Real mushers do it on the snow.

I can say that now.

It's something I never thought I'd do. It seemed so tricky and so scary. Only happens a couple of times a year in Australia. And the dogs were getting old. And we sold J's sled.

Then last year, a race started up at Mt Baw Baw, where I have many awesome childhood memories. We went and spectated and had so much fun!

This year, a friend said, "you should try this, I think you'll love it" and offered me a sled and another dog. It took him a bit to talk me into it; discussions about getting early access to the mountain for some sled training, lots of talk about how similar riding a sled is to skiing, and a dry run (pun intended!) to see if the dogs would be well matched as a team.

Czar and Smudge, at SHCV Race 3

Czar and Smudge, at SHCV Race 3

Friday afternoon, SB and I took Smudge and Czar and the Pink Sled, out into one of Mt Baw Baw's cross country trails to have a go, the day before the race.

A sled is both simpler and more complicated than a scooter. Steering is just a matter of shifting your weight, same as skiing. But braking comes with choices, which I just found confusing. There's a drag mat, which sits between your feet and you stand pigeon toed on it and vary the pressure with your heels. To lift the drag mat up you have to reach down a pull a cable near your knees. There's a claw brake, which punches holes into the snow when you stand on it, and bounces back up when you take your foot off. And there's a snow hook, or two, which you have to unsheath and drop, making sure you don't hit your own knees, or toes, or a passing musher... Just sayin' HK, it could have been worse!!

Anyway, I had a short burl down the slope to get the feel of it and managed not to crash or hit a tree. So we hooked the dogs up and went down the practice track. SB rode along behind me, which was very weird because the sled felt quite weightless so it was a little like having a disembodied voice in my ear. After a little bit he hopped off and left me to it. It was magical. All the instructions flew straight out my head and I just concentrated on shifting my weight as we swished along the winding trail. 

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When it came to my actual race the next day, things started off hectic. We had a minor glitch with the child care arrangements and I ended up running late to get to the start chute. At Mt Baw Baw, all dogs must be kept at Carpark 2, and the walk from the car park to the start chute was quite a bit longer this year, compared to last year. As I was meant to be the first team out for the Novice/Touring class, I had no extra time. The wise race committee had realized that teams were likely to be caught short and had insisted that no competitors would be penalized for being late to the start chute. They arranged for me to go out at the back of the class instead. It was the perfect amount of time to get the dogs hooked up, get my helmet and googles on, gloves back on, and move through to the start line, but no time to turn on the Mushometer or the Go Pro. Fortunately, a friend captured an awesome video of me almost falling on my bum right at the start line!

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Last year, the start and finish lines were on a trail called Home Trail, at the corner of the village's Main Street. This year, the mountain management had asked if we would run the chutes through the centre of the Main Street, to make a big spectacle for the crowds. Some of the teams were very keen to stop and say hello to the people lining the race track as it crossed the Village Bowl, but I was very proud of my boys, who took off strong (so strong we pulled a mono off the start line!) and ran straight through, across the Bowl and started to climb the trail up into the hills beyond the Village.

The trail looped around a hill, winding through the trees and constantly heading up and down the little ridges and gullies that made up the sides of the hill. It was very difficult to find a consistent pace. On each short down hill slope, the sled and dogs would start to rush down, and I'd try to find the drag mat with my heels. As soon as I did, we'd be pulling uphill again and I'd be struggling to get my feet past the drag mat to run, rather than hold the dogs back. The trail constantly changed from deep, heavily chopped snow to brown, slushy little rivelets. Large rocks poked out and I fought to steer around them, trusting the dogs to pick their best lines. They did, thousands of years of instinct and breeding, keeping us moving along the trail.

We came up a rise to find a Corner Marshall directing the team ahead of us to take the right hand fork. The driver, our friend HK, was too close to the edge, fighting to stay out of the ditch and I soon understood why, as the angles of the trail tilted us into the same spot. Czar and Smudge were keen to say hello to Shaker and Pop, so they crowded over too. I struggled with the sled and barely managed to avoid running over HK, a very ungraceful pass. I didn't realize at the time, but as I brushed past I knocked her, and she fought again to keep her balance and stay out of the ditch. She's been teasing me about it ever since!

We moved on a little more, climbing and falling. Suddenly I crested yet another short ridge and the drop in front of me was much steeper than previously, with a sharp bend at the bottom. I struggled to control speed and direction and crashed at the bottom, tipping the sled onto its side and fighting to keep one hand on the handlebars, lying with my elbow in the snow. HK saw my predicament and fought to find a better line around the corner. I picked myself up and we took off after her again.

We travelled up and down for a bit further, and then I realized that Smudge had stepped over the neckline between the dogs. I called them to a stop, braking and was so please when they stood to wait for me to walk up and untangle them. Czar looked a bit confused when I called them to hike while still standing next to him, but did as I told him. I let the line run through my hand and then grabbed the handle bars and swung myself between the runners as the sled came past. We were off again, between the snowy trees.

We caught back up to HK as we finished looping the hill. Her team took the left turn back to the Village Bowl beautifully but Smudge was keen to say hello to the Corner Marshall standing on the right. We stopped and I called them round, but they were intent on begging for pats. The Corner Marshall grabbed the neckline and steered them back into the trail.

We sped down the slope into the Bowl, with crowds calling "hike!" (Points to those who knew this is what we say, not "mush!"). The boys were keen to catch HK, and I tried to pull around them, but one of the Marshalls shouted a suggestion to come in one behind the other. Feeling like the trail was icy and slippery underfoot, I thought it was better not to fall and make a fool of myself in front of such a crowd, so we pulled in behind HK and travelled quick and safe up to finish line. Such an awesome feeling!!!

Enormous thanks to the RGO who put on an awesome race, dealing with many challenges with grace and competence. Thanks to J and the Wee Monster and his many wonderful babysitters, especially his Uncle and Aunty who came along for a weekend at the snow and got sucked into all kinds of errands and dog handling. And especially thanks to SB, for the inspiration, encouragement and wherewithal to get out there and compete at this new level. 

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Hats off to RGO's and especially the Goldseekers committee.

Its traditional for the first place getter in each class to say a few thankyou's at presentations on Sunday morning.  They thank the sponsors, the dogs, the handlers and the committee or RGO (race giving organization). Usually, folks are concentrating on thanking their spouse or their mates who help them train, get to the start chute, etc; the people who are really special and important in their lives. The many sponsors and the faceless committee sometimes get a cursory mention, sometimes a generic "thanks for a great weekend."

Well, my experience being on the NVSDC Classic committee two weeks ago has opened my eyes to what goes on behind the scenes to make "a great weekend" and I have to say that this weekend's RGO, the Goldseekers Club, have my very specific and very non cursory thanks for a great weekend, especially since I have the luxury of saying thanks in a blog post, rather than tying up everyone in a long winded presentation speech!

So, here's what I'd like to say to the Goldseekers committee: 

- thanks for doing the endless paperwork, for getting us permits and bookings months in advance. 

- thanks for organizing toilets and lighting, thanks for bringing extra canopies and boxes and boxes of essential gear. 

- thanks for publishing entry forms, processing entries and banking monies, tracking interest in classes and offering an extra class by request of the race goers. 

- thanks for spending time together prior to the race to organize all the bibs, pack and label a show bag for each competitor, with a catalogue, dog biscuits, lollies, rubbish bags, toilet paper, tea bags and other "little luxuries" to cheer us all along. 

- thanks for taking time off work and getting to the race site to set up before all the competitors arrived on the weekend.

- thank you for driving at least an extra 100kms after arriving, for hammering dozens of marker stakes and star pickets into the trails, for chain sawing fallen trees and all the other physical hard yakka that goes into setting trails. 

- thank you for asking family members and friends to go and sit out on the trails as corner marshals, track checkers and timers, ready to help in case of emergency, in the cold and the dark. 

- thank you for choosing an awesome Race Marshall, who is passionate about the sport but calm and diplomatic when there are incidents or disputes. Special thanks to the great women who take on this job, serving as role models to our kids that women are highly respected and capable of great authority in our sport.

- thank you for running Drivers' meetings, straining your voices to be heard in the open air, while competitors whisper and gossip and then ask for information to be repeated. (My day job makes me especially appreciative of that one!) 

- thank you for giving up time with your own families and own dogs, back at your campsite, while you stand for hours in the chutes, and then run off to calculate times while everyone else gets to relax.

Most of the above, and more, are done by every RGO, and so many of them do it happily and without complaining. Newbies like me often don't realize how much hard work goes into a race, because these experienced guys make it look easy. It's not. It's exhausting, time consuming and too often, thankless.

But this weekend, the Goldseekers Committee are owed special thanks from all of us. Last night, one of the biggest disasters that can befall a musher happened to one of the guys competing in the eight dog class - two of his dogs came loose from the tug lines that attach them to the rest of the team, and charged off into the darkness. The Goldseekers Committee and volunteers immediately launched a search effort. For many hours they walk, rode and drove backwards and forwards across the state forest and surrounds, looking for the dogs. Some might say that it's not the committee's responsibility to hunt for dogs that don't belong to them, but that wasn't even a question that occurred to these folks. On a weekend where they were already tired, cold and ridiculously busy, they gave up many hours of rest and sleep. So far, the dogs have not been found, despite hopes that they might see or hear the other teams running this morning, and follow another team back to camp. 

Looking at the committee running racing, pee wee events and presentations today, most of us wouldn't have known how tired they were. Seriously sleep deprived, worried for the missing dogs, concerned for distressed dog owners, they nonetheless continued in a thoroughly professional fashion, emphasizing the positives and congratulating achievements. 

RGOs are the backbone of sled dog racing in Australia (and probably in many other places too). We owe them a massive debt of gratitude. Until every newbie has "done time" on a committee, they can only underestimate the amount of work that goes into hosting an event like this. I sincerely hope that the experienced folks will encourage newbie participation and educate a new generation of mushers on how to run an event, just as they train us on how to run our dogs. 

Pee Wee Races - building the future of our sport the right way.

On the weekend, I was asked to help time and score the Pee Wee, Mini Pee Wee and Pee Wee Canicross races at the NVSDC Classic. These races, for children aged 7-11, under 7 and under 14 respectively, are a short run, often with a parent driving the rig or scooter, after all the adult racing is done. This is the second year that Sixteen Feet has sponsored this class, and my feeling that it's the most important class running grows stronger every race.

The Mini Pee Wees, aged as young as 3 months, with babies strapped into their capsules and car seats, start out as just a bit of fun for parents. It's like dressing the baby up for a special event they won't remember or understand. But as the child gets older, the Mini Pee Wee and Pee Wee races become an important part of building our sport. 

Little E going for a run with daddy and Smudgey. 

Little E going for a run with daddy and Smudgey. 

Unlike adult races, time traditionally doesn't count in a Pee Wee race. After all, many of the racers are running older dogs, there's a combination of rigs and scooters, there are older children running on their own against adults with babies on their rigs. Times would be heavily varied and generally unfair.

Instead, at the Classic, these children's races are a point score, with points given for safety gear, manners, track etiquette and dog care. Other clubs use similar systems and emphasize participation rather than winning. 

Its wonderful to see children improve every year, as they get more capable and articulate. They become comfortable chatting to the "Start Chute Officials", who give them all a chance to say please and thankyou. They become skilled at talking to their dogs, which might sound easy, but as an adult novice, I remember feeling very uncertain, feeling quite silly talking to my dog out on the track. And we know that they will never turn up at the start chute as a junior without a helmet.

Big E smiling all the way home! 

Big E smiling all the way home! 

The smiles on the kids' faces as they came over the finish line were blazing. They were thrilled to be moving fast and bumping down the track. They loved getting out there with their parents and their dogs. They had been waiting all weekend for their turn, and none of them were disappointed. Many of them will grow up and express a preference for another sport or another activity or their studies, and spend less time at the racing in their teenage years. Hopefully, enough of them will remember the thrill of riding that rig or scooter over the line, to consider keeping up with or coming back to the sport in years to come.

Wee Monster with daddy and Ishka. 

Wee Monster with daddy and Ishka. 

I was especially impressed this year, standing at the finish chute, to see a parent bring a child back after completing the race, "to cheer your class home." The value of sportsmanship is often mentioned in sled dog racing, but this was really living those values, modeling them for our children and ensuring the future of our sport.