The big week was finally here. My wife, Paige, and I with help from our handlers have spent every minute for the past few months preparing for the big race. The dogs have run almost daily from September until this race time, building in mileage slowly until they are prepared to run 120 miles a day. We work summers so that we can devote all fall and winter to the training and care of the dogs and preparations for the race. Several weeks before the race, we get our supplies ready to be shipped out onto the trail. Everything we will need for the race must be carried with us or out on the trail in our drop bags. This year, I sent 1700 lbs of food and gear for the dogs and I and it was shipped out two weeks before the race. The majority of the weight shipped out is dog food. The dogs eat around 12,000 calories a day while running these races. We cut and package hundreds of pounds of kibble, beef, fish, and beaver meat for the dogs. We pack a mix of high energy foods for ourselves. We have two main types of food we pack, frozen vacuum sealed meals and dehydrated Heather’s Choice meals.
We headed down to Iditarod for the pre-race festivities. As a musher, we are required to go through some meetings and then we have our banquet where we draw our bib number or starting position. I wanted to draw a low number or early starting position. Starting towards the front of the pack is my favorite, as the team gets to travel on a trail that hasn’t been chewed up by sled brakes and hundreds of pounding dog feet. I went up on stage to draw my teams number and we got our wish. I drew bib number 2. Number 1 was reserved for the 2018 Honorary Musher, my late friend Joee Redington Jr., so I was the first musher in the race. I was thrilled to be the first musher out and felt that it was an honor to follow my friend and mentor’s spirit out onto the trail. Joee would be my guide on this race.
On Saturday, they put snow down on the street in Downton Anchorage so we can have the Ceremonial Start. This day is more of a parade and celebration and doesn’t count as part of the actual race time. We have a passenger that rides in the sled who bought the seat in an auction. We run for 12 miles through Anchorage waving at fans and throwing used booties to children who yell, “booty, booty, booty”. It is a fun event and the dogs and mushers are all in great spirits. The final 16 dogs that would be raced were picked that night.
We were the first team leaving the starting chute on Willow Lake. The team surged with outrageous enthusiasm and power. I tried to keep them slow by putting all 200 lbs of my body weight on the sled brake, but my GPS speedometer still read 14 mph, we normally like to keep a pace of around 9 mph. Thousands of spectators lined the trail behind what seemed like a mile of orange snow fencing. Fans were yelling words of encouragement, many with their hands out to get a passing high five. The dogs surged even harder with all the excitement. We left Willow Lake and followed a short quiet portage trail through the birch trees. When we popped out on the next lake, there were hundreds of people partying like they were in the parking lot of a Packers game. They came on snowmobiles instead of cars, handing mushers hot dogs and beverages. This party scene went on for a couple hours until we got about 20 miles away from the start. That is when the Iditarod starts to feel like a wilderness race.
From Willow, we wind our way through several lakes until we connect with the Susitna River Drainage and its tributaries and we start to follow the big rivers as we wind our way towards the first checkpoint of Yentna Station. The team stayed in the lead position until just before Yentna Station, we rounded a corner on the river to a huge bonfire party with several hundred snowmobilers or “snowmachiners” as Alaskans say. This party had a deep fat fryer going and they were deep fat frying turkey drumsticks. I was handed a piping hot turkey drumstick like a baton as I rolled by. I wolfed down the delicious treat and then noticed a team ripping up the trail behind me. Having 1000 miles to go, I was in no hurry and pulled the team over to let Ryan Redington pass while kicking to help his team move faster. No big deal, I knew we would see him later.
The team pulled into Yentna Station, roughly 40 miles into the race. At checkpoints we have to do gear checks and sign in and out if we are leaving. My team was not patient at all and banged and screamed to keep going. I signed a few autographs and then signed out. Ryan was camped at the checkpoint, so we were once again the first team rolling down the trail towards Skwentna Checkpoint. The plan was to run about 50 miles (which takes about 6 hours) and stop the team along the trail for a 3-4 hour rest. Just after sunset, we found a nice spot on the river and pulled off into the deep snow to make our camp. During this stop I got the dogs fed and cared for and then let them rest on a nice bed of biodegradable straw bedding. Once the dogs are all cared for, I can eat something myself. In this case, I used some of the boiling water from the dog cooker to make a hot Heather’s Choice dinner. I slid the food into my beaver mitten to keep it warm for 20 minutes while I massaged the dogs.
I stayed at the first camp for about three and a half hours before putting a fresh set of booties on the dogs and then pulling the hook. We rolled into the checkpoint of Skwentna where they again checked to make sure I had my mandatory gear of an axe, cold weather sleeping bag, extra dog booties, snowshoes, gps spot tracker and veterinary book, in which vets keep record of each dog’s health throughout the race. Once gear was checked, I signed out as the fourth team heading down the trail towards Finger Lake. Again, I planned to run about 50 miles total before resting the dogs. This put me about 10 miles before Finger Lake Checkpoint and split the entire distance from the start to Rainy Pass into a little under 150 miles. It is nice to camp the dogs on the trail early in the race as checkpoints are extremely busy with all the mushers and also spectators. It is easier to get a good rest for the dogs and myself on the trail. We camped here for 4 hours before heading on towards Finger Lake. We reached Finger Lake at 9 am and quickly checked out to head towards Rainy Pass. At this point we were starting to fall back a bit in the pack like I had expected. I had planned to start pretty mellow and try to maintain that pace for the entire race. We left Finger Lake in 15th position.
This section of trail is one of the most beautiful sections as we start our ascent into the Alaska Range. Right after Finger Lake is the notorious Happy River Steps. Here the trail drops quickly to the Happy River in a series of sharp switchbacks cut into the deep snowy hillside. Maneuvering a sled around a 180 degree turn with 16 dogs can be an extreme challenge. Team Squid, rolled around the corners smoothly and I somehow kept the sled upright while I talked calmly to the dogs to keep them from going too fast on their way to the bottom. Once we dropped onto the Happy River, it was time to let out some primal screams of enjoyment and that got the dogs all fired up for the climb back out of the Happy River Valley. We pulled into Rainy Pass in the early afternoon sun and decided to stay there for a few hours to let the dogs rest in the sun. Sled dogs are still very tied to the circadian rhythms of their wolf ancestors. They prefer to run in the middle of the night and early in the morning, but not so much in the afternoon. Because of this, we try to maximize night and morning run times and allow them to stretch out on sunny warm afternoons to rest.
We left Rainy Pass in 20th place at 5:30 pm as the sun started to fall behind the mountains. The dogs looked amazing as we climbed for a couple hours above tree line into Rainy Pass. The alpenglow on the mountains was amazing and gave one of the most magnificent views of the Alaska Range. We had a strong headwind which was helpful at cooling the dogs down. Our Alaskan Huskies are best suited to running in temperatures around or below zero. Temperatures this year, were much warmer than that for the entire race. It is important that dogs don’t get to warm and so wind was always welcome. You could see the dogs enjoyed running into the brisk breeze. The veteran dogs also knew what was about to come. As we crested the rocky outcropping that is known as Rainy Pass right at dusk, the dogs surged forward with their nocturnal instincts kicking in. On the back side we started to head down into what is known as the Dalzell Gorge on our descent to Rohn. The Dalzell Gorge is a tight, steep canyon which contains a small creek that has lots of open holes and lots of ice and rocks. It is an unforgiving place to be a dog musher. This year we were lucky to have a good base of snow, so there were less rocks to bang into, but it was still one of the wildest rides I have had on a dogsled. The dogs seem to know when they can take advantage of me and know when I cannot slow them down. In these moments they drive that car like they stole it and we pinball our way through the gorge. At some point, I was standing on my sled brake with both feet and it caught a rock and broke some bolts that held the brake to the sled. I was suddenly brakeless. I had no way to stop the dogs. The dogs sensed the lack of braking and surged forward again with more power down steep shoots and around almost 90 degree turns on glare ice over open holes in the creek. In these moments, one has to summon the words of Ceaser Millan and be calm and assertive. I loudly yet calmly say the word EASY over and over. The dogs have been taught in training that this means to slow down, they were obviously having the time of their life though and so we plummeted faster into the depths of the gorge.
It was extremely dark at this point and so all I could see was the tunnel of light from my headlamp. Up ahead I could see the canyon walls were lit up by spotlights. I recognized this as the Iditarod Insider camera crew and knowing that they like to film very challenging sections of the trail, I puckered up a bit and got ready for chaos. We came around the corner into the bright lights. The stream we were following dropped below a huge solid ice bridge ahead and the trail breakers had built a snow ramp along a canyon wall so the team could get up onto that ice bridge. At the top of this bridge the trail turned abruptly 90 degrees and crossed the creek. My team was amped by the camera crew and lights and we raced up this obstacle at an outrageous speed. As the team turned to go over the bridge it was apparent that my wheel dogs (the back two dogs) and my sled were not going to clear the hole into the creek below. I quickly tipped the sled onto one runner and attempted to run around the hole. Instead, I flipped the sled and got drug a long way, while calmly and assertively yelling WHOA to stop the team. They finally came to a stop when my sled got caught on a gnarly hunk of ice. I jumped up, flipped up my sled and we were once again flying towards Rohn.
I had not originally planned to stop at Rohn (28 miles from Rainy Pass), but rather had planned to run about 50 miles before camping, splitting the 100 miles to Nikolai in half. Plans change however, and I now had a broken brake on my sled and two dogs that were a bit sore from the intense run down the gorge. I decided it would be best to stop at Rohn to take some time massaging the dogs before heading on and it sure would be nice to fix my brake. After a few hours at Rohn, I decided to drop Nova for having a bit of a sore wrist. On races, we are allowed to drop dogs. This meant he got transported by race volunteers and veterinarians back to Anchorage where he is sent home to be cared for by our handlers and friends. I fixed up my brake with the repair kit I had in my sled and we were in business and back on the trail towards Nikolai at about 2 in the morning. Once again leaving in 20th position. The trail to Nikolai goes through what is called the Buffalo Tunnels and Farewell Burn. On a low snow year this can be a real sled busting section of trail, but this year it was smooth sailing. At least until I fell asleep on my sled. I woke up being drug upside down in 4 foot of snow. It was a wild way to wake up and I popped my head out of the snow to realize I had steered the sled off the trail when I fell asleep and rolled it. The dogs gave me the look like, “pull it together dude.” I sat back on my sled and enjoyed some snacks to wake up, including some Heather’s Choice espresso packaroons. They were great energy and helped me stay awake the rest of that run. On the trail, we pulled up behind our friend and favorite, Aliy Zirkle. The dogs enjoyed “chasing” her team for an hour or so. The dogs were so amped, that I considered following her all the way into Nikolai, but instead we camped roughly 55 miles from Rohn and I crawled into my bivy sack and attempted to take a short nap. I’m a light sleeper and being that my head was only about 3 feet from the trail, it was hard for me to catch many zzz’s when each team that rolled by sounded like a freight train on the packed trail. Imagine sixty-four feet pounding the trail from 16 loudly panting dogs, each with their collar tags jingling.
My alarm went off and I stuck my head out of the bivy and into a snow storm. I jumped up and quickly got the dogs bootied to head on towards Nikolai. The trail to Nikolai was full of fun. Huge pits in the trail were full of overflow water, sometimes a foot deep or more. We had no option, but to go through them. The dogs are used to going through water and it was warm enough that it barely iced up, so it was not a problem. My boots slowly became sponges that turned into iceballs. The snow and wind created almost white out conditions on the way to Nikolai, the dogs struggled to find a packed trail at times, but we slowly worked our way towards Nikolai. This slow path forward would become the norm for the rest of the trip to Nome.
Nikolai to Takotna
Nikolai is a native village on the banks of the Kuskokwim River 263 miles from the start of the race. The community was very welcoming of the mushers and we were allowed to get a warm meal and rest at the school. I was now a quarter of the way through the race and I hadn’t really slept for more than a few minutes at a time in the past 2 days. That combined with wet boots and bibs, made the decision to take a longer rest here very easy. I decided to stay for 6 hours and was able to get 2 full hours of sleep, 2 warm meals and all of my clothes dried out. The dogs also enjoyed a longer break in the afternoon heat. Boss Hogg didn’t seem like he was having much fun anymore, so I left him there to go back home. I pulled the snowhook (anchor that holds a dog team) at about 8 pm in a blizzard that made us fell as if we were in a shaken snow globe and headed down the trail towards McGrath. Our longer rest dropped us back in the standings a bit to 28th position.
The trail was blown in for the majority of the run to McGrath. Snow varied from a few inches to close to a foot at times depending on drifting. The dogs charged through the snow as once again their nocturnal instincts kicked in and the wind whipped in their faces. They seem to thrive in these conditions and I love running dogs in challenging conditions. It is when the team really comes together. We work as a unit to get through the challenges and it is one of the main reasons I love competing in these events. Our plan for this run was to run on to McGrath, 50 miles down the trail. If things were going well, we could sign out and continue another 18 miles to Takotna where we would stay for our mandatory 24 hour layover. The dogs charged into McGrath at nearly 3 am and we signed out and dropped onto the Kuskokwim River in 16th position. The run into Takotna was flawless, the dogs surged in the cool night air and the trail firmed up and snow stopped blowing, at least for the moment. We arrived in Takotna at 5 am and declared out 24-hour mandatory rest.
Takotna to Iditarod
In Iditarod there are mandatory rest stops that every musher must take. We are required to take a 24-hour rest at the checkpoint of our choice. We are also required to take an 8-hour break at a checkpoint of our choice on the Yukon River and another 8-hour rest at White Mountain. All mushers take much more rest than this at checkpoints or on the trail at their own discretion depending on what the team needs. The 24-hour layover is usually taken by teams somewhere around the 300 to 500-mile mark of the race. It gives the dogs a chance to refuel and reboot before heading into tougher portions of the trail later on. The 24 is also the equalizer of the race. At the start of the race, each person starts in 2-minute increments to spread mushers out. At the 24-hour layover, we must add this time differential to our 24-hour layover. Being that I was the first of 68 mushers starting the race. I had a time differential of 2 hours and 16 minutes added to my layover while the last team to start had no time added to their 24-hour layover. I welcomed the longer 26-hour rest and was looking forward to some naps and lots of food.
During this long rest for the dogs, they get feed 3-4 meals and lots of snacks. They all were checked over carefully for any muscle soreness, feet issues, rubs from harnesses and any other ailments by myself and a team of veterinarians. Any dog with any muscle soreness was massaged heavily about every 5 hours and I put special warmers on them for therapy. I would then get them up and trot them around on a leash every few hours as well to keep them limber and not allow them to get to stiff. About 20 hours into our rest the team looked like they were ready to roll again and instead of resting they began playing with their neighbors. A very good sign.
We left Takotna and hit the trail towards Ophir. The distance to Iditarod Checkpoint was roughly 100 miles, so the plan was to go through Ophir checkpoint and run about 50 miles and camp at roughly the half way point. The dogs were amped to be back on the trail and we crushed the hills out of Takotna with impressive force. My GPS said they were running at 11 mph up hill. Once we were headed downhill towards Ophir, I had to slow them down with my brake to keep them from going to fast. They charged hard against my resistance and came into Ophir barking. We stopped to sign in and out and the dogs were going crazy barking, screaming and harness banging to leave. Hugh Neff, pulled out in front of me as I signed out and we followed him for a few minutes and then he pulled over so I could pass him. Somehow during that pass, Kobe did something that made him start to limp. I pulled over to check his booties and stretch him out. He didn’t appear to have anything wrong, so we continued another mile. His limp became more pronounced and now I had a choice, I was only about 2 miles past Ophir, I could either turn around and go back and drop Kobe or I could put him in my sled bag and move forward another 80ish miles to Iditarod. This was a gamble, but my thought was that maybe he just got a little muscle cramp since it was right after the 24-hour layover and they were overworking since they were excited to be running. I thought that if I put him in the sled, he would get another 3-4 hours of rest while we ran to our campsite and then I could massage him while he rested another 3-4 hours and then hopefully he would be okay. I chose that option and quickly moved my gear around in my sled to make room for the 60 pound dog. In the process, I jerked hard on my sled bag zipper and the zipper broke, leaving me with my bag hanging open on one side. A few profanities came out of my mouth, but then I clipped the three straps that help compress the bag, patted Kobe on the head and said, “alright, let’s go”. The team flew forward like nothing was different. These are the moments where you just have to say yourself, “keep going forward and everything will work out”. It usually does.
The morning was clear and cold, around 10 degrees F, the coldest temps we had had to this point in the race. As we got to early afternoon, it warmed up and the sky started to turn black in almost every direction. We camped at the halfway point under a sucker hole of blue sky. I went through my routine of feeding the dogs, massaged Kobe while another fine meal from Heathers Choice steeped in my Beaver Mitt and then I crawled into my Bivy and slurped down my meal. An hour and a half later I was up and getting packed. You could see that snow was falling in the west and the light had become very grey and flat. I trotted Kobe around on a leash to see that he was limber and ready to roll again, my plan had worked. I found a few zip ties in my sled that I carry for repairs and put small slits in my sled bag and then zip tied the bag along the broken zipper and created myself a Frankenstein of a bag. Good enough to get to Nome I thought. Only another 550 miles or so!
We left in the early evening light toward the gold rush ghost town of Iditarod. The majority of the trail in this section was open taiga and tundra which meant the trail was blown and drifted in with a few inches of snow. When we got near drainages, the trees would come back and the trail was protected and hard and fast. On the other side you would pop out into the openness and more deep, drifted trail. The dogs did well in these conditions, our speed slowed, but they were strong and steady. As the run went on into the darkness of night, the snow and wind picked up, wiping any perceivable remnant of a trail away. I shined my 1500 lumen headlamp towards the next trail marker reflector so that the dogs would know the correct direction to head, but they didn’t really need that. The leaders have this amazing ability, call it a sixth sense. They can feel the solid trail surface below the drifted snow and know where to step so that they won’t fall into the deeper snow while travelling at 7 mph. A good leader doesn’t need any help in these conditions, but the team seems to get excited every time another reflector flashes off in the distance from the light of my headlamp. It gives us another goal to shoot for, moving one reflector at a time towards Nome. The run to Iditarod took longer than I had expected, we arrived at about midnight, taking something like 7 hours to cover 50ish miles. Not bad considering the conditions.
Iditarod to Shageluk
When we reached the halfway point of Iditarod, the wind was swirling good. Once again, we were living in a snow globe. The dogs came in strong, but it was a tough run. I decided to give them a longer rest and also try to get some rest myself since there was a heated cabin for mushers to sleep in. I quickly got my chores done and took advantage of the veterinarians at the checkpoint and had them do a thorough check over of all the dogs to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I still had 14 of my 16 dogs and they were all doing very well. I woke up at about 4:30 am to a pretty intense blizzard outside and noticed that the majority of the teams had left while I was sleeping. I decided I had better get ready so that I could leave close to the remaining teams and may have a somewhat broken trail to follow. Norwegian musher and adventurer, Lars Monsen, pulled the hook at 5:30 and I finished my bootying and pulled the hook 8 minutes after him. I chuckled to myself thinking we’d have it easy following so closely and we’d likely catch him soon. Boy was I wrong. The trail was instantly nonexistent. We once again moved along a hidden path marked by flashes from the reflectors. This time, the snow was nearly a foot deep. The dogs worked hard in this snow and we moved along at a slow and steady rate up and down the much hillier and wooded terrain. At daylight we came into some large open areas again and the trail not only disappeared on us, but so did the trail markers. The dogs amazed me with their ability to stay on that hidden packed base below the surface. Still, at times they would lose it and I’d have to stumble around post holing up to my crotch until I could find another marker or more solid base. Sometimes the only clue I had was a dog booty from a previous team that had been sucked off in the deep snow and was barely poking from the surface. We fought our way through a couple of these areas, finding the trail on the other side going back into the trees. I was relieved to find the impromptu camps in the trees where other teams had struggled and stopped to rest, it meant others were going through the same hardships and that made me feel better. We got back into the trees and the trail became more defined and solid, we cranked for a few miles until we came to a BLM shelter cabin. Here the trail was blocked by a bunch of teams and snowmachines that had weathered out the storm. I debated stopping at the cabin and giving them a rest since it was roughly half way to Shageluk. Since the dogs were cruising so nice, I decided to keep them moving and hopefully make it to Shageluk in one run of about 60 miles. This was easier said than done.
The trail quickly went back to the foot deep blown in mess we had seen before. Now for much longer sections. The temperatures were warming to around thirty degrees. A bit warm. There were several groups of tourists following the race on snowmachines that were passing us now. Each machine that passed drove their machines where they perceived the trail to be at. Unfortunately, not necessarily the actual trail base. The dogs then followed in the path made by the snowmachines as it gave them something to follow visually. There was no solid base though, and they were basically swimming in several feet of soft snow. Even though I, as the musher know better, the dogs will not try to find a hidden base when they can see a path ahead of them. The dogs struggled on towards Shageluk and I could tell that if I ran them the entire way, I’d be sorry. I decided to pull over early and camp the dogs. I had an extra dog meal for this occasion. I did not want to carry extra weight in these conditions, so I did not bring straw for bedding. It was warm however, and the dogs seemed to enjoy laying on the cool snow. I put their puffy jackets on them so they had a barrier from the snow and gave a few dogs some spruce boughs as extra bedding. The dogs took about 4 hours rest here on the side of the trail. I figured we were roughly 10 miles outside Shageluk. I decided that we would run to Shageluk and if the dogs looked good and trail got better, we may continue on towards Anvik and possibly even Grayling. At this campsite, we had a few interactions with racers from the Iditarod Invitational human powered race. Two guys on fatbikes came by, later followed by a couple walkers pulling sleds and we all chatted about how “fun” these trail conditions were. We called each other crazy for doing these kinds of races and they went on their way. We would see them all again.
I got the dogs up to run into Shageluk and it was Aggie’s turn to run up in lead. She drove forward hard in the deep snow with enthusiasm, but that inability to pace herself caused her to get a sore triceps muscle. She wanted to run forward in lead still, but she had a noticeable limp and so I put her in the sled bag for the remainder of the ride. Luckily, she was my smallest and lightest dog since the conditions were not better. The snow had now stopped and the sky was clearing which was a welcome site, but the trail was still soft and nasty. On this run the entire team seemed physically worked. They did not seem as happy and seemed pretty stiff. The last run from Iditarod had been difficult and so instead of passing through Shageluk, I decided to take advantage of the vet staff at the checkpoint and have them look everybody over good. I also wanted to spend some time massaging Aggie, hoping that she would be able to continue with me.
Shageluk to Grayling
In Shag, the dogs were all looked over by some great vets and didn’t find anything wrong with them. Aggie was still stiff and sore and so I decided to drop her and send her home so she wouldn’t get any long-lasting injury. At Anvik, the race officials notified us that the checkpoint of Eagle Island wouldn’t be an actual checkpoint this year as they were not able to get the straw and drop bags to the remote location in time for teams. We would be responsible for carrying our food and straw from Grayling for the 120 mile stretch to Kaltag. Not a huge deal, but definitely a change of plans. We left Shageluk after 4 hours rest and headed out into the cool evening air. Some of my leaders, especially Sullivan, were crabby with me after the tough trail conditions and were now messing around more than moving forward. I quickly switched my most reliable leader, Neko, into single lead and we hit stride on the now solid trail surface on the frozen Innoko River. The team looked good as we ran about 2 hours to the village of Anvik. Here we grabbed a bale of straw and drop bag food in case we would need it for the run from Grayling to Kaltag. We signed out and hit the trail again on our way to Grayling, reaching the checkpoint at 5 am.
Grayling to Kaltag
In Grayling I planned to do my mandatory 8-hour break that we have to take at a checkpoint on the Yukon River and to give them a nice rest and see if I could get their spirits a bit higher. You cannot make a dog team run. They have to want to and if the morale of the team starts to get low, you better make some changes. Once you lose their trust, they may not go. I had a few dogs in the team that were starting to show signs that they were not having fun mentally after those tough trail conditions. Unfortunately for me, they were a couple of my main leaders. I thought giving them a nice long break here would help immensely. I also decided that Sullivan would be dropped for this reason. He had shown in my wife’s team a month earlier that his low morale can spread easily to the team, and if he wasn’t having fun running, he was no help to the team. I decided he should go home even though there was no physical reason to drop him. I needed my team to be made up of the happy go getters for the rest of this race. My mandatory eight-hour break finished at 1 pm. At this time the temperatures were above freezing and the sun was beating down like we were at the beach. I packed my sled, but the dogs looked so cozy all stretched out in the sun. Like I mentioned before, mid afternoon is a horrible time to run huskies, especially when the sun is hot. I talked with 4 time champion, Jeff King, who had just arrived at the checkpoint and he said there wasn’t a breeze on the river and conditions were hot. I decided to wait a bit and see if it cooled down. At 2:30 pm, the sky started to cloud up and I decided to hit the trail again. Neko led the team solo out onto the Yukon River and we started our way towards Kaltag, a little over 120 miles of Yukon River away.
The Yukon River is an amazing place. At this point on the river, it is sometimes a mile wide with a few large island and multiple channels in spots. Some mushers say this stretch is boring, but not for me. It is extremely beautiful and can be extremely harsh if the wind is blowing. It brings about thoughts of summer work in the area, working with subsistence salmon fisherman. I can see the river through my summer eyes and it makes it more special, just as seeing those areas in the summer and thinking of running my dog team on the frozen river makes that experience more special. I often day dream what it would be like to live on the river 150 years ago, travelling with dogs and fishing to survive. We passed many little islands covered only with short stubby willow branches and I joked with the dogs that they looked like porcupine islands.
I carried enough supplies so I could either camp once and do two runs or I could camp twice and do three runs to Kaltag. The conditions were a bit soft and I had expected them to get worse towards Kaltag and so I decided to do the later. The dogs were looking good and I kind of lost track of time and distance and then we passed Ryan Redington camped on the trail, I looked down at my GPS and saw that we were exactly 40 miles into the run. It was a good reminder that we would need to camp soon if we planned to split this section into three equal runs. I found the next available side snowmachine track to use as a pull off and called the team over to camp here. The dogs rolled around in the snow and wagged their tails, knowing the routine well. We were home for the next couple hours. Soon after pulling over, the Iditarod Insider camera crew showed up and asked if they could film me while settling the dogs in and do a little interview. It is quite the strange feeling to be 600 some miles into the Alaskan wilderness and have a camera crew complete with big lights interviewing us about our race. I tried to use the most coherent thoughts possible, but at this point a musher is a little slap happy. Who knows if I made any sense to the camera crew, the dogs knew what I was saying though and that was all I cared about.
We got back on the trail after a 4-hour break and moved towards Eagle Island. They were not able to get the supplies there in time for it to be a normal checkpoint, but it was still a hospitality stop and they still routed the trail through it for mushers to sign in and out. Neko and Chevelle led the team with gusto into Eagle Island. They harness banged and screamed as I quickly grabbed a few bottles of cooker fuel from the checker and then signed out. We use alcohol cookers on the race to melt the snow into water for dogs and myself. While Eagle Island didn’t have normal checkpoint bags, they did have a veterinarian and bottles of cooker fuel for mushers.
We dropped back onto the Yukon River down a steep chute off the Island and rolling towards Kaltag again. Things seemed really good, but my luck was about to change. The trail started to be a bit more blown in here. The dogs were still moving good, but the trail was softer and a bit punchy in areas. Punchy trails are when the dogs’ feet are punching through the harder surface into softer snow below. It is difficult traveling for dogs when this occurs and it makes them more prone to injuries especially shoulders and hind end injuries. I tried to keep the dogs slow and easy through this section so that wouldn’t happen. Up ahead I could see the snowmachine lights of the Iditarod Insider crew. It looked like they were getting set up to get some video of the team as we passed. Sure enough a few minutes later we came upon the camera crew in the dark and suddenly they switched on a strobe light while they had the camera on the edge of the trail to get some super cool special effect of the team passing. My team barked and then lurched forward erratically to the surprise of the strobe light and suddenly my leader, Neko, started limping. I pulled over and checked her over and she had slight muscle knot in her triceps. I remember cursing out loud at our luck of such a silly reason for a dog to suddenly pull a muscle. I decided to put her in the sled bag and carry her so she would get rested and hopefully be okay to continue. I moved Sable up to lead with Chevelle and we continued on for another couple hours until we saw the headlamp of a musher camped again a little way in front of us. Once again, a good reminder that we needed to camp again soon. I looked at the GPS and we were right at 80 miles or 2/3 of the way to Kaltag.
I pulled into another side snowmachine path in some soft snow and we set up camp. I fed the dogs as usual and spent a good deal of time massaging Neko’s muscles to make sure she limbered up and would be good to go. I ate a meal myself and crawled into my bivy for a nap. I awoke to a crazy muscle spasm and cramps in my back and started screaming in pain. I laid in the bivy in pain for another half hour before I attempted to get up. I struggled to my knees and tried to put away my gear, crawling around for what seemed like forever until my sled was packed. Next was the hard part. I needed to get 12 dogs booted which is one of the more painful things when your back is sore. I crawled from dog to dog until all 48 booties were on. It was early morning and while there was a band of light on the horizon, it was still very dark at my campsite. The snow was very deep between the side trail I was on and the main trail. Instead of pulling the leaders over to the main trail through the deep snow and getting right back on the main trail, I thought I would just follow the snowmachine track forward as they almost always come right back to the main trail. I put Neko in single lead to see how her shoulder was doing and she instantly started to barking and whining to go. Uncle Jessie joined in and I said, “READY, LET’S GO!”. We shot forward on the side trail and the snow became punchier and deeper, the dogs were sinking in to their chests. I encouraged them and we moved slowly on for almost 10 minutes, but we weren’t coming back to the main trail. I shined my light over in the direction it should be and could not see it in the grey twilight of morning. I encouraged the dogs forward, but they were struggling and starting to question what I was thinking. Neko strained forward to pull the team forward, but I could tell her limp was still with her. After about some 20 minutes of this, it was clear that this trail was not going back to the main trail anytime soon. I could see the markers of the main trail about 200 yards from us and so I asked Neko to take the team off trail back toward the main trail. The snow off trail was up to my waste and the team fought through it in stints of a few minutes each. They were demoralized and a little peeved with me and so it was time for me to lead by example. I dropped the snowhooks in the sugar snow as anchors to slow them down and started breaking through the deep snow on foot back toward the main trail. The team followed slowly behind until we hit the main trail. I stopped here and apologized to the team for my poor choice. That was not the way to start out this run and I praised them all and thanked them for getting us back on track. I put Neko back in the sled bag and then decided to put Uncle Jessie up in lead with Nukluk. Anna Berington came up from behind and passed and the team began to follow or “chase” her for the next few miles on the more solid main trail. At some point, Nukluk decided that she was still a little annoyed with my mistake and decided she didn’t want to lead with Uncle Jessie. The group dynamics of the dog team can be very fragile at this point in a race. If you put dogs next to each other that don’t get along, they will not move forward but instead may shut the team down. I tried Chevelle in lead with Jessie, and she said “nah.. no thanks”. So I tried, Cuda instead of Jessie and they ran a few miles before they both declined the position. I then put Atigun in lead with Cuda and that didn’t go much better, so I moved Cuda back in the team and ran Atigun in single lead, which she usually does quite well. This time, after a couple miles she decided it might be more fun to turn around and start a fight with the swing dogs.
With my main leader, Neko, in the sled bag, there was only one dog that could make this train move forward. Little Sable, was called upon. She is something of a legend around here. She is 7 years old and since the age of 2 has run both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod each year. She has run twelve 1000-mile races and only been dropped from one for being sick. She has led the team into Nome multiple times. She is a little dog and leading is not her passion. She doesn’t drive hard, but she loves us and will do anything we ask. I try not to make her go in lead until it is necessary, but it was necessary. I moved her and Uncle Jessie back to lead and we once again rolled forward like a well-oiled machine. The team was happy to follow, they just didn’t want the hard job. Jessie just started running lead this year and was a bit unsure, but with lots of encouragement he rolled along. As we got close to the village of Kaltag, I could recognize the landscape and knew we were almost there. I could see 2 little dots moving on the river in front of us and saw that we were catching up with Rick Casillo and Anna Berrington. I gave the command “let’s go home”. This command means that we can speed up and get to camp because it’s almost rest time! The team picked up speed and were excited to get to the next checkpoint.
Kaltag to Unalakleet
We rolled up the bank in Kaltag at 2 pm. I work in Kaltag in the summer and within a few minutes of arriving, I was able to visit with my Kaltag friends. Earl, Calvin and Robert all happened to stop in at the checkpoint to say hi. It was comforting to chat with some folks I know, so far from home and not having the best of days. After the rough start from the previous camp, I decided that I really needed Neko to be healthy if we were to have a good run along the coast. The coast is notorious for extreme winds that will shut a team down in their tracks. I decided we would do a long rest here, letting the dogs get the chance to fully recuperate physically and mentally. The dogs enjoyed two meals at Kaltag while basking in the hot afternoon sun and I enjoyed a nice nap on a cot inside. My back was still bothering me badly and it was nice to get off the ground for a nap. I walked all the dogs before leaving and found Neko to be looking good, but Daisy had a sore wrist that was bothering her and she was not having fun anymore. I decided it would be in her best interest to be dropped and head home. We pulled the hook and headed towards the Bering Sea coast at the village of Unalakleet.
The Kaltag Portage as this section of trail is a called is a little over 80 miles. There are two BLM shelter cabins along this route that are available for use. I had originally hoped to run this section straight but wanted to make sure all the dogs were moving happily and healthily. I decided to pack like we would camp at Old Woman cabin which was basically half way to Unalakleet. The dogs left Kaltag smoothly with Neko once again up in lead, this time with Sable as her side kick. They were back to their happy selves after the 9 hours of rest at Kaltag and we rolled into Old Woman quicker than expected. I was half tempted to keep them rolling all the way into Unalakleet, but thought I better keep us in check and so we stopped for the third year in a row at Old Woman. Rick Casillo, Anna Berington and Martin Buser were all camped at Old Woman and so the cabin was warm and inviting. We took a short break here and got on the trail at first light, trying to beat the heat of day.
At this point, my back was knotted mess. I had nerve pains running down my leg and I struggled to do almost anything. Pain like this causes nothing but crabbiness. On top of that, Tanto was tired and struggling to keep up with the team. I decided to load him in the sled and give him a break. This run took what seemed like forever. This section is outstandingly beautiful and usually one of my favorite stretches of trail. I just couldn’t get past the pain and it was tainting my attitude and the attitude of my team. In my head, my team was falling apart, it was the worst run ever, a few of my dogs had gotten a bug and every thought I had was that of the end. I rolled into Unalakleet with a dooms day view of the world and thought my race was for sure over. I told the race official that I was likely going to scratch from the race and she said, get some sleep and some food and I agreed. You never want to make a decision during a race before you sleep on it. Give it some time and you’ll see things better.
Things were already looking up, an old friend was in town for work and was at the checkpoint to welcome me in with her homemade Squid sign. It was awesome to see friendly smiling face 800 miles down the trail. After getting the dogs settled in, I sat with Sally and tried to lose the negativity that had struck me. A plate full of pancakes, bacon and some fresh pizza helped immensely and now I settled in for a couple hours of hard sleep. I awoke rejuvenated and loaded up on coffee before heading down to check on the dogs. They were all basking in the afternoon sun and looked quite perky and happy. I gave them a snack and decided the world was not ending. We would roll onto Nome no matter what. I now knew we could do this. I’m not sure what the hang up with Unalakleet was. Over the years of racing Iditarod, my wife and I have experienced some hard times here in Unalakleet, but those stories were the past, it was time to move forward. That is the key to racing and is my biggest takeaway from the dogs. To live in the present. To always move forward with a positive attitude.
Unalakleet to Shaktoolik
We left Unalakleet at 9:30 pm and rolled north on the icy lagoon towards the Blueberry Hills. This section is amazingly beautiful in the daylight. In the dark, I was confined to my tunnel of light thrown by my headlamp. The dogs moved slow but steady as we started to climb the Blueberry Hills. The best part about running this section in the dark is that we were at the top of the biggest climb before I even knew it. The dogs stomped those hills and suddenly we dropped onto another icy lagoon and were instantly hit with a 40-50 mph headwind and a ground blizzard. In my tired haze I realized that we had just finished the hills and were just outside Shaktoolik. I stopped the team and quickly threw fur ruffs on the dogs’ undersides to protect their boy parts and thinly furred flanks from the biting windchill and then threw another layer of clothing on myself. I called the dogs forward and they charged into the wind like it was fun. The wind before and after Shaktoolik can be horrendous and has stopped more than one team in the tracks over the years. The trail was completely blown in and was quite deep in places. The dogs once again searched for the bright flashes of the reflectors off in the distance as my headlamp would hit them. A little while later the lights of Shaktoolik started to appear. At first they appear as one small dot of light and then it grows and grows until you realize there is a town straight ahead. The dogs recognized that as a sign that we’d be stopping soon. We crawled off the lagoon and up onto the small spit of land and then along the roadway into town. There were drifts on the street that were 2 feet deep and the wind was relentless. We pulled into the checkpoint around 4 am and they found us a semi-sheltered place to camp on the beach behind a big snow berm. I put puffy coats on all the dogs and they quickly curled up tight to conserve their heat. Temperatures were still pretty mild and, in the twenties, but the wind made things a bit chilly for us all. I knew we might be here awhile looking at the conditions. The next section of trail is one of the most exposed. Teams run out onto the sea ice of Norton Sound to travel to Koyuk. Once the dogs were settled in, I went into the checkpoint building to get a nap.
Shaktoolik checkpoint is one of the tiniest buildings on the entire race, Mushers, volunteers and vets must all share the space. It is about a 20 x 40 foot building with a tarp hanging from the ceiling in the middle as a divider for the sleeping area. There must have been twenty mushers trying to nap in the back half of the building and I found a spot barely big enough to squeeze my body into in a fetal position with one musher poking his feet into my back and another spooning me. It was a little awkward, but my tired body and mind didn’t care and I quickly passed out for a snooze. A couple hours later I got up to check on the dogs and the conditions. A few mushers had left into the 30+ mph blizzard, but many were dragging their feet. I saw past champion Martin Buser go back to sleep and that was my sign that I too, would give the dogs and myself a bit more rest and see if the winds chilled out a bit. Reports from GPS trackers on teams that left early were all over the board on how things were going out there. Nic Petit had lost his lead position while going way off course, other teams had stopped on the ice or at the shelter cabin. Some teams made it look easy and some were crashing and burning.
After the dogs had gotten 6 hours of rest, I hemmed and hawed over whether to leave or stay. Conditions were very windy still with lots of new falling snow. Visibility was limited. Teams slowly were filtering out of the checkpoint and according to their trackers, they were moving slowly but steadily on the sea ice. I finally decided to leave at 4:30 pm. There is a shelter cabin about 15 miles away when you drop onto the sea ice, a good option if needed. I threw in an extra meal for dogs and myself in case we would have any issues.
Shak to Koyuk
I put Neko and Sable up in lead for this run. I knew they would do good and had confidence that these ladies were the right choice. The dogs charged out of the checkpoint and moved nicely into the wind that was still whipping into our faces. There was no sign of a trail, even though other teams had left right in front of us. The dogs moved along as if that didn’t matter. Snow was blowing in their faces and the trail was getting deeper, but they charged into the wind. As darkness took over, the dogs and I squinted into the wind to find the next markers flashing off in the distance. We would pass one marker and then go forward a short distance before catching a glimpse of the next. Sometimes it felt like minutes passed with no marker in sight. I remember getting very nervous at those times and searching with my headlamp in all directions. Sometimes we were a bit off course and I would call them back in the direction of the markers and they followed my directional commands flawlessly back on course. This went on for hours. One time however, the dogs ended up following a random snowmachine track and we went several minutes without seeing a marker. Eventually I stopped and walked around a bit in the dark, looking for a marker. I thought about how the wind had been blowing in our face and we had been moving North Easterly the entire time. I knew at some point the trail was supposed to turn back to the left or North Westerly. I started walking with the wind on my right cheek, thinking that would take us toward Koyuk. I left one hook down and the dogs followed me slowly as the hook drug. I saw a flash in the distance and we were once again back on track. From then on it was like I was driving a car, one little command. “Over haw”, and they would veer slightly left. “Over gee”, moving slightly right. “Gee”, tighter right-hand turn. At this point in the race, the team and I had meshed into one organism winding our way across the frozen Bering Sea. The snow got deeper and at times the markers were just gone, but I was so stoked at the focus of this team. I hooted and hollered noises of joy and the dogs ate up the positive energy and charged on until we finally saw that little light off in the distance that was the village of Koyuk. They charged harder and the lights widened into what looked like someone’s house at Christmas and then it looked like a town and we were again at our home for the next few hours.
We pulled into Koyuk around midnight and the wind instantly died. Calm as can be, what a relief! I was super proud of the dogs and this was by far and most challenging and fun section of the race. I was in good spirits and I remember really having fun in Koyuk. Joking around with the vets and other mushers as we did our dog care. We were 800 some miles into the race and really feeling like we had hit our stride. Besides the back pain, I was really feeling comfortable on the trail now. To bad it would be over in a little over a day.
Koyuk to Elim
We left Koyuk at 9:35 am. I ended up dropping Kobe in Koyuk. He had developed a slight limp and it seemed that he had some muscle tenderness in his shoulder. You would have never known by his enthusiasm to pull, but it is my job to make sure that the dogs go home before they develop a chronic sports injury. We want these athletes in our teams for many years to come. I left with 10 dogs and started out along the edge of the Norton Sound sea ice, bouncing around between the big jumbled chunks of ice that broke up in an early winter storm and then refroze in a big tangled mess. A few miles outside of Koyuk, we started to climb up the bluffs and hills and away from the sea ice. Some years they route us on the ice, but a storm from a couple weeks earlier had broken up the ice horribly and it was not safe to go out around the bluffs on Norton Sound. We would have to run inland and have a hilly run from here to Nome. My back was still bothering me badly. Anytime I had to kick or run, I ended up having shooting pains run down my leg. When we hit the first steep hill, I kicked with one leg in pain to help the sled move up the hill. We hit a real steep pitch and the dogs ground to a halt. The team all looked back at me, like “come on buddy, you gotta help!”. Normally, I would have already been off the sled and running to lighten the load, but my back was so sore. I stepped off and pushed the sled for a second to get it moving again and then did my best to jog along with them. Nerve pain can crush the strongest of individuals. It wore not only on my body, but my mind. It was so hard to be happy and positive with so much pain. I found the happiest music I could find on my Ipod and tried to sing along in a happy tone. The dogs know when I’m down and it can spread to them, so I owed it to them to remain positive no matter how bad the pain was. These dogs bring out the best in us. They are such amazing animals with such amazing stamina and drive. I remember knowing that I was the weakest link of this team and feeling humbled and lucky to have the opportunity to join them on this adventure.
We came into Elim in the afternoon sun and settled the dogs in for nice break. It was refreshing to know that we had only two more runs ahead of us to the finish. The checkpoint of Elim was filled with children on spring break. It was fun to talk with the kids about mushing as I fed the dogs and massaged them. Many of them mentioned that their grandparents had been mushers long ago, but to their knowledge there was not currently a dog team in the village. It is awesome to be able to share something that has been such a big part of cultural history with these kids along the race.
Elim to White Mountain
After six hours at Elim, we pulled the hook and once again started climbing up the steep hills instead of going around the bluffs on the sea ice. The dogs were feeling good in the cool night air and we cranked out the hills. Before I knew it, I recognized that we had climbed to the top of the one of the more challenging hills on the race, “Little McKinley”. Just as we got to the top, the Aurora Borealis took off in a magnificent show. I got a little teary eyed at the intense beauty of what we were seeing and how lucky we were to be out there. My words cannot describe those feelings of these times. Travelling with dogs always brings out my emotional side. We came down the back side of these hills and could see the small light in the distance of the Village of Golovin. Golovin is not a checkpoint on the race, instead we just pass through quickly and drop onto to Golovin Bay. I was a little nervous about the wind on Golovin Bay as it had been some of the most intense winds I had ever experienced there last year. We were lucky, though to have just a slight wind and before we knew it we had rolled into the last checkpoint at the village of White Mountain with the coldest temps of the entire race down around -25 F. I thought I was just being wimpy or maybe just hallucinating a bit, but the race officials told me I wasn’t crazy, just cold.
White Mountain to Nome
At White Mountain, all teams are required to take an 8-hour mandatory layover. I arrived at 5 am and got the dogs settled in. There is just enough time in 8 hours to feed the dogs 2 meals with the second one being lighter so they aren’t to full to run. I retired to the city building that is our checkpoint and took a nap. In White Mountain we are also required to take a human drug test. The dogs are randomly tested throughout the race by vets who collect their urine at checkpoints for any performance enhancing drugs. We as humans are also tested here to make sure we don’t have an unfair advantage. I did my mandatory business and went back to the dogs. Here I went through all of my gear to lighten the load for the last run which was roughly 70 miles to Nome. There is one checkpoint at Safety Roadhouse that you can stop at if needed, but it is only 20ish miles from the finish, so most mushers don’t stop. I sent anything that I wouldn’t need home in my drop bags. Keeping only my mandatory gear. Dog coats, spare emergency clothing, usual meat snacks for dogs, one emergency meal for dogs, alcohol for the cooker, and two emergency meals for myself, in case we had to stop. To keep the load light I chose two Heather’s Choice meals. 2 packages of Salmon Chowder, I like the salmon chowder for these situations because it is the least spicy and is a creamy comfort food for times when the situation is not good. My stomach at the end of 10 days on the trail is a little more sensitive and this would hit the spot if needed. All of these items on this run were for emergency however, we had a date with my wife who was waiting in Nome and I did not want to be late. I also decided to remove the back portion or tail of my sled. This portion allows me to carry more gear farther back on the sled, which keeps steering easier and also allows me to sit and rest on long runs. With my back hurting, I was struggling to be able to kick and run to help the dogs. Taking the tail off, would lighten the load and allow me to kick and run behind the sled easier.
Our eight hours was over at 1pm, but once again the sun was beating down super-hot and the dogs were stretched out cozy on their straw. The next team couldn’t leave until 4 pm, so I decided to give the dogs a little longer to rest and we’d leave about ½ hour before that team and still beat them to Nome. The dogs were very happy to hang a little longer. At 3:15 the sun was still very intense but there was a cold breeze. I put on a healthy lather of sunscreen and put on my lightest clothes, leaving my cold weather bibs and coats accessible on top of my sled just in case, and we departed towards Nome.
The first part of this trail goes through what is known at the Topkok Hills. It is a very hilly section and is completely exposed to the elements. No trees, so no shade from the sun and no protection from the wind if it decided to blast us. On this day, our problem was the sun, we stopped often giving the dogs a chance to roll in the snow and stay cool. We’d climb a steep hill and then stop at the top for a minute to cool down, then we’d roll down the other side, climb again and rest. We continued this roller coaster ride for several miles until we finally dropped down the last hill down towards the coast onto a tiny spit of land between the Bering Sea and the lagoons behind. This area is completely exposed and the winds tend to funnel down through this zone earning it the name of the “Blow Hole”.
When the wind is blowing here things can get very dangerous. Teams often get shut down or blown off course here due to the extreme winds and white out conditions. On this evening the wind was just a slight breeze. There was a thick layer of fog and clouds in the distance, but we enjoyed one of the most beautiful sunsets of the race and ran into an orange and pink glow for a couple hours before darkness took hold. After we passed through the Blow Hole this year, Jim Lanier and Scott Jansen had to be rescued due to their teams getting off course in this section of trail. They had the beginnings of hypothermia when rescued and it could have gone very badly if a group of three fat bikers from the Iditarod Invitational Race hadn’t have found them and called for help with a rescue beacon. The section of trail along the Bering Sea Coast is the most beautiful and amazing trail I have ever travelled. Knowing that it can change on you in a moments notice is part of what makes travelling here so amazing. You take nothing for granted and you have to be careful. You can leave no detail to chance. You must be prepared and that is what makes is so rewarding when your team passes without issue.
Soon after the Blow Hole, we came to the very last checkpoint of Safety. We signed in and back out quickly and kept rolling towards Nome. The evening sunset still hanging on. We climbed the very last hill at Cape Nome and then as we rolled over the back side, the lights of Nome shown off in the distance. What an amazing feeling to literally see the end of the trail. One by one, the dogs noticed the lights and you could see them perk up. Slight changes in the way they carry their ears and tails is all you need to know that they can see it too. I gave them the command they were all waiting for. “Let’s go home! Let’s go to Nome!” The dogs started to pick up the pace. The lights grew bigger and soon we were along a road with cars on it. I gave the command again and they broke into a lope for the last couple miles.
We pulled off the ice of the Bering Sea and up onto Front Street where a police car was waiting to escort us down the street, lights flashing as if something important was happening. For us and the team, it was an important moment. To the rest of the world, just another dog team on Front street. We had made it to Nome. Folks came out of the bars to cheer and cars pulled over as we loped down the street and into the finish chute, sliding under the burled arch at 12:30 am. The team rolled around excitedly as Paige gave them all big hugs and kisses. I did my final mandatory gear check and I had officially finished my third Iditarod in 29th place, taking 11 days 9 hours and 26 minutes.
Nukluk started screaming and harness banging and the team jumped and banged to go the last block to the dogyard. I pulled the hook and they busted down the street with amazing strength and enthusiasm. An amazing feeling came over me as I saw how amazing these dogs looked at the end of 1000 miles. We may not have won the race, but that team finished strong and happy and that is more than enough for me. As mushers we have an incredible amount of responsibility to make sure our dogs finish healthy and happy. I was proud that I had achieved that goal.