There has never been an easy end to any of our seasons – whether it ends successfully or in disappointment.  I love running the dogs.  It’s a place my mind is clear and all feels right.  In Missouri, our seasons usually end suddenly.  One day it’s still in the the 40’s and the next it’s 80 degrees with sun and humidity.

I know it’s especially hard on the dogs.  They have been conditioned to run 40-miles at the peak of our training season.  And while we significantly lower their miles after the races to 5-10 mile fun runs, it’s still an adjustment for them when the runs suddenly stop.  So begins their life of summer break, where they spend their days sleeping at doggie daycare, sleeping on couches in our home and if they prefer, sleeping on our cold tile floors.

Husky Row at doggie daycare

But this season was different.  Our final race of the year was on February 16th.  “The Midnight Run” is a 90-mile race through the upper peninsula of Michigan.  It begins in a small town, Marquette, which happens to hold more race history to our team than any other race.

I attended Northern Michigan University, located in Marquette, Michigan.  In my time up in Marquette, I never once went to any of the sled dog races.  I had no interest in them at all.  I was originally majoring in “Electronic Journalism.”  I guess that’s the fancy way of saying broadcasting.

I remember a time when one of my broadcasting professors had captured some footage of the sled dog races.  ESPN was filming parts of the race that year and they ended up using my professor’s footage of the race.  He dimmed the lights and powered on the video screen to show us the footage.  Politely, I folded my arms and laid my head down onto my desk.  I shut my eyes and fell asleep.  To say I had zero interest in sled dog racing was an understatement.

As I’ve written about before, my first dog, a Siberian Husky that I named Koivu, changed all of that.  After college, I wanted a dog that would keep me active.  I remember telling myself that I always wanted to have a “running partner.”  So I chose to get a Siberian Husky.

I bought him from a small breeder in Wisconsin.  The woman told me that Koivu’s dad was the lead dog on their recreational sled dog team.  I thought it was cool to know, but I had zero intention of ever having a sled dog team.  However, Koivu had much different intentions than I did.

I drove with him back to my apartment in Marquette, Michigan.  And over the next seven months he did everything in his power to convince me that he wanted to be a sled dog.  He absolutely loved Marquette.  We would go jogging through the snow daily.  I even bought a 10-foot leash so he could climb up onto the gigantic snow mounds – the tops of these snow mounds were his favorite place to go to the bathroom.

Immediatley after our runs were finished he would climb onto our couch and stare out the window.  He always wanted to be outside on the trails.

Koivu watching over the streets of Marquette, Michigan.

I moved back to St. Louis when Koivu was around 7 months old.  It was hot, it was humid and I was living at home with my parents – so it was also miserable.  Over a year later, before Koivu turned two years old, we took a 4th of July trip back to Marquette.  I took Koivu rollerblading over the same trails, we hiked through the woods and he spent time on the beach.

Koivu at Lake Superior, Marquette, Michigan – Summer, 2010

About a year and a half later, Koivu and I would return to Marquette, Michigan for our first ever sled dog race: The Midnight Run.  But it was no longer just the two of us.  Leah, my girlfriend (and now wife) had joined us for the adventure.  We also had three other Siberian Huskies that were now part of our growing family.  We had adopted Fleury, Spezza and Mandy from rescue groups over a 1-year span.  We were also borrowing two dogs, a gordon setter named Jared and a lab mix named Sophie.

That year we were the only team with 6-dogs attempting to do a 90-mile, 8-dog race.  You needed a minimum of 6-dogs to start the race but could use a maximum of 8.  And we were the only ones with 6.

Friends and race volunteers helped our 6-dog team to the start chute.

Still, I was excited.  I shared with Leah all of my memories as Koivu and I were once again back to where our journey first began.  The trails we would be running on were the same trails we ran on years ago, when Koivu was just a puppy.

For those who were in attendance of the 2012, Midnight Run race, you already know it went infamously wrong for our team.  We spent more time up in the crowd than on the actual sled dog trail!  It was very obvious our dogs loved people!  After the 1-mile ceremonial loop we ended up withdrawing from the race and entering the 30-mile, Jack Pine race, scheduled for the next morning.

Last place finish in the 2012 Jack Pine.

The following two years we attempted the Midnight Run and both years we fell short.  We made it 46-miles both years, exactly halfway into the race.  But time requirements said we needed to be within 3-hours of the first place team.  So we were disqualified as we were 3 hours and 5 minutes behind during year 2.  And 3 hours and 20 minutes behind in year 3.

I took some time away from the race and changed our training strategy.  Over the years my goal was to grow our team while working our way back into bigger races.  By the time I had enough dogs for two teams our fast team had completed a string of races.  The 30-mile Tahquemenon Country Sled Dog Race.  The 30-mile Jack Pine.  The 44-mile Rodeo Run.  The 56-mile Ironline race.  And then this season we completed the 8-dog, 66-mile Apostle Islands race.

Leaders Kaiya and Juneau (brown), Swing: Bure and Marleau, Team: Spezza (brown) and Koivu, Wheel: Roenick and Jax Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race 2018 – Photo by: Nace Hagemann

The Apostle Islands race was 2-weeks before the Midnight Run.  I had a number of concerns heading into the race.  My biggest worry was about our 1.5 year old rookie leader, Juneau.  It was her first year with the team and she had worked her way up to be a lead dog.  I wasn’t sure how she would respond to running in lead for her very first race.

Kaiya and Juneau leading the team with style past the halfway point. Photo by: Nace Hagemann

Juneau, of course, ran amazing.  Her and Kaiya led the team to our fastest average pace finish in team history – 7.5 MPH over 66 miles.  Not shabby at all for a team of adopted Siberian Huskies!

Heading into the Midnight Run I felt full of confidence.  There was little doubt in my mind that this would be the year we completed the race that had been haunting me since year 1.

As I got everything ready in downtown Marquette I studied my team carefully.  Four of our dogs (Koivu, Spezza, Roenick and Jax) had run in the Midnight run during previous seasons.  My other four (Marleau, Kaiya, Juneau and Bure) were all Midnight Run rookies.

The reason I bring this up is because unlike other sled dog races, the Midnight Run has thousands of people in attendance to watch.  It can be overwhelming for some of the dogs.  Especially before the race when spectators come to visit with the teams.  Our team in particular tends to draw a big crowd.  We are one of the few remaining teams that run with Siberian Huskies.  Most teams use Alaskan Huskies – which are much faster than Siberians but not nearly as pretty.

A nickname that was tagged to us during the Ironline was “Team Disney” because our dogs look like the dogs you see in movies.  It also had a double meaning to me.  Disney is the place where dreams come true.  And that is the environment I wanted to build for our dogs.  That is why we adopt the troubled huskies – the ones that would have a difficult time adjusting to a regular house pet lifestyle.  I wanted to give these dogs the outlet they deserved.  I’m sure they never imagined they would become a sled dog during their nights at the shelters and rescue groups.  So being called team Disney was okay with me.

Marleau (top) and Kaiya are best friends – and apparently joined at the shoulders! Photo by – Carly Antor of Antor Digital

Our four veteran dogs looked excited.  Koivu was screaming his head off and ready to go.  Our four rookies looked a bit nervous.  Marleau was probably the most excited and Bure seemed the most nervous.  I tried giving them a lot of attention and love before the race.

 

Moments before lining out our team. Photo by: Antor Digital

I considered starting Koivu in lead.  Koivu and Kaiya had run together hundreds of times.  And Koivu had done this race before.  It was his home.  And this was trail.  He should be the run to run in lead.

But the voice in the back of my head said he was more comfortable in team.  There was less stress in that position.  He also didn’t have the speed that he used to have when running in lead.  Not to mention, Juneau and Kaiya ran phenomenal at the Apostle Islands race.

Ultimately, it was how the team performed at the Apostle Islands race that swayed my leader decision.  So I made the choice to go with Kaiya and Juneau.

Juneau and Kaiya, moments before take off!

Our team pulled up to the starting chute and felt relaxed.  I walked to each dog and rubbed them and told them how awesome they were.  I stopped at Koivu and told him, “This is they year buddy.”

When we took off, we cruised down through the cheering crowd. But shortly after, problems began to set in.  My leaders didn’t want to run and neither did some of the others.  I made the switch to let Koivu lead.  And like I had seen him do time and time again, he put the team on his back and went to work.  In this moment, it was arguably the best I had ever seen him run in his career.  He was putting everything he had into leading the team.  He looked to the leader next to him, Jax.  He licked Jax’s face in attempt to motivate him more.  Then he started running even harder.  It was incredible.

For spurts our team looked great.  But finding a leader to run with Koivu was a struggle.  Everyone wanted to run behind him, in the less stressful positions.

I could feel the disappointment fill up inside of me.  I wasn’t disappointed in the dogs.  I was disappointed in the situation.  Our team had run so good all season long and to see it fall apart here, at the Midnight Run, was very disheartening.  As we made our way down the trail I began wonder, “Why are we still running the race?”  I knew we were in last place and I also knew that we weren’t going to make the time cutoff.

About 35-miles into the race I stopped the team.  I loved on and assessed each dog.  I knelt at the front of the team and talked to Koivu and Juneau.  Slowly, I made my way back to the sled, talking to each dog as I passed them.  I promised them at the next intersection with volunteers that we were going to scratch.  It wasn’t worth risking their health, their mental attitudes or their enjoyment of the sport on a race that had clearly overwhelmed them.

The next time we crossed some volunteers I stopped the team and told them we were going to scratch.  I sat with the dogs as I waited for my dad to come pick me up with the truck.  I massaged them, fed them and watered them as I waited.  I was still filled with disappointment as I now began to second guess my decision about the leaders.

I was certain that if I had started Koivu in lead it would have completely changed the outcome.  His confidence and calm demeanor would have settled the rest of the team.  It would have protected our rookies and gave them the sense of calm they lacked when racing through the first mile.  I second guessed a lot of my decisions all the way back to the hotel.

I felt like I had let down the dogs.  I felt like I had let down my family.  My friends.  Our Facebook followers who have been so supportive of us.  And of course, our sponsors – Diamond Naturals and Alpine Outfitters – who have invested so much into our team.

Back at the hotel my wife laid in bed with our newborn son, Lucca.  She woke up as I walked in with Koivu.  Leah looked shocked to see me.  “What are you doing back here?” she asked.

“I had to scratch,” It hurt to say the words out loud.

Her eyes filled with sadness.  “I’m sorry,” she told me.  “I know how much this meant to you and Koivu.”

It was a difficult ending to such a wonderful season.  I felt the sting of disappointment for a long time.  And for a number of different reasons.

On the drive I spoke a lot with Leah about the race.  I shared with her my disappointment.  And like she has done so many times, she helped bring everything back into perspective.

“What was your goal when all of this started?” she asked me.  “Are you doing this to finish races ?”

“No,” I knew where she was going with this.  And she was right.  The goal was never about the races.  It was always about providing the dogs with a healthy and happy home.  Finishing races was just a bonus.  Of course I love finishing races.  It is an incredible feeling to cross over that finish line with a group of dogs that nearly everyone has given up.

But we had completed a string of races together and with each one I could feel our confidence grow as a team.  It’s always a difficult decision to scratch.  And it brought me back to three years ago when I had last made the decision to pull out of a race.

Upon returning home I was mentally burnt out.  I had been training two teams all season so I was running at least one team per day – weather permitting.  It took me longer than usual to take them out on runs again.  But if I waited any longer things would start getting destroyed or the dogs would find new ways to escape the yard!  So I was forced to get back out on the trails.  And it was a good thing.

It helped clear my mind and remind me exactly why I am doing this.  It started with Koivu’s dream/goal of having a sled dog team.  And the 16 dogs attached to our 4-wheeler were proof that his dream had been accomplished.  To them, it doesn’t matter where they run or for how long.  They just love to run.  And I’m going to do my best not to forget that.

This offseason bring the opportunity for us all to improve.  And the work has already begun as we look forward to next winter!

Koivu and Richie – Fall of 2009.