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Classic: Worst 30 Minutes of My Entire Life

Two hundred yards along the trail I saw to my horror that the driver of the team that was supposed to take care of me was herself in trouble, her team turned crossways to the trail, as we headed straight for its unprotected flank. The only call I remembered was “Straight on,” and I shut my eyes. When I opened them Sobi had veered away at the last instant. But relief was short-lived on that wild lake. We quickly gained on the team in front, one that had also become confused and that also lay crossways to the trail. This time we hit, becoming entangled in the lines. The other driver, a seasoned veteran, leaped into the fray, untangling my dogs, heaving Sobi towards the trail. “Straight on,” I hollered, as I murmured embarrassed apologies to the other driver.

We turned around an island that formed a hub for the course, Sobi hard on the spruce track until suddenly she followed the scent of an errant team, and ran towards an open expanse that for all I knew stopped in Quebec. A young man stood his ground, doing his job — which was to frantically wave dog teams back on to the trail. I pressed the brake hard and Sobi stopped.

“I don’t know what to do,” I shouted. His eyes grew wide beneath his enormous parka. “I don’t know either,” he said. “Can’t you get the dog to follow you?”

I asked him to hold the sled. He approached slowly, as though half expecting me to run off, leaving him to drive the dogs home. Ivan had told me to throw Sobi back on the trail when she got off, but I wanted to keep my distance.

“C’mon girl, here girl,” I implored, my arms motioning to the trail. I clucked as though I were calling my own dog. I whistled. Sobi stared at me briefly then looked off into the distance. Dog teams passed by 30 yards away, heading home. In desperation I grabbed Sobi’s neckline and yanked her towards the trail, pulling the team 30 yards until I was so winded I feared I would be ill. I rode the sled runners then, not even pretending to pump, When we turned the far point towards home, the teeth of the wind, now gale force, struck full-bore. It seemed to drain the will from me. Jo Ann’s team, which had had difficulty staying to the trail, came so close that I kept kicking her leader. Again Sobi veered off the trail, though there was nothing left of a trail except runner marks.

“What do I do?” I shouted. “Yell ‘haw,'” she answered. I yelled it over and over to no avail. “Get off and haul her over,” Jo Ann shouted. I yanked Sobi around, but confused, she headed back the way we had come, straight into Jo Ann’s team. The two teams, tired, irritable, and confused, began to growl.

“Oh,” Jo Ann muttered, “now we’re in a fix.” She yanked her team in front of Sobi, and for the last mile we crawled home following Jo Ann’s team.

I didn’t care. I just wanted what until then had been some of the worst 30 minutes of my life to be done with. A half mile from the finish I saw Ivan, his arms folded, his face tight, staring at me with what I imagined to be disgust.

“At least make it a good finish.” He said. “Pump it in.” Kathy was waiting. “I’ve been praying for the dogs to come back.” She saw my hands stiff from clutching the sled.

“You’re not supposed to have a death grip on it,” she said.

Later, after they had watered the dogs, my humiliation changed to relief. Time and again someone came over, clapped me on the shoulder. “You finished, that’s the main thing,” they said. I perked up. My time was 35 minutes and seven seconds. I felt better knowing one team was out nearly an hour.

Later, in the dark, in the cold, I found Ivan and Kathy tending their dogs. Ivan’s tattered gloves were off, one dog had wet in the stall, two others, Sobi and Cleo, both leaders, had started fighting and Ivan had separated them.

He knew their muscles would be sore and was dropping aspirins in their feeding dishes before scooping their homemade dog food — chicken breast bones ground up with chicken fat. It smelled like dried blood.

I thought of something he had told me the night before. He was racing once in Vermont over a course laid out across a field. Barbed wire had been hidden by the snow and nobody knew it. Another racer had gone over the wire, hooked it with his brake, and lifted it up enough to catch Ivan as he passed close behind. He wouldn’t let go of the sled and as the dogs lunged the wire ripped through his jacket. cutting his stomach open. Nevertheless, he had finished the race.

“Ivan,” I asked, “why do you do this?”

Updated Monday, August 11th, 2008

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3 Responses to Classic: Worst 30 Minutes of My Entire Life

  1. Needel, Sylvia December 30, 2008 at 2:26 pm #

    Awesome story!

  2. Georgianna Rodman December 30, 2008 at 6:53 pm #

    Captivating. Found myself out of breath racing along with Sobi.

  3. Kathy Beliveau April 26, 2009 at 10:08 am #

    Hi Mel,

    One of my children sent this to me, she was the baby you heard crying when you went to bed after the first day of racing! It was wonderful reliving that weekend in Maine. It really was a great story and one I repeat to people who say “Gee, racing must be fun!!!” It was fun, but like you mentioned, it could be 30 minutes of shear terror when things go wrong.

    Always enjoy reading Yankee Magazine! I send it to my far flung family to keep them in touch with how special New England is. Thanks, Kathy

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