In February 2014 I entered my first ever sleddog race: The Tobacco Trail. Here’s a little story of my experience…

On the trail

On the trail

The Tobacco Trail is held in Kiruna in the far north of Sweden and I couldn’t think of a better race to try as a beginner. Firstly, I knew the trails would be good (well, Kiruna IS the Mecca of mushing!). Second, I knew the trails would be well marked (having run dogs in Kiruna for a few years I knew the Trail Master Taisto and his guides and had no doubt they would do a brilliant job). This was an important point for me because I always get lost on the trail. It’s a bit of a joke between me and my friends but it was quite a serious consideration for my first race! Third, it was a good distance at around 305km. Finally, it had good rest time – 12 hours mandatory rest taken across 3 checkpoints. I’m one of those people who need 7 hours sleep a night but looking at the positive side, I thought even I could manage 12 hours over a couple of days. My mind was made up, this would be my first race. Time to train the dogs!

After a reasonable training season, I signed up to the Unlimited class and decided on my 12-dog team (despite K2 reporting I started with 14). Some people take 14 dogs but this is too much for me. Even with 12 dogs I knew I didn’t stand much of a chance to stop them at the beginning if I needed to… I knew I had to just hang on and do my best not to have a reason to stop! Luckily, our dogs work with tourists and some of our trails can be busy so they are used to passing other teams, seeing reindeer and passing through tunnels etc. Of course, my husband Milos Gonda has also raced with these dogs so they have experience of crowds, loud noises and long trails too.

I finished a 5-day tour, with the race dogs, just the evening before. The guests hadn’t even gone home yet and came down to the Ice Hotel to cheer on me and some of the dogs in the team who had been driven by them just the day before. That was really nice but I have to say I felt exhausted before I had even started! I had been packing my mandatory equipment and sled that morning and it was all a bit of a rush to get to the start line on time. Luckily I made it and Milos stood on the back of the sled with me to help brake the team to the start line. The power in the dogs was incredible. I couldn’t brake them on my own. I felt glad we were starting at the Ice Hotel on a nice long river!

I got the signal to go and all I could think of was ‘don’t go too fast, don’t go too fast… everyone knows it’s the wrong thing to do… pace yourself Gaynor!’. Well, that’s all very well but these dogs wanted to run and all I could do was stand on the pad brake with both feet and hope it was slow enough.

At the end of the famous Torne river, you go through a tunnel and pop out on Sautos lake. It’s huge, and I could see teams ahead of me for miles. I had overtaken a couple of teams pretty quickly and despite braking I think I overtook one more. It was all a bit of a blur… I was too busy shaking with nervousness and excitement! By the end of the lake I actually had a moment of panic thinking that I had been braking too hard. The dogs were doing well but I knew I had to hit the right balance between pacing them and letting them run. I tried to forget about the race and run the dogs like I had done in training many times but it felt very different. The dogs got into a really nice rhythm and we were on our way to the first checkpoint at Soppero, 61km away.

Having started at 11.10, I knew I’d get to Soppero in the daylight which was a bonus for me. I hadn’t really done much sledding in the dark before and I liked the fact that during my first leg of this race I could see where I was going! I got to recognise the trail markers and what they meant and started to relax about finding my way. It took me 3 hours 14 minutes with an average speed of 18.9kmph. So K2 tells me. At the time I just knew it was a good, average speed for my dogs over that distance. I came in third which puzzled me because I had no idea I had overtaken that many teams. That was slightly worrying. I knew I had a long way to go and kept telling myself ‘must slow down!’.

So now I was at Soppero… ‘oh God! What do I do now? I have two hours rest here. OK, I know the dogs need feeding, straw, blankets, no problem… but how do I anchor my team at the front?’ I think I had only ever done it once before, with help, and I had completely forgotten how. It took me ages to figure it out with the minutes eating into my two hour stop. Even then, I didn’t manage to secure them properly and Bente Levorsen, who’s team was parked next to me, kindly pointed at my wandering dogs when she was trying to feed hers. Sorry Bente! I’m a Rookie! And boy did I feel like one.

I couldn’t eat at Soppero. I had dropped one dog because he just “ain’t doin’ right” (anyone that knows Jerry Vanik, a vet on the race in 2014 will know this expression) although he (the dog, not Jerry) pulled me through the snow to my handler and I had more than one person ask me if I was sure I should be dropping a dog that looked so strong and fighting fit. But this was also something I had learned that seemed to make sense to me – if in doubt, drop the dog. So I did. As for me, I was tired and wanted to sleep but couldn’t stop thinking about what I needed to do to get the dogs going again. By the time I had attended to the team, hooked them all up, put booties on and got myself out of a tangled mess with the race bib, I left four minutes late (even after time equalisation of two minutes). They just waved me through the start line as the clock was already ticking. The word ‘Rookie’ was ringing through my ears again but I just told myself it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to try and catch anyone… and if the musher that now left one minute behind me was going to catch me, so be it. I felt deflated but the pressure of racing slipped away and before long I was just enjoying the ride. I was totally on my own in the dark. I turned my headlamp off as I had heard about people doing this on races so others didn’t know where they were but after slipping off the skis into deep snow and falling to my knees I decided that was not a good strategy for me and turned it back on again. (Another note to myself – I do not care if people know where I am on the trail, I would rather be able to see in the dark!)

The trail to the second checkpoint was hard going. Not literally. Infact the trail was soft because of a recent massive snow dump and my dogs were swimming through it. I knew it was taking it’s toll on them and we slowed right down. I felt like I was taking it pretty easy as I was trying to avoid injuries but I soon came upon a team who was struggling more than me. I passed quickly and lost them almost immediately. I had no idea at this point I was first on the trail. I was just happy to see another team which meant I was most likely going in the right direction! Now I was in the middle of nowhere, on my own again, in the dark with just the dogs for company. I thought back to my life in London where I would be scared to walk out at night and here I was in the wilderness totally alone without even a phone signal. It was pretty amazing.

Eventually I came across a small village and we seemed to be following a cross country ski trail. We were running along it quite merrily when all of a sudden my lead dog Waf took a sharp left turn. Before I could react and brake we had made a full left turn. I couldn’t believe it. I had been day-dreaming and wasn’t paying attention to the trail at all and now we were going the wrong way. I stopped and suddenly heard the noise of a snow mobile behind me… I turned around to see my good friend Per-Nils driving and waving me on… “keep going, you’re doing really well” he screamed above the noise of his machine. I was on the right trail. Waf had saved me. If it wasn’t for him I would have gone straight and not made the turn. Geez, another lesson to add to my list: I must pay attention at all times to the trail markers, even when the obvious choice is to go straight!

Shortly after we hit hard trails again and the dogs loved it! They unleashed new energy, were motivated again and enjoying the speed that they’re used to. The last 10km or so was on a another ski trail and it was the longest 10km of my life! Up and down we would go as I saw the km markers counting down my final approach to checkpoint 2, Saivomuotka. In the last 2km my headlamp suddenly went dead. No warning, just cut out, but of course I had a spare one in my sled. I tried to fish it out with one hand, pulling the old headlamp off and trying to replace it with the new one. Somehow I got tangled up and came to the checkpoint with the old head lamp dangling from my jacket and the new one around my neck with me holding the lamp in my hand doing the best I could to light the way. I must have looked a funny sight as I entered the checkpoint area, first in. It was another 20 minutes before I saw another team. I was surprised to have made that much time when it seemed to go so slowly. But now I was looking forward to a few hours rest.

I wasn’t taking any chances leaving this checkpoint and was ready in plenty of time. I was leaving at 03.33 and had 35 minutes before the next team was heading out. Once again I was totally alone. It wasn’t scary at all but I wished for the daylight so I could see this amazing countryside I was travelling through. Who knew what lay to the side of me… trees, lakes, hills. I could only see a few metres infront of me.

As daylight came the leg back to Ovre Soppero II seemed shorter than the night before. Everything was going good despite the soft trails and I was now enjoying the scenery. The trees were heavy with snow and I was surrounded by pure wilderness. Ovre Soppero was a sight for sore eyes though as I turned onto the river and into the checkpoint. By now I was an hour ahead of the next team. Everybody was congratulating me and I remember thinking I must be doing something wrong to have gained so much time. But I knew I had a good team. Cliff, one of my leaders, had a slight limp that I noticed in the last couple of km’s to Soppero so other than some miracle I knew I would be dropping him but the rest of the team looked great. I thought it was a good idea to leave Cliff in the team to rest just incase things improved but they didn’t and as we were about to leave I left him with my handler.

It’s tough to know what was the worst aspect of the next hour. The team had done so well but of course they looked tired. They had curled up under their blankets after eating and I didn’t want to disturb them as I got them ready to go again. I tip-toed around them putting on booties, cuddling them and placing the blanket over them right up until the last minute. Another rookie error because I suddenly surprised them them with ‘let’s go’! They weren’t very enthusiastic and became confused about the situation. They have been to Soppero many times before, with tourists, and always stayed the night up by the house off the river, and they had just seen Cliff being taken up there by Milos, so when we were at the start line and I said ‘OK’ to go they immediately turned right towards the house. Eventually I got them to turn left to head down the river again but it must have been very confusing for them as they started past all the other sleeping teams. They slowed right down, looked at me, looked at the sleeping teams, looked at me again and when a few of them went to pee the whole team came to a stop. I had no idea what to do. This had never happened before. Everyone at the checkpoint was watching. ‘People will think I’ve parked!’ I said to myself, embarassed at the thought and full of confidence that I hadn’t gone too fast for them. They were just confused, they didn’t know what I wanted from them. I tried to push the sled and of course nothing happened. The dogs just looked at me, stretched and pee’ed. I should have given them more time to get ready. I went to the front and changed the leader – Patch had looked lively at the start and so I put her up front with Waf. I looked Waf straight in the eyes and said ‘we’re going that way’ as I pointed down river ‘and if you don’t get going you’ll never get to sleep on the sofa, EVER again’. I swear that’s what I said to him. If I didn’t think people would call me crazy I’d say he even understood me. I got back on the sled, called OK and away we went. A couple of km down the trail and away from the other dogs they were the old team again, cruising along nicely. I was so relieved. There was no way they’d be performing like that if I had run them too fast but it is not an experience I ever want to repeat. Rookie error number 100,000 at this point. Now I just wanted home, and sleep. 86km to go and despite losing around 20 minutes at the start I was still ahead by 40 minutes.

Approaching the finish line with good speed t the end

Approaching the finish line with good speed t the end

The way back was so nice. I stopped to snack the dogs a couple of times and there was no question of them stopping for good. They pulled in their harnesses and snapped up their snacks. I thought it would help give them energy as we were heading for some well known tourist spots where we would normally stop or turn for home. I couldn’t believe it as they passed the Ice Hotel with not so much as a glimpse at me to question if we would be stopping there. Next hurdle, the pump station where we turn for home – no problem. Further up the river another turning point for home and not a flinch. The final hurdle would be turning to the airport, not something we’d usually do, but I called ‘gee’ and there was no hesitation. The dogs were enjoying themselves! I could see it. They had a good rhythm and I knew we’d make it. I kept looking behind me trying to see the light of another head lamp but couldn’t see anything. But I had the feeling I was being chased and it turned out Bente Levorsen was keeping the same speed as me, just 42 minutes behind.

Thanks for the flowers!

Thanks for the flowers!

Finally I came to the finish line. A crowd was there and people were cheering. I’m not sure I deserved the win after so many errors but it was a very welcoming reception and I even got handed a bunch of flowers for my win! I held my hands in the air so happy to be at the finish line with so many lessons for the future. I gave all of the dogs such big cuddles at the end and when they got home they enjoyed a huge amount of their favourite dinner. Waf got to sleep on the sofa and by the next morning everyone was leaping about again ready to go on their next tour.

For me, it was a huge learning experience and one that I was grateful to get at such a well organised and friendly race. The staff and volunteers were just brilliant and I knew that many hours of hard work had gone into this race, purely for the love of it. And as the race goes from strength to strength each year, lessons are learned and things improved. Now it’s a qualifying race for Yukon Quest and (soon to be confirmed) Iditarod and great plans are afoot for a bigger and even better race in the future. I wish them the best of luck. I know I’ll be there again some day.

If you’d like to take part in Tobacco Trail 2016, the Swedish Championship, take a look at the website. Happy trails!

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