OCEAN PINES – Kevin and Linda Powers are the opposite of snowbirds. For the last several years as the weather gets colder they move north for the chance to work out their husky team. The endgame has always been for Linda and the team to complete the 30 mile leg of the Can-Am Crown International Dog Sled Race and this year she got her chance. When Powers and her team crossed the finish line it was the realization of years of hard work and planning as well as seizing what might turn out to be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Each year thousands turn out for the race, which has 90 participants broken down into heats of 30 mushers. The mushers compete in 30, 60, or 250 mile races for the opportunity to qualify for the next highest mileage race. Successful 250 mile mushers qualify for the world famous Iditarod.
Since deciding to become a musher, Powers had fixed her sights on the 30 miler. But she had the distinct disadvantage of only being able to train briefly each year. Huskies can only safely train under conditions that rarely exist on the Eastern Shore. The temperature plus the humidity have to add to less than 100. For example, a 30 degree day with 80 percent humidity is still no good.
Add to that the lack of snow and hills and Powers wasn’t sure she’d ever have the opportunity to train sufficiently for the Can-Am. Still, she enjoyed getting away with her husband and working the dogs in the snow each year.
During the off season, she runs them with a group in Delaware or around the pond in Ocean Pines one or two dogs at a time, more to practice commands and familiarize the dogs with her management style than to actually train for endurance.
But Powers designated this as her year to compete so when October came the anti-snowbirds passed their opposites as they headed to Maine to train in earnest and to enter the race.
She arrived to five months of the least training-friendly weather she could have hoped for. It snowed enough but the snow was inconsistent. On the upside, she said, she and her team got a lot of experience running in all sorts of weather but on the downside, there were too many days where training was impossible because of the conditions.
Sled dogs have to be treated like professional athletes. A minor sprain, twist or tear can put them out for the season. Powers had to treat her team gingerly, often calling off practice if the course started to get rough.
As the primary caregiver for her 90 year old mother, she joked that she called in all the favors she had with her children to arrange to be away from home for such a long period of time. Throughout the training she had a sense that this might be her only chance and to ruin it by pushing the dogs too hard would have been tragic.
It’s recommended that in order to safely complete the 30 miler, the dogs should train between 400 and 1,000 miles running in the snow. By race time Powers and her team had logged 425 miles.
The other circumstance that tended to work against her was the fact that, unlike most of the other competing sled dog teams, hers were essentially pets — most teams stay outside all year, hers are house dwellers. While they’re as comfortable on the couch as in the snow for shorter periods of time, a five-hour long endurance test in the snow and ice is a different story altogether.
In the last full training day before the race, Powers set out in less than optimal conditions. The snow was wet, chunky and icy. She completed the course in five-and-a-half hours and was satisfied, believing that she and her team would be able to break the five hour time she’d set as a goal when the conditions were better. On race day conditions were actually worse but there was an upside, Powers and her team were confident because they’d already endured similar circumstances.
She said that, because of her age, she knows she’s the weakest member of the team. She cannot, for example, run up hills behind her dogs as some of the other mushers do because her knees won’t take it. To compensate, she pushes with one foot then the other as if she were riding a scooter.
Also, she has to train double. In addition to her regular workouts with the dogs she bikes, goes to the gym regularly and practices yoga to remain flexible. Physical endurance is only the first part of the challenge. Keeping herself focused so she can anticipate any problems the dogs might be having is one of the most important parts.
She’s heard tales from mushers who’ve been hit by branches, missed turns or markers or have even been thrown off their sleds by a sudden burst of speed by their team. The latter has already happened to her, but having it happen in the middle of the North American wilderness can be a life-threatening experience.
For all the precautions the organizers take, there’s nothing more effective than being ready, which is why the training was as much for her as for her team.
A successful musher is a practiced tactician who understands the dogs’ needs and capabilities and deploys them in a timely enough manner to maximize their abilities. Each dog is trained in each position — each of the places in line requires different skills — so that in the event they need to be switched out or fill in, they’re both able and qualified to. It’s not just about endurance; it’s about endurance under constantly changing circumstances.
For instance, although the tracks are well packed, the presence of moose or deer or the holes they can leave can trip or distract the dogs. Similarly, the path is only a few feet wide at some places so other mushers who are looking to pass or about to be passed become both distractions and obstacles, especially for young teams such as Powers has.
Powers described her dogs as if they were pitchers. Fenway, the ace, is one of her best lead dogs but when he gets tired he’s easily distracted. Toward the end of the race, Powers elected to switch him out for Kodiak, her closer, right around mile 22.
Although she said she knows she’ll never be able to train for the 60 miler, Powers holds out hope for another crack at breaking the five hour mark, she finished at 5:25. But if it turns out that she’s unable to compete in another Can-Am, she’s content in her achievement. There’s little more satisfying than establishing an ambitious set of goals and meeting them.