Dog care above medals

Ready to race! Photo: Malin Granqvist, Team Villiviimas

I would say I´m a rather competitive person. The thought of stepping up on the top of the podium gives me goosebumps enough to plan my life five or even ten years ahead.. The top of performances is both worth waiting and working for! Now this could be a post about winning. A text about the taste of gold medals and watching the pieces of my dream team fall into place one after another. But that is not what I will tell you about today.

Already early in the week before, the weathercast showed warm weather coming in. There would be both snow, rain and plus degrees during the upcoming competition in Nornäs. I waited until the last minute to wax the skiis, hoping for the weathercast to turn. The last few days before leaving, the dogs got an extra bowl of yummi flavoured water every day. Their hydration level is essential when running in plus degrees. When you try to make it to the top, there are no margins for negligence. Small details can be crusial.

We planned to go to a few competitions already this year. My ambition was to have a top performing team for the Swedish Championships in the beginning of March. Nornäs was not planned to be an important race at first. But competition is rare in the mid distance classes and now there were six (!) other mushers signed up in my class in Nornäs. That might be the best competition for the season and a number of these has done great results in Swedish as well as international races.

I went into myself before competing. I always do. Deep within myself. I have forgotten how to do it, it just happens. My body and mind starts to organize things meticulously. Every little routine is a part of finding the right state of mind to compete. I spend more and more time with the dogs and I swear they are never surprised when I finally start to pack the car! Well, enough about this. I wanted you to have a peek into my brain before we throw ourselves back to a foggy Nornäs, Saturday at 11.56.

Ready for the first heat.. Photo by Susanne Enochsson

The dogs had been eating and drinking really well through the whole week. It’s really a relief knowing they are all in good shape and are ready to race! As usual I planned to start out with one main leader and one speedkeeper in front. Sauron and Dolly were chosen. We had a late position starting out after several other mid distance teams. It felt good to have an experienced leaddog in front in case of passings.

So we started out. I could almost immediately tell the trail was heavy. The dogs were working really hard but as soon as the speed went up, they started to step through the trail. Maybe I could have run them fast but at this moment it would mean risking both their mental and physical health. Now my team is still young and my goal is not to be on top this year. There’s that thing with patience. I could run them fast and make them feel like they cannot trust the trail but of course that’s not an option. That would lower their self confidence and – even worse – can make them afraid of high speed.

So I just had to accept the fact that the dogs health and safety would affect our race a lot. And you know what? I didn’t hesitate one second. Even though the most important race of the year, even though I had the chance to beat the world champion, one of my strongest competitors that I’ve longed to beat since our miserable race at last years Swedish championships, even though fame and glory and gold and whatever – I couldn’t care less. Now this was my biggest victory ever. The moment I realized that my ambitions and goals never, ever would be superiour my dogs health.

Nothing can ever be more important than my dogs health.. Photo by Susanne Enochsson

The first ten kilometers of the race were the slowest. With the lowered speed, I decided to change leaddogs and let Sonic step up together with Dolly. There weren´t going to be much of passings and Sonic has been doing really well in lead lately. Sauron seemed relieved to step back and do the heavy work in back of the team. He was in lead every competition during his life and now, having other leaddogs coming up, I’m trying to give him a break every now and then.

The dogs got to choose their way of working throught the race. I’m more and more getting used to read and understand the running of hot headed dogs. A few years ago, my team was easy to control by voice. I could ask them to increase the speed strategically, as well as keep the speed down and get them to rest. It was an easy-to-run team and we did good in competition. It was my old Kit who changed all this. His way of working was something that I had never before seen. He ALWAYS wanted to increase the speed. It didn’t matter where or how we were running – he would always work as if we were catching up on some other teams. He was my first hot headed dog and since then that’s all I’ve been looking for.

Running dogs who won’t rest during work demanded a whole new way of mushing from me. First thing is the dogs will need a lot of training. They will work 110% no matter how much training they have got in their legs. Considering that, it’s crusial to be slow and strategic when increasing distance. Pia Ångström, a great sprint racer, once said “a hot headed dog will need more training than the regular dog”. Back then, those words meant nothing to me. Today they are one of my foundations in training.

Second thing in these dogs is when they go down in speed, it’s because they really, really need to go slow. They won’t loose speed to rest, recover or endure the race. They go down in speed only because their bodies force them to. This was explained to me for the first time at the Swedish Championships 2017. Jens Lindberget coached me through all three days and I finally realized the meaning of his words. I, their musher, can’t ask them to speed up during these slower parts of the races. That would mean pushing them over their limits.

That’s how we went on during this first day of the race. Sometimes the dogs worked their way forward in an appropriate speed, sometimes they slowed down or even stopped to cool themselves in the snow. All this I could easily accept, knowing that they are doing it because they need to. There’s nothing unobedient with it. They are purely looking after themselves in a way that a hot headed crazy running sleddog does.

It was 25 kilometers or so before we caught up on our main competitor. I didn’t expect to do so since we kind of mentally let go of the race but of course, as I sometimes seem to forget, a heavy trail is equally heavy for all the competitors. We slowly closed in on them, stopped for some snowcooling, closed in on them again. Finally we passed them in a very calm and safe way.

Now I know Nina Finstad has been a top performancer not only in sleddog sports, but also other sports. Because what happened next was her teaching me one of the most elementary things in sports. She taught me good sportswomanship. Now of course it’s easy to be nice when you win. But here, as a world champion just being passed by a local crazy lady, she would have all reasons not to be happy. Now she did just the opposite. I turned around to watch her team and I heard her voice;

“Marlene! You have a really beautiful team there!”

Her words went straight into my heart. Not only could she see what I believe I see in my team. She also had the guts, the self distance, the strength to tell me this. Nina showed me how to act when times are rough. I probably will never be the same again, loosing a competition.

This was right before the chaos..


Sonic stepped up as a leaddog during the weekend. Photo by Malin Granqvist, Team Villiviimas

Soon after the passing I heard shouting. What did they say? Were there more passings? Did they shout my name? No, it wasn´t my name. We kept on running a few hundred meters and when I turned to check on the others, I could see noone. Now this was very strange. Normally after a passing, you try to follow the faster team for a while. Now the trail was empty behind me. I stopped and listened. Everything was quiet. No sign of complications from where I could hear. This confirmed my thoughts; I must have missed the crossing where we would go out on the second lap.

I tried to see the other teams taking the new trail. But I could see noone. Just trees and snow. I called Nina. What had happened? The line was occupied. I checked on my gps. We had been running 26 kilometers. I tried to remember the map from the musher meeting. Where were the crossing? Was it close to the 2-dog trail? Or the 4-dog trail? Where were we? I counted in my head and from what I could tell, we shouldn´t come to the crossing just yet. I called Nina again. No answer. I finally decided to go on running and, at the same time, prepare to turn around if the finish line would appear.

Then we were alone. I can’t remember any other team besides one sprintdog team passing in front of us. Noone caught up on us. After a few kilometers Nina called. She had had troubles with a dog. We talked for a while about what happened and she told me she needed to take him out from the team and put him in the sled. I remember thinking if I would catch up on her on the second lap, I could bring her dog to the finish line. But she had already passed the crossing. Now we were on our own again.

We hit the finish line. The dogs were happy. I was happy. We all defeated the warm weather and tough trail. Dolly and Sonic had energy left to force through the fenced area over to the hamburger hack. The arrival to the car confirmed that the dogs were in good shape. They all ate and drank eagerly. It might have been the first time that all dogs ate all their meals through a whole competition weekend.

I knew we were in the lead after the first heat. I had no idea of how much, though. It didn’t really matter – the only thing I could have done better were making faster decisions on the trail. But it’s like that in mid distance. You are out for hours and a lot of things can – and will – happen. There is rarely the perfect race, that’s almost impossible when working with living individuals. Routine, experience and good knowledge about your dogs is what eventually will save you that little extra time.

Preparing for second heat. Photo by Malin Granqvist

Sunday morning and time for second, and last, heat. The competition organizers had seeded the starting list overall mid distance, meaning they mixed us 6-dog teams with the 12-dog teams according to yesterdays result. That’s really a great way to ease the race for the dogs and avoid unnecessary passings in the trail. We started out two minutes behind Gantus breeder, Maria Pålsson, who were running in the 12-dog class.

The weather had changed in a good way. The temperature was slightly lower and there were actually some blue sky showing up every now and then. We were catching up on Maria soon after start, she had some troubles and were standing still. It wasn’t long though, until she came after us. Now the circumstances of the race had changed dramatically. The trail was hard and the only thing holding the dogs back was the humidity that partly hit us in the trail. I could hardly see any difference but I felt it clearly both in the periods of weakening of the team and the hard time I had to breath.

We only needed to stop a few times to cool down in the snow. Instead I tried to use these stops to give the dogs time enough to really get the pulse down. It felt like we were pulling away from Maria sometimes but she just wouldn’t give up and soon she gained on us again. My stubborn beloved friend! We ended upp racing almost the whole race together, shared waterbottle, did some live facebook and laughed a lot. Noone caught up on us, neither did we catch up on someone else. We finished with only seconds between us and great smiles on our faces!

And somehow we made it. Although regular stops to cool down, the running pace was high enough to give us a great margin for winning. All and together the Yabasta dogs were almost thirty minutes faster than the other medalists. We even had the third fastest runs comparing with the 12-dog class. Our race wasn’t perfect in the context of troublefree. We are still working on our routines and need to add some experience to make those totally fluent races. But now I got the confirmation I needed. The team has potential to compete on a high international level. And I’m mentally ready to do so.


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