Still Training   by Twila Baker

What happened to “The Run 4 The Red”? The answer for the past 18 months has been the same, still training… But we did need to take a break from the schedule, an interlude for us to take care of some emergent family needs, including but not limited to an epic move of 1200 miles with a semi-trailer full of possessions plus 5 other vehicles with dogs and other livestock. So now we are here in SW Colorado, near where I started running dogs 25 years ago. Our break from the schedule is over, training is in full swing, and the dogs are stronger than ever.

I was never really sure of attaching a firm date to our dream of running the race; I knew that 2014 was optimistic, but completely out of the question now since we were not able to get our qualifiers in last season. This season seems to be a stretch as well, especially now that they cancelled The John Beargrease Marathon, one of only 3 qualifier races in the lower 48. So our focus this year will be to run some 100 and 200 mile races to get the young dogs some race experience, and possibly get one of our qualifiers out of the way.

Some of our tried and true older dogs that ran the longer races in 2011 will be retiring over the next couple years, allowing the youngsters to develop and get some race time. I do not ever want to forget what these dogs did for our team!! Boss, Kinky, Eve, Marsh, and Kaos-the core of our A team, and ALL of our current A team dogs are direct descendants from these dogs. Even though they will be retiring over the next 2-3 years and not be directly involved in the race, I will be leaving them on our sponsor list because without them not only would we not have finished any races, we would not have a race team now! These dogs are the reason that we are still running, and it should be considered the highest honor to be one of their sponsors.

Morgan is our amazing head guide and lead musher, but we also have a new young apprentice that we are very excited about.  Ashley Thaemert has been involved in mushing and the malamute breed for over half of her life. She started at 10 years of age with an interest in sled dogs and a home-made wooden sled that she crafted with her grandfather. By the time she was 13, she had 4 malamutes and was running them in team. She has since added three more malamutes on her own team, and is currently training with us to learn how to run larger teams. We are thrilled to have her join us-her passion for this breed is obvious to everyone who meets her.

We are shooting for a 2016 entry, but this time I am not being talked into setting a firm date. We will run it when the dogs are ready, with the expectation that it won’t be the only time we run it!

WHOA !&#%!!! Part Two

by Twila Baker

After The Eagle Cap Extreme experience, Morgan requested a training camp focusing strictly on control. The team we were racing was powerful and driven, but they had little respect for stopping and waiting on the trail. We were so focused on teaching them “GO” early in the season that we neglected to teach them that stopping, and especially waiting, was at least equally important. Our lack, my lack, of overseeing this key command was responsible for Morgan’s near death experience on the ECX trail, and could possibly endanger both mushers and dogs.

So what to do? We went back to running with double sleds and 3 mushers, stopping along the trail, setting 4 snow hooks and then standing on the hooks. We waited until the dogs were calm and standing still before pulling hooks and allowing them to go again. One stop took 45 minutes…….but we insisted on them standing quietly until we were ready to go. If they started up while we were pulling hooks, then the hooks went back in and we waited again…….Talk about an exercise in frustration, and to think that if I had done my part as head usher/trainer and insisted on this exercise at the beginning of the season when we were still on quads then we would not have had to go through a month of standing on snowhooks!! Lesson learned-there are no shortcuts!

Our next race was a local one, the famous Race To The Sky. We entered the 100 mile class with the maximum allowed 8 dogs. Morgan came into the 50 mile checkpoint, Whitetail, at about 11pm after a 4:30 start. Dogs were running great, averaging 7mph again.  Morgan reported much better control, although we still had 2 females in season on the team. The reality is that you sometimes have to run your girls when they are in season, so you better train for it! We had been running them throughout the season so there was little difficulty, although Morgan decided to drop one of them at Whitetail because she simply wasn’t performing well.

The RTTS is a partially handler assisted race, which means that handlers can assist the musher with some dog care. The musher still has to feed, hydrate and attend to feet care but then he/she can go sleep inside a heated cabin while the handlers stay with the team. A rare luxury! Our musher slept for 4 hours then headed out again in the early morning hours. Morgan finished the next day with 7 dogs, again averaging
our season goal of 7mph. The best news of the entire race was the control of the team was so much greater than the prior race. The second portion of RTTS was on local roads, which were plowed down to almost bare ice, so control was extra critical for both dog and musher safety. One very experienced team had to withdraw from the race due to injuries from the ice on that second leg. Morgan credits her strong front end with being able to finish the race-the intersections were so icy that the brake would have been useless if they had missed a turn.

When we returned from RTTS, training resumed with a vengeance since we **thought** our time on snow was limited. Two of our areas of focus continued to be control, and teaching the command “easy”; using the break to slow the team, giving the command “easy” at the same time,
then rewarding them with praise when they slowed. Even though the team was better on the “Whoa” and “Wait” commands, they still needed more work on overall control. On top of that, we were frequently using one of our alaskans in lead because only one of our malamute leaders was 100%, the other 3 were youngsters that had moments of, well, malamuty-ness. I wanted to retire the alaskan leader by the end of the season, so working on a stronger all-malamute front end was the next goal. The first step in this process was to mandate that the alaskan could only run every 3 days, and not in lead. There was some wild-eyed resistance at first, when you are hooking up 16+/- malamutes you really need to rely on your front end. In spite of some initial nervousness within a short while all 3 mushers were running with only malamute leaders. Morgan in particular developed a very strong bond with Enrique, a 2 year old male out of my personal best ever leader, Eve. The others that stepped up to lead well were Enya and Elvis-both litter-mates to Enrique-and Piggy, a 3 year old half sibling. Interestingly enough, all 4 of our most promising young leaders are out of Eve, who has produced 11 leaders (in 4 different working kennels), for those of you that debate nature vs nurture:-)

Considering all that we had to work on and the dwindling snow, it was time to bring in the big gun: Jamie Nelson.

Training for the “BST”-Key word: WHOA !&#%!!!

by Twila Baker 

Once we committed to the “Big Stupid Thing” (Jamie Nelson’s nickname), the next step is training for some mid distance races to break in the young dogs and get both dogs and musher some race experience. I felt fortunate that Morgan’s training style is very similar to mine; she has a slightly softer touch but we share the core belief that although discipline is important, leadership is most important. Once you have established your position with your team, they accept your cues quickly and require less correction. We use a combination of positive reinforcement for behaviors that we like and subtle correction for behaviors that we do not want. I’m not going to share all of our secrets here, if you want more detail you will just have to sign up for one of our “Learn To Mush” weekends:-)

Since I have been the main musher for most of these dog’s lives, it was important for Morgan to run the dogs the majority of the time to build her own bond with them. She started in October with training runs in the 10-20 mile range, building up to 50 mile runs by early December. By the end of December she had put just under 2000 miles on the main team and about 1500 miles on the “alternate” team. More important than the mileage was the bond she was building with these dogs-they were really performing for her-time to enter a race!

We entered Flathead Sleddog Days and had a wonderful time-it was the perfect first race. One hundred miles on challenging terrain but good trail. The race marshal was very encouraging and welcoming to malamute teams, and we cannot wait to start our next season with the same race.

Our next few races were much more challenging so we needed to up the training schedule. One key element was teaching the musher about check point protocol.  When you get into a checkpoint the first thing that needs to happen is dog evaluation and care. After assessing the team you need to start your cooker to get dog (and musher) food and water going, then feet need to be checked, you need to rub down joints and massage balm into sore spots, then feed and hydrate the dogs and get them settled for a rest. Finally, after all of this is done, you get to rest. A little. An hour before you plan to leave you must be up to get a snack and more liquid into the dogs, put booties on (if needed), recheck any trouble spots, pack your sled and get on the trail again. Many races, including the Iditarod and all of its qualifiers, do not allow any handler help so these chores all have to be done by the musher, as well as the musher getting enough rest to be safe on the trail. As you can imagine, efficiency and organization is very important. Morgan focused on mimicking a 150 mile race with 2 checkpoints. She ran 50 miles in 6 hours, then rested 6 hours, repeat 2 more times. We put even more miles on the teams; increasing distances and adding more night runs.

These weeks of training were a great learning experience for musher and dogs, and good practice for the next race, the most difficult race of the season-the Eagle Cap Extreme. Morgan came away from this race bruised and bloodied, both physically and mentally.  She lost the team, got dragged, banged up, ran over and abused. This race taught us a lot, and the biggest lesson learned was that we needed to get more control over this powerful, trail-eating, mile-burning, snow-hook blowing, monster of a team!

Next month: Our back-to-the-basics boot camp with Jamie Nelson, keyword: CONTROL!

The Insanity Begins by Twila Baker

20 years ago I repeatedly stated that I had no desire to run the Iditarod with malamutes. After all, racing is not what they were bred to do. I do not like racing, I would rather run for fun, stopping to camp wherever it is exceptionally beautiful or whenever we are tired. I routinely logged a couple thousand miles a year on the trail with my team, but the longest treks we made were the 180 milers for our WTDX’s.

Then in 2005 the idea to follow the Iditarod with a team of mals was born-suggested by other malamute & Inuit dog friends and picked up by Jamie Nelson as coordinator & trail boss. The expedition was tagged as “The Slow Iditarod”, scheduled for 2007, with the plan to run through to McGrath. There were several of us that signed up and started training our teams for longer distance-500 miles vs. 180 miles. For various reasons the trip fell through, but after 2 years of hard training I had 2 teams of dogs that were thriving on the mileage. We were training for multiple back-to-back 50 mile legs, and the more we pushed them, the better they performed.

One night after an exceptional run I started thinking about what it would take to get mals back into the Iditarod. This is the original plan that I came up with that night:

First- move somewhere remote for training purposes. Somewhere we could hook the team up, take off from the dog yard and hit trails right away. We always planned to move back to the mountains anyway, so that was no great sacrifice.

Second-increase our dog numbers. We were running two 10 dog teams, and out of those dogs several were close to retirement age. After talking to several Iditarod mushers, we came up with 32 as the “magic” number. 32 makes sense when you think about it like this: you need a pool to pull from for training because you will always have girls in season, injuries, rest days, etc. If we run two 12 dog teams every day, then every dog is getting a day off every 2-3 work days. Then when race season starts, we pull 12 of the best plus 2-4 alternates to take to the races. If we are lucky enough to have 2 full teams healthy and ready to go, then we enter both teams in the race and take everyone. Shortly before, even up to the morning of the race, you make your final decision on who is running and who is sitting out that particular race.

Third-find a musher who actually wants to run the big race. It’s the musher who must qualify for the Iditarod, not the team.  Makes sense when you realize that the musher is always the weakest link. I am not able (nor driven) to race, so finding the right driver was a very important step. When I met Morgan Buckingham in 2009, I knew I had found that special person.

Once we had those major obstacles crossed, I knew it was time to refine the plan. We wanted to run this race with purebred Malamutes, and I was determined that the musher would run all her qualifiers with the malamute team as well. My thoughts were that if the malamutes could not finish 400 mile qualifiers, then what shot would they have at finishing a 1000 mile race? The next item was to be good breed ambassadors; a well groomed, people friendly, very socialized team. And finally, I would like for them all to be finished AKC Champions before the big race. There is a big argument among working people that dog shows are ruining our breed. I believe that you should try to have it all: drive, beauty, structure, movement and temperament. Shouldn’t we be considering all of that when making breeding decisions?  In my opinion, to take type-what makes a malamute a malamute-out of our criteria for breeding to focus solely on drive is as big a mistake as taking drive out of our criteria to focus solely on the way a malamute looks.

Now the final obstacle-funding!!  Most people have no idea how much it costs to get a team to the race. Not thousands, multiply that by one hundred plus and you are somewhere in the range. Attracting sponsors, soliciting donations, selling promotional items, running eBay auctions of donated items. The list goes on and on but the truth is that unless you are independently wealthy or have big corporate sponsorships you will be fundraising every minute along the way.

So in 2011 we were standing on the brink of the precipice, toes hanging over. One deep breath and we jumped off. Stay tuned…….next month’s article will be about the training involved this past season to get the team through several big mid-distance races.