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as told by Steve Madsen, Winner 2011 ECX 200 Mile Race

steve_madson-1In January of 2011, I got to compete in the Eagle Cap Extreme against two teams fielded by the kennel of Karen Ramstead of British Columbia, Canada. With a field of only three teams, the 2011 Eagle Cap probably didn’t represent the very best of the hundred or so elite distance racing teams outside of Alaska. Nevertheless, it did set up to be a classic duel of evenly-matched teams which would ultimately run only minutes apart over 200 miles of the most challenging terrain in the Pacific Northwest. This was to be a race in the classic sense which would tap the considerable skills of its mushers and seemingly bottomless endurance of its canine competitors. Every moment in the lead was a moment that would have to be earned.

steve_madson-2Both Karen and I honed our mushing skill on the crucible of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an 1100-mile odyssey across the interior of Alaska. I have been there three times and Karen many more than that. We differ substantially, however, in our respective approaches to the sport. Karen maintains a kennel of Siberian Huskies. This is an American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized breed and Karen’s dogs help set the modern standard for the breed. Their lineage includes the legendary dogs of Leonard Seppala who traveled the lion’s share of the 1925 serum run to Nome to save the dying town on the edge of the world from diphtheria. While show breeders have diminished the working capacity of the breed over the years, Karen and a few other die-hards maintain the integrity of this foundation mushing breed. Keeping this tradition alive, however, requires competitive Siberian mushers to maintain fairly large kennels in order to have top dogs to draw from. In the modern Iditarod, of the sixty or so teams entering the race, it is rare to have more than two or three purebred Siberian teams. Nevertheless, the Iditarod is littered with teams of the modern racing dog, the “Alaskan Husky”, defeated by Karen and other Siberian mushers. One on one, they are never to be underestimated.

steve_madson-3Conversely, I drive a team of Alaskan Huskies, the more common breed of racing dog in the elite distance racing brackets. The Alaskan Husky has no breed registry nor is there any specific phenotype for the breed. Their size, appearance, and demeanor stem exclusively from their traits as working sled dogs. They do not need to be particularly trainable so long as they are responsive to simple commands, get along with each other, eat voraciously, have good feet and never, ever quit pulling. The benefit in using Alaskan Huskies to a musher like me is that I can maintain a relatively small kennel of top-end racing dogs, because they are relatively common in the sport and the purchase of good dogs or stud service, while not cheap, are relatively available. For the 2010-2011 season, I maintained only 14 dogs in training to field a 12-dog team (two were puppies that never raced) which ultimately competed and finished in first place twice in five major races totaling over 700 miles in the Pacific Northwest. I happened to be, however, in the twilight of that particular team in that five of my twelve racing dogs were over eight years old and the other seven were over six years old. Several of these dogs had competed with me as far back as my first Iditarod in 2004.

karen_ramstad-4So the race set up to be Karen’s two teams of hardy Siberians against my team of fast but aging Alaskans. Having faced Karen previously in a major race, I knew I would be able to take nothing for granted. In 2003, I raced Alaskan Huskies for the first time in Montana’s 350-mile Race to the Sky. Karen was also in that race. I was new to racing at that level and still had a lot to learn about managing my team both on the trail and at the checkpoints. In a race that played out very much like the 2011 Eagle Cap, I learned to respect the tenacity and durability of Karen’s dogs as she demonstrated repeatedly that no matter how quick my dogs might run, her Siberians could match my overall run/rest pace.

I took this history and respect for Karen and her teams into the 2011 Eagle Cap Extreme. My mushing career has come a long way since 2003 and several people expressed confidence that I would win since I was “only” racing Siberian Huskies. I had no such delusions. I knew that Karen only races to compete. Everyone knows she has something to prove on behalf of her Siberians and anyone that does not respect that motivation is a fool. I have no idea how far apart we were during the first many miles of the race, but I know that we were close. Alaskans have a quicker turn of foot than Siberians but the mountainous terrain tends to neutralize that advantage since you can’t lope up hill and loping downhill is an invitation to injury. Early on, I realized I would not outsprint Karen.

Along the trail out of the halfway point, we traded leads several times. I could always catch Karen easily. More often than not, I would catch the two teams rather quickly to find them tangled with each other. It appeared they were as interested in what each other was doing as they were about getting down the trail. This ended immediately, however, as soon as I passed the two teams. After awhile I realized I was not being chased so much as I was being HUNTED. The constantly bobbing headlights behind me only confirmed their need to chase. All the while, I could sense that being the rabbit was taking a toll on my team. We are a good “middle-of-the-pack” team and unaccustomed to setting the pace with the chase on.

steve_madson-5The teams were only minutes apart heading into the last checkpoint at Ollokot, 160 miles into the race. We had about 50 miles to go. I had dropped a couple of dogs while Karen’s teams both had their full complements of twelve. I knew that if I let the lead go one more time I would not get it back. After a little psychological sparring with Karen at the checkpoint, I decided to cut rest a little and bug out. I have always prided myself on being economical with my checkpoint routine and this time it served me well. It took very little to throw my stuff together and hit the trail. Sure enough, after only a few miles I could see the incessant headlamps bobbing behind me with Karen’s Siberians holding that maddeningly steady pace. At forty miles into the leg many of my dogs were showing stress and I began to put them on the sled. First one, then two. At one point on a long downhill I had three of my ten dogs on the sled. This is a sure way to get passed in a close race. Nonetheless, a determination to hold the lead and some die-hard leaders got me across the finish line a mere seven minutes ahead of two teams that, given a few more miles, would likely have passed my ragged crew.

Almost half of my team has retired since the end of this season. We finished 7th in the Race to the Sky, which is our best finish ever in that prestigious race and we won in another small class in the Bachelor Butte Dog Derby in Bend, OR. We will no doubt be stronger and faster next season but I will never forget the 2011 Eagle Cap and the 200-mile duel that left me and my team exhausted but victorious.