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The Willow 300: A Maine Musher's Adventures in Alaska

Updated: Feb 4

When Down East Magazine made public my plans to take a Seppala team to Nome Alaska via the Iditarod, on the 100 year anniversary of Seppala’s team helping to save the children of Nome, I knew I was taking on a seemingly herculean goal. I have to run three Iditarod qualifiers between now and then. If I fail to complete even one it will take my chances from “likely” to “not likely.”

Jonathan Hayes on the first leg of the Willow 300

But when my friend and Iditarod champion, Mitch Seavey, heard about my plans, he made me an offer. He is recovering from a couple procedures, so the Australian musher Christian Turner is running Mitch’s A team in the Iditarod this year- but he needed a second person to join musher Calvin Daugherty, in training up the A team for the Iditarod. “If you come and work my dogs, you can run an A team in two Iditarod qualifiers while you are here.” As I have elsewhere written, I took him up on the offer, withdrawing from the UP200 and signing up for two 300 mile qualifying races in Alaska- the Copper Basin 300 and the Willow 300.

But as the saying goes- “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”

The day Caleb and I arrived in Alaska- jetlag and all- Mitch put us on a sled to measure our abilities. Caleb was put on "Puppy training detail- mushing the future of Seavey kennels about 20 miles a day.

Caleb Hayes training the puppy team at Seavey Kennels

In the following 5 days we mushed nearly 350 miles. The 300 mile simulated race training series was not only designed to train the dogs, but also to train Calvin and I at proper camping/checkpoint care procedure.

After the simulated 300 mile race, it was time to rest the dogs and prep and pack for our first 300 mile race- the Copper Basin 300. I had been studying the Copper Basin race maps for weeks. I had created a ditty to help memorize the names of the checkpoints and the distances between the checkpoints in the Copper basin Race, to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic:” “Mushing 45 miles to Tolsona if you please

Then another 30 miles over to the Lake Louise

I’ll mush Another 50 miles further but I know

I’ll only be at Sourdough

So Ill mush another 40 miles to Lake Meirs

Further 69 miles to the Chistochina fires

A final 50 miles to to the finish in Glenallen-

300 miles in the Copper Basin”

Jonathan Hayes and Caleb Hayes standing in the starting shoot of the Copper Basin 300

In short, I had been focusing every bit of myself on that race for weeks.

As is Mitch’s custom, he takes his teams for short runs in the days leading up to the race, to make sure everyone is happy and healthy and that no medical issues had been overlooked. It was on one of these short pre-race runs that we took the wrong direction on a trail and descended a trail that- for safety reasons- is forbidden at the Seavey Kennel. Calvin and I were unaware of the danger of this route.

Ascending a steep hill, I saw Calvin’s team careening down to my right and realized I was in for a hairpin drop ahead. But by the time the sled and I reached the top, my team had already made the sharp turn and descent. I put out my left foot to keep the sled from toppling. The snow swallowed my leg up to my knee. By now the team was descending full bore. I felt my knee come out of socket and bend out to the side, in a way no knee should ever bend. “My knee!” I yelled. But the inner voice- the musher- was yelling something else, yelling rule number one of mushing- “Don’t let go of the team.” This is rule number one, not for the sake of the musher, but for the wellbeing of the team. Without the musher, the team can become wrapped around a tree, tangled in ganglines, or worse yet, cross a busy road. It is not for self-preservation that this is rule number one. It is for the care of our dogs. So the musher in me overcame my desire for self-preservation. I therefore stopped the team of amped superdogs on a descent using my torqued knee as a snow anchor.

I pushed the sled up and tried to stand up. When I did, my left knee again shot out to the left and pain shot through my body. Then came the adrenalin and accompanying dizziness. Calvin was straightening out his team at the bottom of the hill, and knew the moment he saw me that I was hurt. “You ok?” Drop your snow hooks and lets take a look.” But I knew the kennel was only 4 miles away. And I kept hoping, somehow miraculously, this would not be the end of my racing season before it began. “Let’s just mush the teams back.” I replied. Those were the most painful 4 miles of my twenty plus year mushing career, but I managed to bring the team back using only one foot for the remainder of the run without further incident.

Blown out knee

Back at the kennel I started unhooking dogs and taking them to their spots. I hobbled along ok until I tried walking Berret to his spot. He is a monster and our little run had done nothing to mellow his drive. Bang! Out went the knee again. I winced in pain and Mitch strongly suggested I get off the knee and go inside. Two torn ligaments and a tendon torn is the educated guess so far. There has not yet been an MRI so we are not sure of the extent of the damage, or whether it will require surgery. (Update: I finally got to a hospital three weeks after the injury. It seems I ran the Willow 300 with two torn tendons, a torn Meniscal ligament and a ruptured ACL- surgery will be scheduled soon).

Ill confess that it took me two days to admit to myself and to Mitch, that I was in no condition to race. Just a few days before the race I had to bow out and allow Lara Kittleson, a fellow musher and friend, to take my place.

My adopted trail daughter- Lara Kittelson

Mitch asked if I wanted to come along to the race anyway, as a driver. At first I said no. I was angry and depressed. I wanted to lick my wounds and sulk. But many of my facebook friends suggested I go anyway- and I am so glad I took the advice. In retrospect, I learned more from sitting in checkpoints and at dinner tables with the likes of Mitch and Dallas Seavey, hearing them talk about race strategies, than I ever could have actually running the race. It also afforded me the opportunity to meet such notable Iditarod mushers as Brent Sass, Nic Pettit, race Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman and others.

Sitting for four days with Mitch and Dallas Seavey during a race and listening to race strategy was one of the greatest learning experiences of my mushing career thus far.

And I had not yet given up on running the second race, just two weeks after my injury- The Willow 300. Coming back from the Copper Basin Race, we were only a week out from the Willow. “Are you going to be recovered enough to run the Willow?” folks kept asking. “I will run it. If I have to duct tape broom handles to either side of my leg.” became my patent answer.

Clavin Daugherty, Lara and I prep our drop bags for the Willow 300 Race

But it was not so simple as my will to persevere. It was not just my decision. Mitch wanted to make sure I would be well enough to properly care for my team- his team, in a demanding 300 mile race. So I started back to full duties at the kennel- to show myself and the others that could do it. “How can we prove you are good enough to run the race?” Finally came the question from Mitch. I knew I had to sound confident if Mitch was to have any confidence in me. So I mustered the bravest answer I could muster without lying. “Mitch, all I can tell you is that I was honest with you when I said I couldnt run the Copper. And you know I wanted to run that race bad. So you can trust I'm being honest with you now when I tell you that I believe I will be well enough to run the Willow.” Mitch replied, “I appreciate that answer and your determination. But my question remains; how can we prove you are ready?” I answered, “Im willing to do whatever you require of me to prove it.” That’s what I said- but what I was thinking was that the more time he gives me to guard this knee, the better shape it would be on race day. But Mitch wanted proof. And I didn’t blame him. If it were my team I would have wanted proof too. Next morning Mitch called a musher meeting to discuss our 3 teams in the race. He noted that we would stack Calvin’s team to be competitive. That the remainder of the A team- those who had recently recovered from injuries or otherwise had less miles- would run with me on a less competitive run/rest schedule “And we need to get those dogs out today to make sure they are all good to go. So Jonathan will be taking out a team this morning. Then you will run two 10 mile runs and a 20 mile run.” And there it was- I was to take out four teams in less than 24 hours. That would be the proof.

Thankfully the knee held up and the sled started feeling more and more natural to me again. More than that, those four runs gave me some much needed confidence going into the race. Arriving in Willow, we had vet checks for the dogs, musher meetings, and pre-race gear prep. For some reason all that stresses me out- like a border crossing at customs- it always winds me up. I couldn't wait to pull the quick release and hit the trail.

Heading to the starting shoot of the Willow 300

Distance racing is 90% bliss followed by 10% white knuckled insanity. And the race course changes from a stroll to a Ninja Musher Obstacle Course, randomly and without warning. Most of the first run of 68 miles to Susetna was of the first variety. Most. 5 miles out from the checkpoint I saw a hazard sign in the darkness, then my team disappeared off the ledge and descended toward flashing red lights and a 90 degree left turn. “Protect the knee” was my first thought. And in doing so, I took a spill and reinjured my knee. Again I felt that same flash of pain. Pulling myself back up on the sled I thought, “that’s it. The end. I can't do this. If I keep this up I may lose this knee permanently.” but as I finished the run and came into the first checkpoint I had a “come to Jesus” talk with myself.

Either I'm going to do this or I'm not. If I am, I have to decide right now that the only thing that will take me out of the race is the wellbeing of the dogs. I have to exile any thoughts of the knee being an excuse to scratch- it was a known issue coming in. Do it or don't do it. But don't wrestle with whether you'll let it be a deciding factor- once and for all. And in that moment I decided that, with God’s help, I would no longer consider the knee as a viable excuse for scratching from this race, no matter how bad it felt.

Checkpoint routine is one of the greatest lessons learned while in Alaska

The next run to Sheep Creek offered new challenges. I was excited to see I had closed the gap on another musher and called “trail.” The musher kindly pulled her team aside and I shot around. I was so focused on the pass however (watching to ensure her team and mine did not comingle) that I just caught a glimpse of some signage made out of paper plates behind her on the trail. I thought little of it, because turning forward again, I was immediately faced with a split in the trail- one of them had many reflective markers and the other had none so I made the decision. “Haw!” And I took off up a hill and then down a powerline. But just then I heard in the distance, the lady whom I’d passed yelling at her dogs. Apparently they were following me and apparently she thought that was the wrong way for her team. “No! Gee! Gee!” Maybe she’s tired and meant “haw,” I thought. Or maybe she is a 150 mile musher. I kept seeing W300 markers on the trail so I was sure I was going in the right direction. But never saw her headlamp behind me. Never saw a headlamp in front of me either. I may be wrong here. So time to “Phone a friend” I texted Mitch- “Can you check the GPS tracker and make sure Im headed in the right direction?”

Jonathan Hayes in Willow 300- Happy Dogs. Happy Musher.

“You are headed in the wrong direction.” came the reply. Now with my team back home, this would not be a big deal. But Mitch has a rule; “No in trail turn arounds! Unless there is a wooly mammoth charging your team.” His idea is that he never wants his team to think going back where they came from is an acceptable alternative. There is much wisdom in this. And I'm not sharing any trade secrets- he said the same in his book a decade ago. Its like my dad, who is an accomplished author, once said, “if you want to hide a truth, publish it in a book- because no one reads anymore.”

So I had to find a loop around, something, even if it is a single snowmobile track, to command a haw or a gee until I get them headed back in the right direction. When I finally did so, I was three miles out. 6 miles in total added to my Willow 300 race.

But that was not the worst of the night.

I was cruising along to make up time when I noticed two musher headlamps a mile or so ahead of me. Facing me. “Well, either they are headed the wrong way or we are.” I said to the dogs. Yes, I talk to the dogs a lot when I mush. And sing to them even more often. But the closer I got, I could make out that they were not moving, and looking down more than they were looking up. And one or both headlamps would disappear for periods of time before popping up again. When I pulled up it all became clear. The ice bridge that, I am sure, had held up for the front runners, was gone. Well, pieces of it floated in water about two and a half feet deep. There were two teams on this side of the stream with their dogs in the worst tangled ratted mess I’d ever seen. The second of the two mushers, Eric Kelly, later told me what had happened to them before I arrived. As the story goes- the first musher could not convince his team to cross. So he fjorded the stream and called his team from the other bank. Of course, they just bunched up on the far shore and began to tangle. Eric pulled up with the second team. He descended the bank to help the first musher, when his own team pulled his snowhooks and added themselves to the mass of confusion.

When I arrived, there were two teams in a tangle that would make a full speed train wreck look organized. “This is gonna take a while!” One of them yelled at me. “Take your time. None of us will be in the money anyway.” I replied. “It may go faster if you come help!” Came the reply. Well, The snow was soft. And my team is just hitting their stride- already barking to go- and I have a blown out knee… but they don't know that. If I just stood there they would think I was selfish- so I said “I'll try” and started to walk forward of my team. I'd not gotten half way up my 12 dog team when they pulled their hooks and took off toward the melee. I caught the sled as it came by me and stopped my team just short of the second mushers sled, and away from the tangles. Thank God! “Guys, I'm sorry!” I shouted over the howls. “But if I come down there we will have three teams in a pig pile instead of two. I need to stay with my team. Just take your time.” Finally, the two mushers got the first sled across the river. Then it was time for Eric to return to his own team and untangle them and get them across. I watched Eric wade across the stream and crawl up the banks at least three times. Poor soul. It was enough to make many quit, but not these trail hardened mushers. Now it was my turn, and I had two amazing leaders. Prophet and Zepher. Both are amazing- true command leaders that any musher would die for. With one caveat. Prophet has a reputation for being a bit stubborn. Perhaps that's not the best way to describe him. Let me say it this way- Prophet is always thinking about - different- ways of doing things. And if you aren't watching him, he will make decisions for you, on the fly. And in crossing the stream, that is exactly what he did. With all the confidence in the world I pulled the snow hooks and spoke to my leaders, “Ok let's do this!” My plan was simple, descend the hard packed portion of the bank- stay balanced and centered on my runners, and the dogs will jump most of the way across and pull me to the far shore- that was my plan. Simple. But I couldn't ride the brake too much on the way down because they needed enough momentum to make the jump without getting pulled back by the gangline. So I gave them a little slack for the jump. But Prophet had other ideas. He noticed that he could run up the side of the bank at an angle and then jump from higher up- thereby making it further across the stream. As Prophet went, so went the team. As the team went- on an angle up the soft bank- the sled and musher followed. The team jumped and made it most of the way across and the sled launched off the angled bank horizontally. And so did I. So I landed flat on my side in nearly 3 feet of water. Somehow I managed to keep my head above water but the rest of me was completely baptized in the frigid Alaska waters- baptized in Jesus name- for that is the name I was calling on. “Oh Jesus!” I prayed with short cold breaths. I righted the sled in the stream and commanded to the dogs in a squeaky voice that was still trying to catch its breath, “Hike! Hike!” and they pulled me out. I guess it’s true, “Whosoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.” I could hear the water sloshing through my boots. My friend Lara had caught up to me at the stream and said she could see the water pouring from my anorak and bibs. And in this way I mushed 30 miles and passed two teams. When I arrived at the Sheep Creek checkpoint, my outer garments were frozen solid.

most of the race was run during the night, but my what views when there was sunlight.

The rest of the race was exciting but mostly unnoteworthy. So I’ll skip to the end and spare you the details between. As I alluded to before, I was running the second string A team dogs (Calvin Daugherty was running the first string A dogs). Mitch had us on a non-competitive run/rest cycle because some dogs had recovered from injuries and others had less miles. So it was my stated goal to bring as many of them happy and healthy to the finish, so that they could get the experience and miles without the high competition race stress. In fact, at a couple points in the race I said to Mitch, “you know those mushers are leaving at such and such time- if I leave 15 minutes before them they will never catch me.” but Mitch rightly reminded me of my duty and told me to put racing out of my mind. But at the last checkpoint I got the closest compliments from Mitch Seavey. If you know Mitch, you know how big a deal this is- especially in the heat of battle (race). He will tell you he isn't one to “break character and offer compliments.”

“Don't take this wrong, but I'm really surprised at how well the team is doing under your care. Thought we may have had to drop a few before now. They are running well and eating great. Whatever you are doing, keep it up! Do you sing to them out on the trail?” “Yes sir.” “I sing to my dogs too on the trail. You are doing a great job (Another little known fact- Mitch actually carries a tune quite well, as I learned during the days with him at the Copper Basin).” He also made comments to the other mushers that he was impressed by my clear head and good nature when sleep deprived- both in our 300 mile training series and in the race. Coming from Mitch, those compliments will be cherished. So I asked again. “I know I'm breaking this next run into 30 miles and 40 miles separated by 2 hours rest. Should I keep it at 2 hours?” “Ill let you make the call, Jonathan.” Mitch replied. “If they eat well and bed down well and you aren't seeing any issues, you can cut it to one and a half hours and go to the finish- snacking them once more at the 50 mile mark.”

At 30 miles out, I took my rest as Mitch prescribed. 30 minutes into the rest, my good friend Lara showed up with her team and camped behind me. Because Lara and I were given the same run rest cycle, and because I'd gotten lost and snagged at the stream, she and I traveled together much of the race, despite her team being from the B Seavey team. I told her I was gonna start putting booties on the dogs and packing up in an hour and 20 minutes.

Last camp on trail before Willow 300 Finish.

As I was connecting the snaps of the harnesses to the tug linesto get back on the trail I heard “On By” I looked up to discover it was my new friend Eric passing me. I pulled out the GPS and saw that two teams were resting in the 10 miles just ahead, and there was Eric. There was no way he had rested his Dogs and caught me, so I knew he’d have to at least stop and snack them soon. So we took off and our “race within a race” was on. I didn't push the team. I didn't drive the team hard. I just ‘let them have their head” as we call it in southern horse culture. When Zepher would increase the speed around a corner, I'd let them know I liked it. “Oooowee!” I'd exclaim. When they’d see the headlamp of another team and step it up again I'd say “Good dogs! Good dogs!” I let them know I was pleased with what they were doing. And they reciprocated with more. This was my little race now. Not to be in the money. But I was in 16th place with three teams within 10 miles of me. With 40 miles left in the race.

Could I make 14th place? Maybe 13th? I didn't allow myself to think about placement too much. But I did forget about the drag, quit holding them back for the one last run, and let them have their head- and what was in their head was to go faster. I finally caught up to Eric when he had to stop his team to snack. “I’m just taking a moment to snack them.” He said eagerly as I pulled up; almost as if to say “wait a minute and I will stay ahead of you.” but I knew I had the faster team. So I smiled and said, “Ok. See ya later.” Then I came to the first camping team. The musher was laying in the straw with his headlamp off with his dogs. “How you doin? You good?” I asked “We’re doing… We’re good. Thank you.” He replied so I shot by him- And right by the fork in the trail he was camping at. Ugh. I could still see the correct trail off to the right. But the snow was deep. Luckily there was a single track where a snowmobile had gone from one trail to the other. “Gee!” I yelled and without a moment’s hesitation Zephyr took the team plowing through the snow to get back on track. Finally, I came to the third team. The musher had to grab his leaders and hold them aside as I went by. But something seemed different here. His team was harnessed as if to go and wasn’t going. “You good?” I asked. “Um… I've been sitting here six hours. Team is fine, just won't get up and go. Would you mind holding back for a while to see if they will follow you out?” The newly discovered competitor in me paused and looked back, I could see Eric’s headlamp coming on strong. “I finally got the right dogs in the right position!” he had told me earlier. And they were moving well. But of course you will help- Jonathan- of course you will help! “Sure! I'll wait till you're ready and then I'll stay on the drag for a little while and make sure you're moving good.” I did this, calling occasional encouragements back to his leader for about 10 minutes. It worked, his team was gaining speed with every minute. And then I saw Eric pull up behind him. I yelled back, “You got a musher behind you! You can chase him for a while!” And with that I let off the drag. I didn't have to say a word. Prophet and Zephyr, Grunge, Jarvis, Vital, Bowler, Longo, Yeger, Gunner, Koala- they knew we were in a race and they were loving it. Just let off the drag and they increased their speed once again.

Mitch Seavey and I talking over the race, at the Trapper Creek Checkpoint.

Then I knew that was it- that was “my race within a race.” The next team was moving and 20 miles ahead. No way to catch them. No need to push.

For those last two hours I just soaked it all in. Sure the knee is throbbing- so what- “you have run the race. You have finished the course.” You are mushing the Alaska trail. And you even won your little race.”

For those last two hours I never said a word but “gee” or “Haw” or “Good Dogs.”

They somehow knew we were near the end. They knew I was pleased. They could feel it. And they were pleased with themselves. And so they cruised. Cruised to the finish. We finished 13th out of a starting field of 25 mushers. But the dogs I couldn't have been happier if we’d finished in the money.

Thanks to Mitch Seavey for entrusting me with his A team for a thousand miles, and for all the wisdom he imparted to me during this time. Thanks to my wife and children for keeping the home fires burning while Caleb and I were away. Thank you to my sponsors, Native Dog Food and The Continental Kennel Club for supporting my decision to change our race plans this season. And thanks to my School and District Administrator for allowing me the time away.

And to all the mushing friendships I made while in Alaska- Happy Trails! Ill see you again soon- "the good Lord willing and the creek don't rise."

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