POLARDISTANS 2008


Hard to belive it is over. Hard to believe 365 days passed since I have set the goal of running this race this year. All the preparations, 5:00 am wake ups, long hours on the atv in darkness, fear of meeting moose during lonely night runs, packing, cutting snacks, massaging, checking and caring for doggy feet, daily hikes as late as midnight to get in proper shape, lack of sleep, lack of money, scraping twenty crowns here and fifty there...

When the dogs got sick in Januray, I was destroyed, watching week, two, three, go by. I knew it wouldn´t be right to ask the dogs to go for the 400km race, unprepared, weakened after the disease. So I made the decission to enter the much doubted 160km race. Why doubted? It is a 6 dog race and you have to carry everything on your sled. Despite my summer training, I am still overweight and had a small number of dogs to chose from for this type of race. We ended up having 4 girls (two of which are 17kg only!) and only 2 boys running Polardistans.

As you have followed us through my entries before the race, you know we faced lots of downs this year. The first and biggest of all was the loss of our beloved Darky on November 1st. The other were far from that tragic. From the virus, to broken car, bad meat and constant lack of finances, to all kinds of little miseries that made our lives more dificult at one point or antoher. But there are some very special people we are blessed with (with our parents and family on top of the list), who have stepped in as sponsors of some of the dogs, who have advertised on our website or bought souvenirs, etc. to support our team. There are also three very special people that I am blessed by being able to call my friends, who provided me with motivation and mental support. I will never forget Kim´s words: "you can either leave it all for next year and do fun trips with Jachym and the dogs, just to enjoy yourselves, or scrape money from here and there, run on a tight budget, get extra jobs, and run your first distance race". She knew what my decission would be even before I did :)
Karen wrote me: "this is just a bump in your training. Go through it until your trails are smooth again". And the final support came from another friend, Karsten, who told me couple days before the race, (when we got home exhausted from our trip to Norway to pick up good meat and some equipment, got stuck in a snowstorm for several hours and sleepless went for last training and packing for the race): "it is all a test. If you pass it, you are ready to stand at the starting line".
I got loads of wonderful support during the season from many friends, and many of you on this list, which was just wonderful, and especially these three senteces sounded in my ears many, many times!
Thank you for that!

Some photos from the preparations:

Cutting meatYummy salmon snacksHerring that offended the dogsWeighing, fixing, marking everything


Batteries, heat packs, fuel,..And pile of some more equipment - booties, kibble, cooker, runner plastic,..Test packing of sled


When all was finally packed into the car, fresh straw put in dog boxes, sled tied properly on top and the six chosen athletes loaded, it was already 11:00 am, far behind our schedulle. Tired and sleepy, we sipped coffee on the way and hoped for no catastrophes on the way.
Except for realising that Jachym forgot to load drop lines for the stakeout system, all went quite smooth, although I was unusually quiet and Jachym felt my worries. My eyes were red and small inflamation process was starting, from the sleepless nights and latest training runs in snowstorms and winds. We stopped at McDonalds in Östersund (ok, I know - but this was the first time in a year!) to pick up some hamburgers for the way as a dinner, refilled the tank in Sveg and kept on moving steadily without any further delays.
We arrived in Särna quite late, so we quickly picked our parking spot on a big, icey parking place, and began the routine of building stakeout and preparing the dogs´s dinner. We fed them and brought our bags with clothes and food inside the building of Särna Camping - basically a lodge with all kinds of facilities. It was very well organised for late arrivals like us, keys from rooms were in envelopes with respective numbers, placed in a mail box by the entrance. Easy! When we got all inside, we rested a while on the beds and then Jachym volunteered to go drop the dogs again. We were so tired, that I forgot my fears and nerves of the upcomming event.

Tuesday morning, after we dropped and fed the dogs, we had to switch rooms again and moved into a room where eventually six of us ended up sleeping in. I have NO idea how all the beds fit in and all our gear, jackets, etc. Our room mates were very nice - one was a race volunteer, who was a lot in and out as tuesday was the start of 300km competition for the slower breeds - samoyeds, malamutes and greenlanders.

Infront of the race headquartersStarting listPolardistans - North Europe's Toughest Race


After breakfast, the day went by pretty fast - picking up starting nr., filling out resposibility statements, checking of vaccinations, pedigrees, insurance, providing phone nrs. to our handlers, etc. When the administrative part was done, it was time for the vet check. In case of our team, all went very well and all of the six dogs were found healthy and in good shape to start the race. But we did have a problem - we couldn´t find Frostie´s chip. We tried three different readers with no results. We had to get him chipped again, paid 200,-SEK and hoped that the new chip won´t fall off. The chief vet Anki Heinonen told us it is not unusual especially when the dog is freshly chipped too short time before the race. We laughed that if the new chip won´t be readable at the finishline, we´ll call Anki. Little did we know...

While waiting for the vet, I took the time to check over each dog, put ointment on Tazy´s hind feet which were still not healed 100% from a split in the webbing between the pads. Ziggi´s right front foot healed very nicely, but she will still be wearing a bootie on that paw during the entire race. Other dogs´s feet were in great shape so if the snow will remain soft, I will bootie up just Taz, Ziggi´s front paw and Balto´s hind right foot, where he has scars from the long time exema he used to suffer from. I also massaged and stretched each of the dog´s legs, necks and back. Frostie´s muscle along the spine had a little injury back in training, but he did great in harness with the help of before and after run massage, so I hoped the vet would find Frostie good to go. She did and said she couldn´t actually feel the problem anymore. She also confirmed Magpie´s wrists and pasterns were ok. Magpie had an injury on the race in Lillholmsjö (swelling of pasterns during and after the second heat, due to fast speed on very hard trails - my big fault (should have been much more careful) which I feel terribly sorry for). During some harder training runs, this repeated, but always was quickly solved when I applied liniment, Reiki and wrist wraps. Both Frostie and Pie were found by Anki in good shape to go. What a relief.

Preparing the sledVet Check - FrostieVet Check - TazlinaChatting with race judge


Frostie & Taz waiting for dinnerWell eating dogs are a key in distance racingTazy enjoys massage & stretching


After vet check the mandatory equipment was controlled by the main race judge. He was smiley but strict at the same time. He complimented us on how precisly we packed everything and was impressed at my frozen food bags, dog food bags and system of packing. He also pointed it was very smart to pack everything in plastic bags due to the weather forecast. I had literarly everything in plastic ziploc bags, from food, to sleeping bag, dog coats, extra clothes, toilet paper, etc. The forecast promissed a very wet two days with temps above zero and rain/sleet.

By this time pretty much everybody got used to the strange woman with a Czech licence plate nr. who represented Sweden, but spoke English, and wore black glasses. The inflamation was now in full swing, although it felt more like a cleaning process, which I really think was a result of 6x a day rincing in Ox-E-Drops. Those drops have already helped our dogs during the kennel cough and now, used for my eyes, were helping out a great deal.

We packed pretty much everything into the sled in the most efficient positions for "grab-n-go", including the snacks, and fed the dogs a bit earlier today.

We had a musher meeting with tables full of yummy cakes and other sweets, hot coffee, all sorts of tea, juice, etc.
We recieved maps and markers to mark the trail, tricky or dangerous parts, road crossings and also mountain shelters in case severe weather catches us on the way.
We were told about safety, trail marking and two tricky turns in the bare mountains that were on critical points (if those turns were missed, the teams would be headed into the middle of nowhere on the summits of the bare Vedungfjall mountain region).
Each musher was given a starting card, which had to be carried on a visible place all the time for checkers to have a look at it if necessary. The card had the musher´s name, starting nr. and exact time for the mandatory layover. Having starting nr.40, our start was at 9:34 am on Wednesday and our mandatory layover at checkpoint Lövnäsvallen will be 6 hours and 12 minutes, which included also the time differential to equal the times for all teams, from day one.
We also received so called light "torches" made of strong all reflex webbing, to put on the sled anytime our teams were parked in checkpoint or/mainly on the trail, while snacking or resting, so other teams, snowmachiners, etc. could note us well from a distance.

After that it was time to start packing my extra clothes in ziploc bags and pile them all up together with trail map, the bib nr., etc.

THE START



The POLARDISTANS 2008 Team Lineup


I woke up way before six, not nervous, but not able to sleep anymore.
I have to say a little about my nerves here. This is my big weakness at races. I don´t have this problem at shows, tests, flights and other "big" events, but I truelly hate the "before start" atmosphere and get totally stressed out inside, unable to eat, digest properly and sleep. I am ok on the "surface" so most people won´t recognize it, though.
Aware of the fact that this is our first big race, the time I have dreamed about sine 17, I knew it will be overwhelming. And therefore I got myself a tiny little bottle of Bach´s Flower Essences, called Rescue Remedy. I started using them on Tuesday morning, 4 drops four times a day and by the end of the day I was totally relaxed. I could eat, had no issues when going to toilet and slept very well. When I got up, I was focussed and calm and remained like that until passing my "nerve zone", which is the time until the moment of the countdown.

We fed the dogs with a light soup, packed the rest of the stuff into the sled and went for a quick breakfast, served for the mushers and handlers by the race organisation.

Soon it was time to make decission where to start from as the parking lot became a glare ice and rocks started sticking out on some spots. We decided to bring the sled over to the starting area, where we found out everybody placed their sleds and lines. A strong string was tied between two trees on the ground and there everyone could put their snow hooks behind it as a security. It was pretty amazing to watch (see photos below) all those sleds and teams lined up side by side, basically touching each other!
We were very fortunate to have the chance to use the stakout of our new friends Pascal and Carol Rebord from Switzerland, who started off earlier and had lots of space for our six dogs. This way I could harness calmly and bootie those in need, with just a few steps away from the sled and starting line.

The lineup of sledsGanglines are stretchedThe yellow sled is ours


Magpie, always calmLittle Ziggi getting harnessedFrostie's yapping and dancing with excitement


Fourteen minutes to the start I glanced a familiar face of an older man, who just walked passed my sled. Unbelieveable! It was Gerd Sandweg, Babeli´s breeder! Gerd operates the Roter Stern Kolonie Königsborn (aka R.S.K.K.) siberian husky kennel in Germany, for over 30 years. I haven´t seen him in good 8-9 years. We had a brief but very hearty talk and I felt very cheered up! Gerd and his wife Gisla watched us hook up the dogs and then we had to say good bye.

Tazy, always keeping an eye on meChat with Gerd and GislaExcitement is growingMisa was her name - and she was insane :)


Snuggling with the lead dogsChecking the watch.....and time to leave for starting chute


I really wanted to have a picture taken of the team at the starting line, so the deal was that Jachym will walk infront of the team to the start line, I put the snowhooks in the snow and he´ll walk further down the starting chute to get a good spot. A race volunteer stepped on the snowhook to help me secure the team. We forgot to say good bye and hug each other with Jachym, but it was too late now. Instead, later, on the trail, I activated my mobile phone before reaching the half-way point, and found a message from Jachym giving me a virtual hug, wishing us a safe trip and saying that he was proud of all of us. It was very sweat and warming.

Super eager BaltoCan we go now?Tazlina checks back with me


Finally released! The happy seven head for their adventure!Taz and Balto axcelerateWaving to the crowd


The staring chute went sharply downhill with a slight curve and dropped down into river ice, which we crossed pretty quickly and climbed the steep bank on the oposite side. There was an overflow so all booties were soken wet right away. As we climbed the hill, we aproached the first road crossing with a group of volunteers garding the safety, and up another hill into a pine forrest. There we cought a team which we saw already on the river ice, some minutes ago. It was Anders Larssen from Danmark. We thanked him and kept climbing up. The trails were soft and wet, and if sleds got too far to the sides of the trails, they had tendency to sink down into the lose snowbank. Thank God the Bewe Ultra Racer brand new sled (more on the sled later in a separate entry) kept track very well and with a slight ballance change, it immediattley moved the right dirrection. The track led through pine forrest, mostly flat or a bit uphill, with lots of winding and twisting.

I stopped to change the wet booties and switch Balto with Ziggi. The plan was to have Balto with Tazlina leading from the starting chute, as they are both confident dogs. Ziggi is a faster leader than Balto, but is shy and I didn´t want to spook her out by spectators and the hustle at the starting area. Now it was time to put the boys in the back to do the hard pulling job and Ziggi with Taz upfront to set the pace. Magpie and Misa were in the middle.

About 15km into the race, we aproached another team - German Heidi Vogel, and passed with just a minor growling from her dogs. I looked back and saw another competitor, Ralf Neubauer from Germany, this year´s one of the hot favorites, closing in. After short while, he passed us and we hung on to his heels for quite a while, until he finally dissapeared.

Roughly 25km into the race our friend Rikke Bergendahl from Norway cought up with us and passed us. We were travelling basically the same speed and we spent a nice portion of the run together.
We passed a pulka team consisting of two malamutes. I noticed a pink spot on the trail and as my team passed it, I realized it is a chunk of salmon that a dog from some other team vomited. My dogs didn´t pay any attention to it and kept moving forward, following Rikke. When I turned around, I saw the two malamutes aproaching the salmon and stopping right in the middle of the trail, munching on their newly found snack :)

The trail slightly rose all the time until now, but almost unnoticably. Now a sudden hill came and the trail changed into a tiny, winding path. We aproached a little log cabin and I pulled out the map for the first time to confirm with this point, where we are. It was for sure the cabin called Dalakojan, which we were told about at the musher meeting. From now on the trail will start climbing pretty steeply not far from here will be Morvallen, basically the half-way point, before the final climbing into the bare mountains.
In some minutes I cought up with Rikke, who stopped to quickly snack her dogs, as roughly 3 hours passed since the start. We chatted briefly about our plans/strategy. I actually planned to push on to Morvallen and snack + rest the dogs there before the final climb. Rikke already snacked and her strong team was pretty eager to keep moving. Rikke also wanted to pass the mountains as soon as possible. I gave the dogs half of the snacks to cool them down a bit and decided to give them a little rest and remaining part of the snacks at Morvallen. We said good bye to each other as from now, we´ll be on different schedulles. I aproached Moravallen mountain shelter in another half hour and anchored the team. They were happy to see the cabin and knew this will be their rest place, as we often stopped at cabins and shelters during training, for a rest or camp out. Everyone eagerly ate their salmon snack and I ate my still warm lunch (special pencakes with bacon that Jachym made for me), that I wrapped in aluminum foil. I pulled out the mobile phone and was pretty surprised there is a signal. I very much doubted there will be any signal in the mountains, so I used this oportunity to give Jachym a brief call and inform him where we are. We agreed I would try to give him a call as soon as I get a signal after our descent from the mountains, to let him know when to come see us at the Lövnäsvallen checkpoint. If I couldn´t reach him, he´d drive there for about 6-7:00 pm. I switched Tazlina with Magpie to rest Taz mentally a bit and also I thought that if the weather gets bad in the mountains, Ziggi and Pie have already their experience and proved to be determined to keep moving forward in this kind of weather.

THE MOUNTAINS

After Morvallen, exactly as described, the trail rose steeply and the landscape changed dramatically. Now it was just dwarf birches and they were fewer and fewer until we were surrounded by white eternity. The rain we experienced at the start and wet snow in the valley stopped about an hour ago, but here, the wind picked up and it snowed a little too. It was foggy and you couldn´t see any landmarks nor the horizon. The higher up, the bigger wind and blown over trails. Still, it was easy to see from one marker to another, but often we were zigzagging between them, as we couldn´t see where the original tracks were. The girls did a great job at searching for hard surface, although sometimes we ended up in soft deep snow. They always corrected the direction and made a new atempt at finding trail. I was glad both Ziggi and Pie were already experienced from last year, when we made a trip to Lakavattnet, where we drove for six hours in a ground blizzard, against the wind with zero visibility. I really have to say we are fortunate to have such tough, determined girls, although they are small and light and one would think not tough enough. In situations like this you really learn a lot about a dog´s mental toughness.
This demanding job didn´t tire Ziggi nor Magpie mentally and they kept leading the team over the summits and all the way to the checkpoint.

The way to the summit seemed neverending. All I could do is kick to help the team as much as possible, sometimes run and push the sled and look for the next trail marker. It was time to pull out my MP3 player and tune some motivation music. The choice was Hobo Jim and soon I found myself singing to the dogs "oh mush on dogs, there´s gold up in the streem" and "the winds blow cold up here in the mountains, the snow is deep and the sun never shines" - how apropriet! :o)

Suddenly, there was a change - a red marker signaling the critical sharp turn to the right, which led the race trail over the summits and acorss the mountains towards the valley and Lövnäsvallen checkpoint.
This was a long slow and steady ride. The music was a great entertainment and the dogs perked up listening to either my whistling or singing. It was hard to whistle loud enough as now I had my neckgaitor and musher hat on and my chin and part of mouth were covered. Then came the beautiful songs of Kyf Brewers, the artist who composed two songs for Karen´s DVD about her dogs and Iditarod, called "Pretty Sled Dogs" and "Husky´s Code". Thoughts and memories of all our dogs, present and past, came to me and I thought of and thanked every single one of the huskies, that passed through my life and without whom we wouldn´t be here, fullfilling our dreams. This moment became so strong and overwhelming that tears started to roll down my face. Not of sadness. Of happiness and admiration of these amazing creatures. And being touched by all. I thought of Darky, whom I promissed to "take with us" on this race, as she so much deserved to be here on this team and trail with us. The moment was so strong that I stopped the team. In the middle of nowhere, on the mountain summits in a blowing wind, I found myself kneeling down, hugging my dogs and crying.

Since we have stopped, I decided to reward the dogs for their hard work over the mountains with a little snack, it was soon time for it anyway. As I finished snacking, I saw a team aproaching. It was Heidi Vogel. Wow, she wasn´t far behind then, or I just took it "too" easy. I asked if she wants to pass but she shook her head, thanked and said she´ll stay behind. We took off and drove pretty fast out of sight. The trail was in traverse for some distance now and the wind kept blowing at us sideways, trying to blow us down the hill, so it was a lot of work to keep the sled in the right position and to ease it down a bit for the dogs. I basically spent several kilometers riding with my left foot on the right runner, kicking with the right foot and helping with a ski pole. I found the ski pole quite helpful already during the last couple trainings, when I wanted to test it. Here in Scandinavia pretty much nobody uses it but I wanted to see what difference it makes, seeing lots of Iditarod and Yukon Quest mushers use it. I will not go to a distance race without my ski pole ever! :) I really recommend it.

I kicked and skied and turned around to see if Heidi´s team is closing and almost fell off the runners as a team of grey fur balls was basically on my heals. It was Belgic Danniel Bullens, known for driving a mixed team of malamutes and siberians. Shortly they passed us and since then we travelled together until the checkpoint.

Chasing Danny´s team, passing each other (which cheered both of the teams up) and once in a while exchanging couple brief words, I lost track of how much of trail we have already covered and how much to expect more. I was schocked when suddenly a wooden mark showed up, informing Lövnäsvallen is only 15km away!
I pulled out the phone again, and as we descended down to the valley nearly completely, found a signal. Called Jachym and told him we would be there in less than 2 hours. He couldn´t believe his ears - we have planned for a 10 hour run and this showed aproximetly 8 hours of running time!

LÖVNÄSVALLEN

Note: Excuse the quality of the photos from Lövnäsvallen, they were taken during and after dusk, from quite fair distance.

Handpainted checkpoint signFire for the volunteersOne of the checkpoint enchanting lights




Arriving to Lövnäsvallen, strong and in good spirits :)


Ziggi and Magpie led the team merrily between group of cabin buildings into the checkpoint. We checked in at 17:30, which meant we were 7 hours and 56 minutes on the way. One of the volunteers helped me lead the team into our "parking" spot and I went directly through the checkpoint routine, which I have trained a lot in the past month or so. I disconected the lighter and smaller snowhook and pulled out special wire section to tie the leaders. As I anchored the front of the team, I went back and pulled off Ziggi´s, Tazlina´s and Balto´s booties to let their feet "breathe" and blood circulation "flow".
Picked up snacks and gave them to every team member with a pet on their head. All six of them snaped after the snack as crocodiles and wagged their tails. I unhooked their tuglines and attached them to the extra little loop on the central line to avoid any tangling and dogs peeing on them. Went back to the sled and pulled out dog coats. Normally I would not do it so early, but Polardistans race does not provide straw, and besides, wet snow was falling and it was above zero. I put coats on everyone and then pulled out cooker and cool box with dog food. Six pairs of eyes were watching me closely as they new another course was comming. I gave everyone their portion of dry food - putting it on the snow infront of each dog. They ate eagerly and awaited the last part of their dinner. As I went over to the checkers´ tent to get water (the only luxury in the checkpoint, besides outhouse), it was finally a chance to say hi to Jachym. I joked and asked the checkers if I get disqualified if I get a hug and chatted with him briefly. Our friends Karsten Gronass and Fredrik Filander, who were "visiting" with their mushers Eveline and Nina, came to say hi to me and praized my team for good time and strong apereance at arrival.

Magpie and Ziggi lead us into checkpointRace volunteer takes us to our "parking" spot




"Dressing up" the dogs in their cozy red Troll coats


I guess I haven´t really mentioned the strict and unique rules of Polardistans race yet. Besides straw not being available, this race is very strict in many ways. Mushers are not allowed indoors in any checkpiont, they can´t buy food or bevarages and must carry everything their dogs and they need, all the way from start to finish. There are not food drops or equipment depots along the way. Polardistans has three courses - 160km (6 dog class), 300km (8 dog class) and 400km (12 dog class). Therefore it is rather tough - carrying all food, snacks, extra clothes, etc. with you. No help of any kind is allowed and handlers are basically allowed just one thing - to take a dropped dog and care for him until the end of the race. They are not allowed to actually enter the checkpoint, so there is a line of tape that devides the "public" area and the resting dog teams. So Jachym had a lot of work trying to zoom on the team and take some photos, before it started getting dark. It was very nice being able to talk to him and listen to all the messages friends and family have sent to cheer us on. I also wanted to know how Karen is doing on the Iditarod and who are the current leaders there and on Finnmarkslopet.

Bringing waterCooking dinner




Feeding time! The dogs all watch with anticipation


As the water for the dogs´ soup cooked, I went over each of my six athletes and gave everyone a massage, checked feet, applied foot ointment on those in need and massaged Magpie´s wrists and pasterns. Then I put wristwraps on her and went to finish the soup. Everyone polished their dishes and happily curled up to sleep. I ate my dinner, although I must say I forced a bare half into myself. I was happy and "normally" tired, but yet unable to concentrate properly on eating a large portion of food. I cooked some more water to refil my thermos and sipped strong fruit extract juice called VIE, which is basically a vitamin "bomb" to support body in cases of cold, illness and even hangover (written by producer!) :)

Went back to chat with Jachym a bit, use the outhouse and discuss the E.T.A. to Särna. I was allowed to leave earliest at 23:42, which was the 6 hour mandatory layover plus 12 minutes for time differencial equalization. Jachym and I agreed I´d give a call when I pass Sir Michael, last checkpoint on the way, 4,5km from the finish line, or a bit sooner, if possible. Jachym offered to stay in the checkpoint all the time until our departure but I thought it would be very unfair and unnecessary if he had to sit around, borred, tired, cold and sleepy, while I will be sleeping in my Jerven Extrem survival bag. He can rest in bed in Särna.

I pulled out the Jerven bag, Therm-a-Rest pad and my sleeping bag and finally pulled the heavy and tight bunny boots from my feet. What a relief! Soon I fell asleep and woke up about 50 minutes later, when a team of samoyeds arrived and commented on everything that moved. I was warm, actually too warm, as I was lazy to take off different layers of clothes and sweated a bit. After some time, the sweat cooled down and I felt a bit cold. Fell asleep for periods of minutes, mixed with waking up and checking the time or just laying down, resting and relaxing my legs and body. Less then two hours before our mandatory layover was finished, I got up (putting the boots back on my feet was very unpleasant as I got cramps in both legs - tighs and calfs).
Made the dogs a light soup, which they ate very well. It was slightly raining and it felt very good to see their dry coats under the waterproof doggy coats they were wearing. The vet came to check the team and she found Magpie´s feet in good order and everybody else in good and happy shape. I packed my "bed" and the sled, took off coats from the dogs and was ready to leave. Still, I was 7 minutes late, so Danniel Bullens, who was starting originally 1 minute after me, left before us.
I took a look around the checkpoint one last time - the bonfire burning for the checkers and volunteers, the race "office" in a big tent, and big candles and torches lit around and close to each team were simply charming. The "starting line" consisted of a big clock placed on a wooden pole, with a burning petroleum lantern hanging under it. We sailed into the darkness and soon cought up with Danny´s team, passed him and got out of sight.

NIGHT TRAVEL

We passed two road crossings and a checkpoint which was designated to the 300km and 400km race. The sleepy checkers were happy for some entertainment in this empty spot and cheered us on. From there, the trail rose up, into the mountains again.
I turned around occassionally and sometimes cought a glimpse of Danny´s headlamp in distance. It felt nice to have a travelling companion, although we didn´t really travel together.

The wind picked up and blew lots of fresh snow horizontaly across the bare hills. The tracks were once again blown over and now also snowed over. It was Ziggi and Tazlina in lead now and they did a good job at keeping the team on the harder surface. Some markers were very hard to see as the reflex tape on them was covered by snow, so my headlamp couldn´t spot them.
It was a lot of kicking on the way up, but I was happy for the work - it meant entertainment.

Once reaching the highest point of this leg of the race, the race trail sharply turned to the left, leaving the snowmachine trail that led across the mountains. The dogs briskly took the command but then Ziggi kept on moving to the left off the marked trail, for reason unknown to me until now. One idea was that she followed an earlier track of team that made a mistake, or followed a scent of raindeers, or who knows what. I halted the team and shouted at the leaders to "gee" the team back on the marked trail. Tazlina made few hesitant steps towards the correct trail, but as soon as I lift the brake, Ziggi pulled the team leftwards again. A long hustle started. I tried to anchor the team down but the soft lose snow didn´t allow me to leave the sled. I feared losing the team. Meanwhile Danny Bullens aproached us and I waved at him not to follow my team and keep to the right. He understood, passed us and slowed down to see if my team will follow his. No way! I couldn´t belive it. I pressed the snow around the sled to pack it and stuck the anchors in it. It wasn´t the best, but now I had to risk it. Quickly changed Balto with Tazlina and hopped on the runners before the team would disapear into the darkness. One call (in Norwegian, as Balto refuses to learn our English commands) to the right and he pulled the team back the right direction, until we joined the race trail. Phew! Danny kept turning back if we follow, but since Balto likes to set his own pace and had no interest in chasing the team ahead of us, they soon dissapeared. Once in a while I saw his headlight in a bend but he was faster on this downhill ride. I traded safety with speed and felt comfy about Balto leading us through the rest of the mountains.

A red marker pointing sharply leftwards signaled another major change in the course direction. I slowed down not to miss it, as it popped out pretty suddenly, between all the other blown over markers. But Danny´s team´s tracks went straight and there were no other signs of trail to the left. We drove past the marker a bit to see the wooden signs on a nearby tree. A bit of confirming with my map, shining at the red marker and finding two blue confirming sings about 20 meters behind it - oh no, Danny went the wrong way! I called the dogs to turn around, which they did well and asked them to turn right. But they couldn´t understand why. There was no trail. Another hustle as Balto tried to either turn back towards the mountains or follow Danny´s team´s tracks. He was confused. I took over the role of the team´s lead dog. I walked several meters infront of them, towards the confirming signs, and back to the sled. We made slow progress, until the dogs felt the blown over hard packed trail underneath their feet again. I called them up and we passed several confirming signs. I pulled out my phone, found a weak signal and called the race office to let them know about Danny. I explained the location where I last saw his tracks. Then we took a short break for snacking and to praize everyone. The wind stopped blowing so hard and it stopped snowing. Several pale stars shone shyly down at us. We were alone, with noone close infront of us and noone behind.

We hit the flatland, swamps and pine woods. It was a smooth and steady ride. An owl wished us good early morning from a nearby tree. Then I spoted a light infront of us. It moved, but seemed to be on one spot. It looked like a ghost and I wondered if it is a team on their snack break. After about 2km we cought up with it - it was a team of Ylwa Kiöhling-Söderman, consisting of 8 greenland dogs. They were competing in the 300km race, which started one day before us. We exchanged some words as we passed her. She explained her dogs were very tired and was happy to be able to lift them up a bit by following us for a while. Her dogs were huge like bears! My little girls looked like puppies, as we passed. But the bears were very nice and did not let a single growl out. I quickly put Tazlina back in lead with Ziggi as Balto started to look tired.
Ylwa followed us for a few kilometers before we got out of sight.

A pinkish cloud hung above the horizon. It grew bigger and bigger and I wondered if it was the lights of Särna. It turned out to be the dawn. The night started transforming slowly into day. The headlamp light beam grew weaker and weaker as the darkness faded away. I stopped for one last time to briefly snack the dogs. We were about 10km before the finish line.

Back on the runners, I gave Jachym a brief wake up call and wished him good morning. He should expect us sometime around 6:00 am.
I must say I got a bit restless at this point - knowing the goal is near got me a bit impatient and the drive over the flatlands seemed suddenly so long and neverending. The dogs felt similar way, or most likely picked up my mood. I realized my fault and soon I was whistling and singing along for our mutual entertainment.
We troted into the last checkpoint - Sir Michael, where we had to check in and out in order for the volunteers to call the race office in Särna that we´ll be aproaching the finish line soon. It was only 4,5km left!

THE FINISH LINE

At Sir Mikael, the dogs thought it was over and wanted to look for a parking spot. One of the checkers and I convinced them upwords, to follow the lantern lightened trail. We passed the checkpoint farm buildings, waved a good morning to another volunteer who just came out one of the houses to switch "shifts" with the sleepy guys outside, and we loped across a road down to a lake. There was a severe overflow the dogs did not like and I was glad that the race officials decided to cut 20km of this year´s trails that led across large lakes. It would have been a very wet long drive otherwise! We climbed a short steep hill and droped down to the river ice that led to the finishline. These remaining kilometers were full of contrast. The pink sky announcing a new day and the fact that we are almost there were very positive, contrary to the slow pace on the seemingly never ending slushy river. The trail led under a large bridge with concrete pillars that the dogs found amazing, and around few open water holes. All was marked well for safety. The last ca 1,5km there were candles lit along the trail, with a small spruce tree stuck into the ice beside them. The dogs soon learned to follow the candle lights and chased them on the horizon.
The steep bank up the river was also lined by the candles and I felt very touched by the atmosphere. The dogs felt the goal was near and climbed briskly onto the bank and pulled strong towards the finishline. A few doghandlers of other teams cheered us on and a small group of race officials and Jachym were waiting at the finish. We made it!

We made it!Getting a welcome from race marshalOfficialy checking in


Magpie wagged her whole tiny body as she saw her dady and you could see how happy the dogs were. I got a big hug from the race marshal Ulla, who came out to congratulate every team that came in regardless the hour, and to chat briefly about the run, view the dogs, etc. She also informed me that Danny Bullens was safe and sound on his way to the finishline, although he had about 2 hours of extra driving due to getting lost. I was glad to hear he was still in the race and his team was in good spirits after all.
The kids got a well deserved snack and huge hug and gave me kisses back as I dove my nose into each one´s fur. Their microchips were checked... And then Mari, the checker said she can't read Frostie's chip. I thought it was a good joke and complimented her on her sense of humor even in this early hour. But she wasn't joking. We tried over and over. Mari let us trot to our dog truck where we tried reading the chip again. To make a long story short, Frostie's new chip was gone!
We made our furry stars a full meal, massaged their muscles and put them to their soft straw beds. They were tired, but happy and ate well.

Ready to go back to truckThe magnificent six waiting for "breakfast"Magpie munchin' on dry kibble


It was time for us to go back to bed, but despite being so tired, I couldn´t really do that. I was too full of fresh memories of our night drive and the whole trip, and of course, our acomplishment. Instead, we decided to have a breakfast, again served for the mushers and handlers since early morning. We found several colegue mushers sipping hot coffee and munching on eggs, cheese and salami sandwitches.
We checked the white board with results and found our team on a 7th spot out of 15 starting teams. Our goal was acomplished - we finished with all six and happy dogs with wagging tails and good spirits and on top of that in not a bad time at all.

When we let the dogs out to pee, they were not the same dogs as upon arrival. Some stood like donkeys, Balto had diarrhea and Tazlina vomited her breakfast. Everyone looked very sleepy and as soon as they peed, they wanted to go back to their boxes. I consulted it with few fellow mushers (the vet was still on the trail) and they all confirmed it will be alright - the dogs were just tired and we got them out when they were in their sleeping/recovering mode. I still would have liked them all better wagging tails and running around the stakeout. Having four girls, out of which two are 52cm in withers and weigh around 17-18kg, and just two males, was quite challenging and tough. They all worked extra hard. Majority of our competitors had 4-6 strong, big males. I really hoped the kids will recover fast.
By the evening, they were less and less tired, some didn´t want to eat, but drank well and wanted to rest. At dinner, all but Balto ate and next morning they were all wagging their tails, yapping to get breakfast and danced on their tippy toes around the stakeout. I was SO happy!

As soon as the race was over, the sun came out and we all enjoyed it's warm rays. Here are some pictures from the well deserved rest and recovery the four legged stars underwent while waiting for the rest of the teams to arrive and for the saturday banquet:

Misa - fast and hard working girlBalto enjoying the sun after well-done jobMagpie - pretty, smart and fast


Handsome, athletic FrostieTaz - rising leading super-starMagpie with a full belly :)


Jachym with his favourite MisaZiggi and Misa "sanbathing"Katerina absorbing sun rays


As I have written in earlier post from the race to our discussion list, we fell very warm welcome from the organization team, which did a great job at keeping the mushers and handlers from all over Europe happy and satisfied.

The banquet, held on Saturday evening, was a topping on a cake. When we walked into the large hall in local school building, I felt like on the Iditarod banquet. Not that I have ever been on one, but I saw lots of pictures. Here, there were round tables and long tables, with light green tables clothes and beautifully arranged flowers, glasses and silverwear. The school´s theatre stage with black velvet courtains was lit up and flowers were all over. Dog food bags and other prizes and trophies were arranged neatly around under a large banner of the race´s main sponsor, HUSSE Swedish dog food.

During dinner (traditional recipe from the area from rainder meat, and vanilla ice cream with cloud berries) we watched slide show of photos taken by the official photographer. Then awards ceremony started.
I was glad to find out that this year a brand new award was given - for the best dog care. The winner was Pär Jansson, driver of 6 siberian huskies in the 160km race. Congratulations!

The prizes were very generous - each participant got a 15kg bag of Husse high energy dog food and an original memory plaquete - framed trail map in a wooden stand with the Polardistans race logo.

Pär Jansson accepting "Best Dog Care" awardAccepting our prize for 7th placeThe fancy tables


The whole organisation team and volunteersRepresentative of main sponsor giving speachThe race marshal thanks all volunteers personally with a rose


Danny Bullens aproached me and thanked me for contacting the race officials when he got lost. I thanked him back for waiting for me up in the mountains when the girls got off the track. This is what I have hoped to find when I start long distance racing. The camaradery and interest, the support, help and participation. Knowing that despite you travel alone, there are your collegue mushers around and that you can help each other. And during this race I definittly found this spirit.

Thank you to all who make this race possible - the organizers, volunteers, sponsors, handlers, mushers and their dogs. It was a great experience and we definittly want to be back next year!

Thank you to all of our friends, family and other supporters who made it possible for us to run this race. And lastly, huge thank you to my beloved partner Jachym for all his year round patience and the hard work he´s commited to when he chose to lead this lifestyle with me. Without you, I will be nowhere.
There is no need to explain the thanks to all the wonderful four legged athletes - the real stars of all this, whom I totally admire and continuously do more and more each time. They are wonderful and beautiful creatures who give all they have just out of the pure joy and love. And for that, I feel very, very honored!

Katerina

COMPLETE RESULTS from Polardistans 2008 can be seen here

You can get more information about this unique race, organized for the four purebred polar breeds, here


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Posted on: Saturday April 12, 2008 CET