile intervals separated by a short rest period each of two days;
the 6-dog class runs only one 32-mile heat -- the distance from Solon
Springs to Amnicon -- each of the two days.)
When we reach the roadcrossing, during the first 32-mile interval, I hear a trail help yell to his friend, "You lost your five bucks!" I know what he means. The preceding year, I had a 50-pound dog in the basket and was passed by two teams. Nobody catches me before we reach Amnicon. I drop one dog which seems to move a little stiffly. After 30 minutes rest, watering, and snacking, I turn the team around. Callico knows the procedure from last year, but Opium refuses to follow him. I switch to Lancer, an enthusiastic two-year-old who has never run in lead before.
After four miles, I have to switch again, and wonder when I will be overtaken. Lucky is not an aggressive leader, but once out on the trail is very steady. With him, the dogs decide to roll home. Old Nelson starts limping about 10 miles from Solon. Tough guy that he is, he carries his own weight to the finish. Later I find out that I had a 10-minute lead. I feel bad not having given Nelson a ride in the basket the last miles when he had trouble to keep up while the team rushes for the truck. Being so close to victory, I wanted it for the Siberians. Too many times some Alaskan teams pass you at the end and leave you in the dust!
After Solon Springs, we follow last year's racing schedule, including the Elton 80 in Wisconsin and the Beargrease 130 in Minnesota.
At Elton, I run 6 dogs to check Agor. Manfred runs open class, testing every sound dog on the truck. When on Sunday my 6-dog team shaves seven minutes off our first day's run, I am confident that I have a pretty good group and Agor's performance is at his best ever. We place first for the second year in a row.
Monday morning in a snowstorm, we are on our way to the Beargrease 130. We make it as far as Two Harbors before the roads close down. Tuesday we had planned on training from Two Harbors to Finland, but the trail is buried under a foot of snow and not visible. While the checkpoint is already plowed, the person in charge teils us that Swingley is expected to be in by afternoon, having left Toftie behind a snowmobile breaking trail ahead of his team.
We travel to Finland and I train Manfred's team on part of the trail where my headlamp had died down last year. Thursday I run my team out from Grand Marais on a well-settled trail, which proves to be as fast as last year's trail.
Saturday morning, same procedure as last year! Except the start of the race is now at noon time, and the temperature is fairly mild compared to 1992. The race starts. We run at almost the same speed to Pike Lake we did a year earlier. After the checkpoint, I give the first snack. Snacking 10-dogs takes me only two minutes because they eat well. Before reaching Sawbill, I catch Tim McEwen, the winner to be; I have the impression my dogs are going too fast for the temperature. Narley's (Calculus) tugline is slack and he stumbles a few times. At Sawbill, I go over Narley. But I can't decide what's wrong with him and he is eating and drinking well. Finally, I decide to leave him. This decision has taken me 20 minutes; I realize it was too long deciding - it is dumb. Out on the trail again, the dogs take it easy for a few miles. With darkness falling, they pick it up and we catch several teams.
Six miles from Finland, Esprite starts to limp. I stop, check him for snowballs, find none. It must be the shoulder joint. He makes it into Finland without a ride, receives the routine vet check, and the decision is he must be dropped. Manfred has everything prepared more efficiently compared to our first time running this race. Since we have taken our trailer along, things go a lot easier. After giving soup to the dogs and putting their sweats on, we give them a normal meal. I go to get the times, but the Beargrease organization has problems. They promise to provide us later with out starting times! (We never got complete timings, only a final result list, and I wonder why.)
The team is scheduled to leave Finland at night: 1:49 AM. We yell for the vet who has checked our dogs coming in. The procedure is the same as last year, except that we need a written okay to go. We had missed doing this part earlier. The team leaves into the night and settles down pretty quickly. Too quickly.
Three of the dogs do not look right, and the speed is not okay either. Freddy gets a blown up belly and Double and Brandy move funny. I stop and check Freddy, but he is rolling in the snow and not looking sick. Another hour passes. The dogs start to vomit, getting rid of excess food. They don't care for snacks anymore either, but are now very slowly picking up speed.
At Highway 2, we catch the two teams which had passed us earlier. Manfred is waiting with soup, but the team is bouncing and the vet waves us by. I tell my handler the dogs do not need anything and pull the hook. Without hesitation the teams leaves, and picks up more speed.
The "large mountain" from the preceding year is now only a moderate hill as we sprint to the finish. The run in from the highway takes us only 1:09 minutes as it is a briskly moving team that crosses under the finish line banner.
Coming in like that cheers me up from the disappointment of dropping one notch in the overall placing from last year. What we did not do enough of last year, we overdid this year. Maybe in 1994 we'll be able to do it right!
Wednesday after the race, the dogs are ready for a training run. Compared to last year, the recovery is quick with less injuries. Most surprising to me is Agor; he came out of the battle better than ever before.
The following Weekend, Manfred fields a team in the Esker Ridge Triathlon. Esprite and Narley, the two dogs dropped during the Beargrease run, are in the lineup. Surprisingly, the team is doing best in the freight event which we never trained for. After a clean 40-mile run, Manfred crosses the finish line in first place.
St. Ignace is a new 100-mile race and we are on the starting line of it one week Iater. The night before, a snowstorm and blizzard had changed the formerly fast trail conditions. Saturday's 60-mile run is in deep powder, but the dogs go well. One of the nicest rewards for me occurs when some driver at the checkpoint yells out to me, "You have wonderful leaders!" His team was refusing to go, blocking the trail. Agor and Opium jump up the snowbank to avoid trouble and keep on going. Surprisingly, I have a 20-minute lead, but some dogs look stiff in the shoulders, not having had these deep conditions to experience for awhile. I drop two dogs, while Manfred's team running in 6-dog class looks okay. On Sunday's 40-mile run, I take it easy, ready to push only if somebody overtakes me. Manfred battles to maybe shake Sjordal and move up from second place to first, but she is sticking to his heels. At the end, he runs his 6-dog team four minutes faster than I did mine, and had the fastest time of the day.
The next race we had planned to enter was the 100-mile Gwinn $10,000 event, while other teams were heading for Marmora. Their decision was better than ours; the temperature for Gwinn kept rising and glorious sunshine kept eating snow from the trail. On Thursday, while checking the course, we saw water running off and the checkpoint was pure mud already. These conditions turned to ice at night. The start time for the race was 8 p.m.. With the ice conditions at night and the trail location being right on the shoulder of a highway, we decided not to enter the race. In my mind, I could see pads peeling off the dogs after our experience in 1991 at International Falls. I was ready to try to drive to Marmora and reach it in time, but Manfred stopped me. He was not willing to be rushed; that is what he experiences all summer Iong at his office!
To kill a weekend, we raced at Tughill, 60 miles limited to 6-dogs. It turned out to be a snowstorm race. Not the right kind of preparation for Quebec, but the dogs made the best out of it. Beaten by 2 minutes, I placed second and Manfred 4th. He had a limping dog on his return trip. We went from New York to Quebec and faced the coldest temperatures of the winter.
The trail at Abitibi was fast, and I feared the steep hill at the beginning of the course. So we both entered limited class. To our surprise, the dogs faded after a flying start. We both raised questions why, since they had been so stable all season.
One race later at Mastigouche, they started to do a little better. However, by Monday, we had several dogs coughing severely. What before was only some wheezing was now breaking out rapidly. We skipped the Lac St. Jean race and drove to our friends' place in New York State. I injected high doses of antibiotics since I was afraid to bring sick dogs back to my kennel in Germany. When we boarded the plane two weeks Iater, the coughing was under control.
In the meantime, there are now thousands of superior dogs around. There are 60 entries in the Iditarod, 40 in the Quest, a record 104 at the Empire 1993, hundreds in the sprints. The percentage of Siberian teams has diminished, even though in numbers there might be a few more running than at the times of the All Alaska Sweepstakes. Fact is, we breeders of registered dogs must have missed the boat when it comes to quality numbers. It must be that old "Siberian dream," owning the "ultimate sleddog," even when it is barely competitive, that makes most breed lovers accept the breed's limitations and start from scratch.
Years ago I did the same. We all more or less had our dream to be the one to find the miracle to save the breed and make it competitive again. But in the reality of competition, there is no room for dreams. Once you realize that it needs more than a "sleddog label" or a certain pedigree to do well in races, you either quit serious breeding or you pick up the challenge.
As for the "Seppala dog," the credit for what it is as a working dog today goes exclusively to Doug Willett. He put the dogs to the test, selected the superior athletes and used them for breeding. If more breeders preferred a dog with top performance over one with a "good" pedigree, we would have better quality today.
To me, Jeff's comment on today's racing scene sounds as if the blind speaks from the sun. It does not help at all to show the beginning Siberian driver unrealistic dreams. Only facing the reality and progressing as quickly as possible is the name of the game. The ones who helped the breed have always been those who told me, "I am not placing in the back of the pack forever."
Over the past 20 years, people were dreaming and waiting for miracles. But we need Willetts, Pozarnskys, Thomanns, Nadeaus, Levitskis just to name a few (sorry, I am Iong out of sprinting so I don't know what happens there) -- the ones who take on the competition and do it, to keep the Siberian sleddog alive.
EMPIRE 1306-dog class:
|3.||Manfred Witschel (SH)||2:23:14||2:32:03||4:55:27|
|25.||Carolyn Ritter (SH)||2:50:36||3:09:27||6:00:03|
|29.||Pam Thomas (SH)||2:51:33||3:11:05||6:02:38|
|35.||Bob Thomas (SH)||3:10:19||3:22:10||6:32:29|
|36.||Dave Schultz (SH)||3:05:40||3:28:04||6:33:44|
|38.||Bob Eaglesham (SH)||3:19:02||3:22:04||6:41:06|