My First Beargrease, part V: Race Day.

The stove had gone out sometime during the night and it was actually cool in the cabin when I woke up. Bruce must have woken up just before me; he pulled on the last of his clothes and headed out to the truck with me not too far behind.

We met at the truck, where he was trying to tie up the last bit of loose ends; things that couldn’t be packed until we were ready to go, dropping the dogs one last time until we were in the official race dog yard. Bruce was kind of a focused basket case, still sort of asleep and doing one task part way, switching to another and then on to a third, only to come back and do more of the first. But who in his position wouldn’t be? It was race day. He and his dogs had trained and worked all fall and all winter to get to this point. In a few hours all of their hard work and his planning would be put to the test in a pretty tough race that spans over four hundred miles and five days. I was getting the pre-race jitters and I wasn’t even running.

Almost eight o’clock in the morning and we were underway. A good deal of snow had fallen overnight and getting out of the driveway was tough. Imagine missing the race start due to snow. The irony was sickening. We ploughed through snow down the laneway and onto the concession road and it wasn’t until we reached the highway, several miles away, that the snow had been pushed to the side by the road crews.

We followed the same route in as the day before; we passed the Duluth Depot and the parking lot where the vet check was held and then, exiting off the highway, we drove through some fairly residential areas to the open field that was to serve as the official Race Start and the dog lot. Trucks were there already, parked in their assigned spots, and plenty of volunteers surrounded the new arrivals to help them find where they were going to be parking. It was done this way to maximize the space available, but also to facilitate the teams getting to the starting chute. Team one was first in line, two second, and so on, so that subsequent teams didn’t have to pass by other teams getting ready. There’d be time for passing later. Shawn parked the truck and, I don’t know about the others but, I got out of the truck with a stomach full of butterflies. We took the dogs out of their boxes and snacked them. We made some breakfast. We looked around at the other teams and we started to get the sled ready. Bruce had packed it the night before, not wanting to forget anything and knowing he’d be busy with other things today. All of his gear was spread out around the truck and the last thing to do was take the sled off the truck. Shawn climbed up on top of the truck and I stood down below, waiting to have the sled passed to me.

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Marked out in the snow were spaces like a parking lot.  Inside the spaces were numbers that corresponded to the bib number of the musher.  Alleys on either side were for the teams to travel down when heading to the starting chute.

 

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A crowdless start chute.

 

 

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As the start time neared, the dog lot filled up with trucks and teams and spectators until it was difficult to walk up and down the alleys.

The sled came down front-first and the only place I could get a grip on it was the brush bow. I was holding the sled by the brush bow, waiting for Shawn to come down and help put the sled on the ground when I felt a twitch and heard a sickening snap. I felt the weight of the sled shift in my hands and knew in an instant that the brush bow had broken. This was not good. My heart sank. “I’ve just broken his sled.” I thought. The sled used the brush bow – a solid piece of plastic, continuous from the bed of the sled – to form a pocket with the sled bag. Bruce had all of his booties for the race stored there and without the support, the pocket drooped sadly. He couldn’t run the race with a bag or sled like that. I didn’t know what to do and I stood there, for what seemed like hours, debating with myself.

Shawn had heard the snap – luckily, Bruce hadn’t, being away from the truck for a few minutes – and he rushed over and took the sled from me, heading for the team behind us who was another Ontario musher.

“Where’s the sled?” I heard a few moments later. “Um… I…” I began to say.

“Right here.” said Shawn, rounding the corner of the truck as though we had taken it down just then.

I thought for certain Bruce was going to see the broken brush bow. He eyed the sled for a minute and then said “Let’s get the lines tied on.”

As we sorted out the lines, Shawn told me he had taken the sled to the other musher’s truck and had sewn the brush bow back together with some baler wire. “It’ll be fine.” he said. “Don’t worry.” My heart slowed back to its normal pre-race stress level.

Although there was a lot of activity in the dog lot, there was not a lot to do. We made sure that all that was left was harnessing the dogs. We filled in the time until the race start by answering questions from curious fans, talking to the dogs, visiting other teams and their drivers and by discussing the question of booties. To bootie or not to bootie. On the one hand, Bruce’s dogs were blessed with tough feet and it was a short run to the first checkpoint, so it seemed a good idea to not bootie. But then again, there was all this new snow and it didn’t seem like a good way to start a race with the risk of a fissure from snowballs between the pads. Plus, booties tend to take half a mile per hour off of the speed of a team and Bruce was looking to take things easy at the start, so it seemed like a good idea to put booties on. In the end, we bootied the dogs; a good decision, I think.

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Bruce and our host for the past few days pose for a picture beside Bruce’s truck.  Our host bought the Canadian flag for Bruce, his reasoning being that Shawn and I were to fly it at every checkpoint so that a tired Bruce wouldn’t have to search out his truck, he’d just have to look for the flag.  It didn’t matter because we would end up meeting Bruce at each checkpoint and guide him to the truck, but the flag did draw a lot of well-wishers when they discovered where we were from.

At last the announcement came over the loudspeakers asking the fans and non-race personnel to please leave the dog lot and make their way to the start chute. The race was about to begin. My heart ramped up its speed again and the butterflies made a churning sensation in my stomach. “This is crazy,” I thought to myself, “I don’t even get this nervous when I’m racing.” I looked around for Shawn but couldn’t see him, so Bruce and I began to harness and bootie the dogs. Shawn showed up a short time later and informed me that he’d just “puked enough for the two of us.” I guess it wasn’t just me who was nervous.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrEMllCMjR4

A very short video of the growing commotion as mushers began to harness their dog teams.

And then everything started to happen quickly. Harnessed dogs were taken to the line, volunteers showed up to help us get the team to the start and I found myself running ahead of the leaders, a tug line attached to one of their harnesses, swinging wide around the corners and meeting a throng of race fans cheering us on into the chute. I held up my hand to signal a stop and I could feel the vibrations of Bruce’s brake through the gangline but we weren’t stopping. I was afraid that we were going to end up overtaking the team ahead of us. More volunteers came and grabbed the gangline, helping stop the team. I heard Bruce behind me say “I guess they are ready.”

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Bruce and team in the chute, counting down the two minutes.

One by one and spaced out by two-minute intervals, the teams ahead of us left on their race. The last thing I remember before seeing the back of Bruce and his team was crouching in the Start chute, whispering to the leaders.

“Ten seconds, driver!” the announcer called over the loudspeaker. And that was it: ten seconds later, I shouted “Good luck Bruce!” as he and his team tore past me.

Shawn and I went back to the truck, packed up everything and made ready to leave. We had to drive to the next checkpoint at Two Harbours and set up for Bruce. If all went well, we wouldn’t see Bruce for another four hours. If all didn’t go well, then who knew when we’d see him next.

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