2013-2014

Gratitude

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I’m really very lucky. Sometimes I need to stop and remind myself. Especially when I’m feeling pent up and frustrated about my current location.

The above picture was from our last decent run. We got a few more local runs in, but the past two weeks have been surprisingly quiet for my team. Even though we’ve had snow on the ground, luck has been against us. We did get a seven mile and an eight mile run in prior to this slump, which I think contributes to my desire to run even more. I’ve had a taste of what I’ve always wanted, and now I want it more.

We got a decent storm last Monday, which is essentially the worst day for snow. It’s the start of my work week, and I had no time to take the sled out around the neighborhood before the plows came. Shortly after the snow, we got hit with lots of ice. Then with melting and re-freezing, the snow on the ground has developed a hard, thick crust.

The route I run around my house has become impossible. The plows have piled up mountains of rock hard snow, blocking off two sections of our 1.7 mile local “trail”. The few spots that I can go are covered in ice, making them too dangerous for a rig.

This means I need to drive out to trails on the weekend, which has been equally troublesome. North Jersey is still covered with icy snow while south Jersey apparently has just ice. I decided to stick with hiking this past weekend to keep the dogs active, since mushing seemed too treacherous.

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I almost had a panic attack about our inactivity, for a number of reasons. Most importantly, I feel like I’m failing the dogs when we don’t get out at least every two days. Along with that, it’s my own favorite pass time. My soul needs it. And least important, but still a factor: I set a goal of 125 miles for this season. We’re close, and I’m sure we’ll make it, but I’m eager to surpass it.

Why do I consider myself to be lucky? Because my dogs haven’t given me an ounce of trouble. I’ve got two young, high energy huskies and they’ve been content to chase each other around the frozen yard and go for walks to the local park. Dexter isn’t exactly low energy, either. All three have been incredibly well behaved in the house while I’m working, or while I’m away in NYC for meetings. So thank you, dogs, for making things easy on me when they could easily become mayhem. We’ve got snow coming tomorrow… I promise we’ll be running again real soon.

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Mud

Today we set out for the longest run my little team has ever completed in a single day. It wasn’t the prettiest run, but I couldn’t be happier with how things went.

First, a little backstory: I’ve been dying to up our run mileage, but it’s not an easy task for a central Jersey musher. Last night, I spent several hours on trail websites and Google Maps, trying to scope out some decent miles for us. I ended up with four options:

The Pine Barrens - Ol’ faithful. When I make the journey down there, I usually end up running the 3.8 mile loop at Mt. Misery, but I’m getting bored with that. There are many, many more miles of trail I’d love to explore there.

Six Mile Run - Another trustworthy spot. However, just like the Pines, this area offers miles of trail I haven’t tried yet.

Paulinskill Valley Trail - One of two converted rail trails I’m interested in running. It’s 27 miles long, and pretty much a straight shot through Sussex and Warren counties. My plan would be to pick a starting point somewhere along the trail, run a few miles, break, then turn around and head back. My concern is activity on the trail, especially people walking dogs. Since it’s only one path, it’ll be hard to avoid interaction. My team is hit or miss with passing strange dogs – it mostly depends on the dog.

Columbia Trail - This is the other rail trail, which spans about 16 miles of Northwest Jersey. I’ve hiked a portion of it during the summer, and it’s definitely a well-travelled spot. Ultimately, an area I’d love to run, but it’ll come down to finding the least busy time.

When I woke up around 7:30 this morning, I thought the day was a wash out. There was a mix of rain, sleet, ice, and snow coming down throughout the early hours. Not enough snow to go sledding, but enough ice to make a rig fishtail. I was about to call it quits when the sun began to shine.

Since I got a late start, I decided to head over to Six Mile Run, as it’s the closest in proximity to my house. My usual parking spot was full of cars, so that had me worried – but I was headed to a different spot today. I had spied a “Blue” trail on Google Maps, which seemed to hug the edge of various farms along the woods. My game plan was to run this trail until it met up with the “Red” trail, take a break, and then run the same path back. I knew from past hiking experiences what the red trail was, and I wasn’t about to attempt it on the rig.

We took the wrong path right from the get-go. Well, not really, but it wasn’t the part of the blue trail I saw from above. Now in real life, the wiggly trail was labelled “Blue Trail”… and the trail I wanted to take had no sign or could even really be seen from where I had started out. Welp. At least it was pretty fun.

The majority of the run was smooth and simple. The path was wide and flat, with gentle inclines and declines that didn’t trouble the dogs much. The whole thing was pretty muddy, but in some spots I had to hop off and help push the rig through. We saw lots of birds (Turkey Vultures kinda give you a sense of impending doom), a horse, and an abandoned house along our journey.

That’s not to say this run was easy. Oh no. It certainly had its challenges! There were multiple spots where the trail turned into the woods. This meant weaving through trees, bouncing over exposed root and rock, much steeper inclines and declines, and the scariest part: making our way over boardwalk bridges.

I don’t have any photos from that part, because I was holding on for dear life. But imagine the boardwalk pictured below. Instead of being directly over the ground, elevate it about 5 feet up. And stick a freezing cold, rushing river beneath it. Now keep in mind I’m not riding a mountain bike – I’m riding on a rig, which is precisely the same width as the bridge.

Oh, and the bridge doesn’t have any railing on the side.

By some miracle, I am still here to blog about it. The dogs listened phenomenally well as we inched across these bridges. They hated being on them, and I know they were fighting the urge to bolt to the opposite side. Somehow, they managed to control themselves and didn’t take a single step without my call. What good pups!

Finally, we reached a point in the trail where it got too steep and winding for the rig to handle. I turned the team around and made the slow trek back to the truck. I stopped them a few times for water, but they didn’t want to rest. I was really impressed with how well they did, considering our daily runs are only 1.8 miles. 

The entire run was about 7.5 miles and it took us roughly two and a half hours. I couldn’t tell you the exact numbers because I forgot to push “record” on my Mushometer app, so that whole squiggly part in the beginning is just a guess. I’ll definitely go back there again, since it was very beautiful and quiet. The part of the trail that’s best for us is too boring for the bikers, so it works out better than my old spot. 

I hope it’s a little less muddy next time, though.

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Sled Runs

Winter storm “Hercules” (I hate that they name snow storms now) dumped a bunch of white stuff on us the day after New Years. We went for a run around the neighborhood while the storm was still raging to take advantage of the unplowed streets.

Even though it was nearly midnight, the snow reflected everything and we could see just fine. By the time we got back, the dogs had ice beards and our hair was frozen. It reminded me of professional dog teams during the Iditarod or other big races – even though we were only out for about 45 minutes and went less than two miles.

Friday, I had to work a bit, but afterwards we headed right back out. It didn’t get much warmer than the teens, so the snow didn’t melt and the streets still had a sled-able layer of snow.

My goal for today was to get out on some real trails. I dragged my sister along to Six Mile Run to help – and to take pictures while we ran. While we were setting up, a guy walked over and asked if he could take pictures, because “no one would believe him”. I love those encounters. He stood along the trail and snapped photos as we took off and the dogs passed by flawlessly – even though he had a scary hat and Dexter wasn’t too sure about it. 

The dogs run great on snow. You can tell they love it, even if it’s a bit extra work for them. The snow was deep and soft today, so it was slow going. I didn’t mind it, though. The trails were beautiful and I soaked up every second out there. This is why I do it, not to clock in super fast speeds or win races.

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The Ups and Downs of Mushing

THE UPS:

Things have been pretty glorious since my last entry. We’ve been getting snowed on, which is a great surprise for early December. Considering how dry the past two winters were, getting on the sled before January was a welcomed change. Here’s hoping this winter is like the one right before I purchased my sled – when we had blizzards literally every weekend!

We’ve been getting little bits of snow here and there, but the heaviest dump was last Saturday. I managed to take the sled out that night, before the plows cleared off the streets.

The following day, I went to good ol’ Six Mile Run for some more time on the runners. The dogs loved it, despite having to pull both me and Rob through the soggy snow. We did less than two miles since it was tough work, but it was still fun taking the sled somewhere beyond my neighborhood.

THE DOWNS:

Sadly, it’s supposed to warm up this weekend, and all my beautiful snow will likely melt before my vacation officially begins. Sunday is supposed to reach 68 degrees with thunder storms. Really?

I had originally hoped to trek up north to find some sledding trails, but I’m hesitant to make the trip by myself. Unfamiliar trails with questionable cell phone service worry me a bit. Finding a cabin has also proved to be a challenge. Plan B was to find trails closer to home. I had the Poconos in mind. But with the upcoming warm weather, I doubt I’ll find anything sled-able without going at least five hours north.

I need to start making preparations to do these trips on my own. I want to get my hands on a satellite GPS – I think that would help with some of my anxiety. If I’m ever going to start running my little team over greater distances, I won’t be able to do it with a passenger. That’s just too much for three dogs to handle.

I don’t expect anyone to accompany me for a seven hour journey north, where they’ll be spending their time alone in a rustic cabin with only the bear essentials, while I’m out running dogs for hours.

I also don’t expect my friends to wake up at 5:30 AM on a Saturday, hop in my truck for an hour and a half ride, only to spend eight hours in the freezing cold while I compete in races.

Normal twenty-something-year-olds don’t do this stuff. While they’re out at bars and listening to friends’ bands perform, I’m calling it a night at 10 PM.

Mushing is a lonely thing, I’ve come to realize. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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Race Day

I can’t believe it’s already December! We already had our first two races of the 2013-2014 season, and I guess you could say they went “fine”. 

Our first race was the Betty Carhart Memorial Race. It was cold. Now, when I say cold, I don’t mean normal, November-weather cold. It was in the teens, with a bitter wind all day long. A week prior to the race, I was in 80-degree Florida for vacation. I developed a pretty nasty cold when we got back. Let’s just say, eight hours in bitter temperatures probably wasn’t a smart move on my part. I felt like DEATH the following day, and didn’t make it in for my work meetings.

Our run wasn’t terrible, but it felt pretty disappointing at the time. We were second out of the chute, and the dogs took off like lightning. All three were running smooth and hard for about three miles. We caught up to the team that was first out, but I didn’t let them pass because we still need work on that. Plus, they run better when they’re chasing after another team.

At around three miles, Dexter slowed down and needed to poop. This was right before the toughest part of the trail, as we approached a hill. We lost sight of the first team, and the team that went out third passed by us. They provided a quick boost of chasing-speed, but that fizzled quick. We never got the speed we needed to finish strong.

Our overall time wasn’t terrible. We were about seven minutes faster than our previous training run on the same trail. We were two minutes faster than we were last year during a training run at the end of the season. So, I can’t really be upset. It just would’ve been nice to end the race as well as it started.

The Pine Barrens Dryland Run was the following Saturday, and it didn’t really go any better for the team. We were the first ones out of the chute this time, which I knew would be problematic. They still ran hard, but they fizzled out much quicker. Early on, Denali got distracted by some animal and tried to run off the trail. By the time I finally got her moving, the team behind us was in sight. They caught up with us quick, and after a messy pass (my team’s fault), they did keep a steady pace. I expected this would happen, and I had hoped to keep them in chase mode until the end of the race.

The last mile or so proved to be tough on Dexter, and I can’t really blame any of them for getting tired. They’re used to doing about two miles at a time. We got passed up by two bikejoring teams, which (at the time) felt devastating because there was a five minute gap between the three dog senior class and the bikes. 

In the end, our time was only about a minute worse than the first race, and those bikejorers were just really, really fast. 

Going forward, my game plan might be to run Denali and Knox in the sweepstakes bikejor class, then do sportsman for the three dog senior class. We’ll see how our training goes. I’m hoping to get out to longer trails more often now that it’s cold throughout the day. If Dexter improves enough, we’ll continue to run competitively in the three dog senior class, but I’m not counting on it. 

I feel the need to write a disclaimer. This entry makes it sound like I’m primarily focused on racing with the dogs. That’s not the case at all. I don’t really like races – they give me anxiety! I compete in them to support the clubs and to stay an active member of the mushing community. Mushing has the potential to become a very solitary activity, but I do want to keep the social aspect of it going, and that’s where races come in.

My real dream is to acclimate the dogs to distance runs. I’d love to take them out for hours at a time, over several miles of trail. For that, speed isn’t a priority. Instead, I need them to build up endurance and focus. They’re used to hiking several miles at a time, so I know this is possible. 

That’s all for now! Our next race won’t be until January, but I’m looking forward to lots of morning and weekend runs to come.

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A Musher's Day

Sometimes, on the weekends, I like to sleep in. Especially when I stay up until 2 AM working on a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle (uhh yea). And especially when I know it’s going to be under 50 degrees the following day, and I don’t have to head out at the crack o’ dawn to run dogs.

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Sometimes, the dogs miss that memo. Thankfully, they did let me sort of sleep until around 9:30 AM (as you can see in the second photo). They didn’t make it easy, though.

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So off we went to Six Mile Run in Somerset, NJ. We also ran there last weekend, which went pretty well. I scoped this trail out quite a bit during our hikes this past summer, and I realized it would be pretty decent for running the dogs. It’s primarily used by mountain bikers, and there’s quite a bit of trail I simply can’t do with the dog cart. Lots of steep, rocky, root-filled declines and inclines. Nevertheless, there’s still a few good miles of beautiful scenery, and it’s only 30 minutes away from home. The Pine Barrens, on the other hand, take over an hour and a half to drive down to. As much as I love the Pines, it’s tough on my sleep schedule and my wallet.

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Today was actually the first time I drove out somewhere to run the dogs completely alone. Usually, I meet up with other mushers, or I bring someone with me to help. This time, it was just me, the dogs, and the woods (and the occasional mountain biker).

I love introducing people to mushing. I’m also extremely grateful to have the Jersey Sands mushers to meet with and exchange knowledge. But there’s something really satisfying about heading out and doing this on my own sometimes.

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I also love taking the dogs to trails they don’t know. It’s great practice for commands, since they don’t automatically know which way to turn. Last weekend, Denali showed how young she still is by not really listening to me. Well, she did , just on her own accord. Today was much better – she listened to all my commands with barely any hesitation.

Last weekend, we were out on the trail for almost an hour, even though we didn’t really go that far. My friend, Rob, was riding with me so the dogs had to work a bit harder.

They only had me to lug around today, so we did about the same distance in half the time.

I’m hoping I can bring them out to another new trail soon. I’d like to load the cart up with treats (the dog kind and the human kind) and water, and just run for hours. It’s tough to find those kinds of trails close by, though. Only in the Pines (where I think we’re headed tomorrow) or out of state, it seems.

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Running Daily

We’re finally running on an almost daily basis now! Our little woods loop is still locked up, but we’ve managed to find a new spot to add to our local run. Combining our two running areas adds up to a mile and a half, which works out perfectly for a quick morning sprint. 
 This weekend, we hope to head down to the Pine Barrens for the first time this season.  Can’t wait to run some longer trails! 
 The dogs have been doing well so far. For no apparent reason, Dexter seems to be running a bit better this year. He’s still not pulling  to his full potential, but at least he’s keeping up and not adding work for the other two. They used to have to pull him along with the rig, so it’s definitely a relief. 
 Denali has been pretty spot on, although it’s evident how much more focused she is when the weather is cooler. She much rather lounge around when it’s warm and sunny out.  
 Knox is a little (uh, big) trooper, as always. This past Sunday, we went hiking at the Mohonk Preservation in New York. And by “hiking”, I actually mean spelunking and rock climbing, because that’s what the trail required. He was nervous, but a total champ whenever we had to lift him up boulders and rocky ledges, or squish him down into caves. We hiked for about five or six hours, and he never stopped or even slowed down. I’m pretty sure he could hike forever. 

  Knox is just as great in harness. His lines are always tight and he doesn’t stop for anything. His commands aren’t as solid as Denali’s, but he knows them well enough.  
 The team has around ten miles recorded for this season, which is lower than I’d like for late October, but we can’t help how warm it’s been. Now that we’re getting some consistent cool mornings, we should start racking up the mileage and getting back into the swing of things.

We’re finally running on an almost daily basis now! Our little woods loop is still locked up, but we’ve managed to find a new spot to add to our local run. Combining our two running areas adds up to a mile and a half, which works out perfectly for a quick morning sprint.

This weekend, we hope to head down to the Pine Barrens for the first time this season.  Can’t wait to run some longer trails!

The dogs have been doing well so far. For no apparent reason, Dexter seems to be running a bit better this year. He’s still not pulling  to his full potential, but at least he’s keeping up and not adding work for the other two. They used to have to pull him along with the rig, so it’s definitely a relief.

Denali has been pretty spot on, although it’s evident how much more focused she is when the weather is cooler. She much rather lounge around when it’s warm and sunny out. 

Knox is a little (uh, big) trooper, as always. This past Sunday, we went hiking at the Mohonk Preservation in New York. And by “hiking”, I actually mean spelunking and rock climbing, because that’s what the trail required. He was nervous, but a total champ whenever we had to lift him up boulders and rocky ledges, or squish him down into caves. We hiked for about five or six hours, and he never stopped or even slowed down. I’m pretty sure he could hike forever.

 Knox is just as great in harness. His lines are always tight and he doesn’t stop for anything. His commands aren’t as solid as Denali’s, but he knows them well enough. 

The team has around ten miles recorded for this season, which is lower than I’d like for late October, but we can’t help how warm it’s been. Now that we’re getting some consistent cool mornings, we should start racking up the mileage and getting back into the swing of things.

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Urban Mushing

I was sick all week, which was a real bummer because it’s been cold. Finally started feeling a bit better today, so I decided to take the 90-pound rig out for an evening run. This was the first three dog run of the season, and they did pretty well! 

The only tough part was getting them to turn around where we normally enter the wooded area. Since it’s still closed off and locked (GRRR!), I have to maneuver them around the parking lot and head back from where we came.  

When there isn’t a soccer game going on, I can have them head off around the fields, so it’s not an issue. But this evening, there were kids out playing, so we couldn’t do that. I decided since this was the halfway point in our run, they could use a quick water break. After they calmed down, I was able to redirect them towards home again, and they did just fine.

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Eager to Run

Well, this weekend played its usual tricks. Saturday and Sunday were both in the 70s and 80s.

However, I decided I wouldn’t let that stop us. It was a bit breezy and cloudy on Saturday afternoon, so I figured it would be safe for a quick bikejor.

Running with the bike is a lot less work for the dogs, since it’s lighter and I can pedal along. It doesn’t really build their muscles too much, but it definitely helps with their running and command training.

I only took Knox and Denali, since I can only safely bikejor with two at a time. Running all three dogs requires more weight to stop.

I ran them on my usual route, but we missed out on the quarter-mile wooded loop we normally do. For some reason, the gate to that area was locked up. I really hope that isn’t the case going forward, as I rely on that spot for day to day training.

I was really impressed – they ran flawlessly, which is amazing for their very first run. They didn’t get distracted by the kids soccer game or the busy parking lot we had to navigate through.

The most impressive part of the run was towards the end. We usually navigate through a small memorial park and run behind my town’s rescue squad. However, since it was the weekend, there was a tent set up and some men were selling potted plants. They were in the exact spot the dogs have been trained to run through – so they did just that. Somehow, they didn’t disturb a single plant pot. And somehow, my bike didn’t destroy anything as it followed behind them.

By the time we got back, the temperature was creeping up, so I didn’t want to risk running Denali again with Dexter. Instead, he got a hike around the local woods – mostly to see if those trails were safe to run. Right now, they’re full of sawgrass and downed trees, so that will have to wait until later in the fall.

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Pre-season Anxiety

This happens every year – temperatures creep downwards, but for various reasons, I’m unable to get out and run the dogs.

This year, it’s my work schedule that interferes. It’s only cold enough to run in the early morning right now.

However, it’s still dark out when I wake up . By the time it’s bright enough to hit the trail, I have to start my shift.

I could technically run just before dawn, but I prefer not to. There are just too many critters out that will likely distract the dogs. Same goes for right around dusk – it’s cold enough, but that’s when animals start to come out. My guys are pretty good when encountering animals. That being said, I don’t like taking chances, especially when I’m running them alone.

In the mean time, I must wait for weekends to cool down. It seems like weekdays stay cold but then the weekends are warm and humid again. Before too long, I’ll be able to go out on my lunch break (around 11 am), but until then, I’ll have to suffer through all my Facebook friends posting their mushing photos.

I know I’ll have plenty of chances to get out and mush with my guys, but I think I’m more eager this season than ever before. I have so many new trails to try out thanks to my off-season hikes. Fingers crossed for a cold weekend!

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