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.”
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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 s