Dog Sled Racing ~ Russ-Stick Style

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Henry David Thoreau

Over the years the question is still the same. Do you race?

I explain to folks that Rustic Russ used to, but we stay at home now. Farm animals require this. They depend on us.

Don’t you want to race?

Bottom line, no.

Don’t get me wrong, some of our best musher friends are those who are seasoned folks at the race circuit. I love going to the races and seeing the dogs, the trucks and trailers, and most of all, the mushers. Mushers are great people. Very giving, and most come with a sense of humor. (As a matter of fact, our good friend Joann Fortier just won the 2010 Midnight Run, with her husband, Larry, placing in the top ten on this 91-mile trail in the Upper Peninsula.)

Rustic Russ and I realized early on that neither of us were cut from the racing cloth. The 2003 Midnight Run outlined this fact.

We tag-team traveled up to the U.P. race with our Pellston friends, Andrew “Drew” and Diane Cesario (and their young daughter Lily). Partly because we were both heading up, partly because Rustic Russ and Drew had been somewhat training together, and partly because I wasn’t comfortable hauling a trailer from checkpoint to checkpoint. I would be following Diane, or hopping in their truck for the necessary travels during the night of the MR.

It was a cold race year. I recall standing outside, middle of the night on Valentine’s Day, at the Bear’s Den checkpoint waiting for Rustic Russ to come in for his layover.

Andrew came in with a flourish, fast and furious and made his way to his dog truck with his handler’s (Diane’s) assistance. I recall being somewhat envious of Diane, that she could leave the “on deck” circle and go warm her extremities.

Headlamps appeared and trail volunteers shouted out to announce the next musher coming in. I would crane my neck and pat my bundled arms waiting to see if it was our father/son leaders, Kiwi and Hans, and Rustic Russ on the runners. Nope…another headlamp…nope…another headlamp…nope. This went on for hours. I was afraid to leave my post, as I knew the minute I stepped inside the Bear’s Den for a hit of warmth, Rustic Russ would appear.

So I stayed. I was managing to keep warm at -20 something that night. However, circa 4:00 a.m. my core started to get chilled. I began doing jumping jacks. I had company. Carrie (Jeff King’s manager) had stayed in the hotel with us leading up to the race night and was acting as handler for us and doing what she could around the MR race area. Before I had time to worry about my dropping core temp, a bobbing dim headlamp appeared. Behind it was Rustic Russ, donned in simple Carhartts, driving the six-pack team, warm as toast. I quickly led him to the cozy area behind the restaurant/bar and the checkpoint chores began for musher and dogs. I was trying to be supportive but was eying the Bear’s Den. I enthusiastically volunteered to go find a vet for the check ~ in the warmth of the Bear’s Den. Once the dogs were settled in and taken care of, I assumed Rustic Russ would join me inside. When I went back out to see what was taking him so long, I saw him curled up with the dogs in the straw.

I crept back into the Bear’s Den and waited out the layover time, trying to be comfortable sitting up, head in hand, dozing like the others surrounding me. Carrie retreated to her parked Jeep and intended to catch a snooze. I glanced over and saw the windows frosted, wondering how Carrie could sleep in that icebox. It proved to be an icebox indeed, as she ended up with some frostbite that night.

When the time was up and the team could hit the trail, Rustic Russ felt the dogs should stay a while longer. He was in no hurry. He wanted the dogs to be well rested and healthy. When he did get back on the trail, it was without a leader, Kiwi, as Rustic Russ was concerned about possible bloat. The vet agreed. He was now down to five.

The next morning, our friend Drew won the Midnight Run with ease. Festivities were held and people were talking about what a great race it was. I was distracted though, as Rustic Russ was still on the trail. It was a sunny day, but chilling cold. I waited at the finish line with a handful of people. I learned later that Rustic Russ was contemplating taking a turnoff to see a popular landscape. I told him the race judges would have had his hide! He also was jockeying for the last place finish. However, one of the race participants stopped to eat a sandwhich in the final stretch, securing her place as the Red Lantern winner.

It was then, I realized racing wasn’t in our blood. Rustic Russ loves to train, but the race itself is anti-climatic. Rustic Russ just loves the trail, slow and steady, seeing the sights with his dogs.

That 2003 Midnight Run was a magical time; mixing fat balls in the hotel room tub, sneaking a little peanut of a dog (Violet) into our room, walking to and from the restaurant in Chatham pulling little Lily in a sled in frozen temps (I marveled at Lily’s good nature ~ truly a mini-Woodswoman in the making.)

But more than all the events, I recall the kindness that Drew Cesario showed to us during that noon-day finish. He was asked to stay at the Bear’s Den due to the fact the had just won the event and the Banquet was in full swing, but he stated he had to go see a friend finish what he started. The Champion was heading to the finish line, to wait in the frigid sunlight.

That gesture warmed my heart forever, during that cold frosty weekend.

Mushers are kind, and giving, and true friends.

Until tomorrow ~ but not on the race trail ~ God willing,


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