Y’all know most of my stories! I gotta live some new ones. Um... Ok. I can tell you about my first-ever dogsled race.
This was maybe 7 years ago, when I was around 24. At that point, I’d done dogsled expeditions and been a mushing guide for tourists. But when I moved to Wisconsin and started handling for a local musher who ran 6-dog races, he encouraged me to race, too.
I did not understand the idea of racing. Like, WHO CARED if your sled dogs were faster or slower than someone else’s sled dogs? I just liked being alone in the woods with them.
Also, racing seemed completely terrifying to me. All that pressure! Oh my god. Dogsledding is chaotic enough without people watching you.
But there was a race coming up: the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race.
And the musher I was handling for had a 6-dog B-team I’d been training.
And, um, somehow those dogs and I were supposed to race 20 miles.
The night before the race, I hardly slept. I kept tossing, going over my required gear in my head. Snowshoes, knife, compass, map, dog and human food... had I packed it all? What if I got lost on the trail? What would I do if my dogs got tangled with another team?
The next morning, dozens of mushers and dog teams gathered in a gravel pit at the trailhead. There were hundreds of dogs barking and people rushing around and sleds laid out and countdowns over a loudspeaker, and my team had to be ready at exactly the right second to start.
Y’all, I literally cried as the volunteers brought my team to the starting line.
Luckily, nobody could see because I was warning a balaclava.
It was SO LOUD and it was happening SO FAST.
There was a countdown and a crowd cheering and the dogs were jumping and the sled was shaking beneath me—and then we were off.
And all of a sudden, it was quiet.
It was me and the dogs. Just how I liked it.
I took a deep breath.
The trail would up a hillside through a thin forest, and that was nice, too, because the uphill gave me a bit more control as the dogs churned up the slope, zooming around corners.
And then we came around a corner and there were three whole teams tangled together in a huge knot and we ran right into them. All the dogs had started playing with each other, ducking under the ganglines, and you could not even tell which dog belonged to which team anymore.
Now I remembered WHY I DIDN’T RACE.
Here’s the thing I’ve since learned about shorter races: they can be super competitive and fun, but depending on the event, your challenge might not necessarily be, you know, the trail.
In an event with a lot of newer mushers, like this one, the biggest challenge is probably going to be dealing with mushers who aren’t really in full control of their team.
I am 100% counting myself as one of those people. After all, I had less racing experience than almost anyone. And it’s good — that’s how you learn!
But the point is, we did not untangle this situation efficiently. By the time the teams were lined out again, the dogs were raring.
I was a bit shook up, but proud of the dogs, and proud of myself for staying calm and solving the problem.
And then my team took off, and somehow my sled hooked someone else’s sled, and I couldn’t quite see what was happening.
And there was a loud crunching sound...
A voice yelled “hey, my sled!”
And as if in slow motion, I turned to see another musher reaching down—
And my dogs were so excited by the yell that they kept running, despite all my attempts to slow them—
And I could only stare helplessly over my shoulder at the team shrinking behind me, whose sled runner I had, accidentally, completely broken off.
I was able to find the guy later and work things out. He was a complete champ, and he ran about 15 miles with half of one of his runners missing, which is no easy feat. But until I was able to apologize my heart out, I wanted to disappear. I had never been more horrified.
But you know what? When I met him later, he was super nice about it. And said he looked forward to seeing me in future races.
And before the weekend was over, I’d met as many mushers as I knew in my whole life up til then.
And everyone had a sense of humor. And they had advice for me. And they made me feel welcome. And they told me about other rad races I should enter, trails that my dogs and I might like. I missed the community as soon as I had to say goodbye.
Which is how I learned the thing that, to everyone else, was incredibly obvious the whole time.
Racing isn’t about beating other dog teams. Sure, it’s fun to try to be competitive, because it gives you a measure to track your progress. But it’s about being a community.
Especially BECAUSE we spend so much time alone with our dogs. That’s why we need the community even more.
In fact, the next year—after a lot more training—I came back and won first place in the exact same race, out of about twenty teams.
But more importantly, I did not break anyone else’s sled. And, to my knowledge, I have never since.
You can follow @BlairBraverman.
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