The weekend of the 20-21st of February we found ourselves heading north to the first AMWA Hick’s Lodge rally. This is a venue which has been used by other clubs, but for the first time this year became part of the AMWA championship line up.
For us it represented one of the longer drives of the year, and the wakeup call at 3 am came all too soon. But driving through the night to arrive to the early morning sound of excited dogs howling is a price we are happy to pay, and so it was that we were driving through the dark with some very large coffees wondering what to expect from this new event.
We arrived as the sun was coming up and were quickly met by lots of familiar faces all setting up in the public parking area and getting their dogs out for a stretch. For many this is a rally which they are familiar with, as AMCUK ran a rally at this same venue at the start of the year.
This Hick’s Lodge Rally – put on by AMWA and organised by Chris and Phillipa Lamerton - is situated in the Willesley Woodside in Leicestershire and is at the Hick’s Lodge National Forest Cycle Centre. This is an extremely popular venue and includes some very well routed trails, visitor parking and a café and bike shop. The café is somewhat small – but can certainly accommodate a number of hungry post-race mushers. There are also some places to walk the dogs in the main area, though this is very heavily populated by the general public throughout the day and there are a very high number of dog walkers. We found the best walks of the weekend were in fact walking the trail post runs for a final stretch before heading home.
There were two sections of parking for the entrants, the first across the main road near the start line for the larger teams as well as those arriving with caravans, which was somewhat separate from busier public area near the visitor centre. This, however, was a limited space and so a number of mushers did have to park across the road in the public car park.
The event organisers very conscientiously had marshals at the road crossing (we all felt they deserved the little paddles that school crossing guards have…) to make sure that everyone made it across safely, though there was actually a very reasonable amount of traffic on the road and at no point did this cause any issues for us either in walking or bringing the dogs across.
It was, however, unfortunate in a two day rally not to be able to stake out the dogs. Whilst there were some spaces at the edge of the car park for staking out, this was extremely limited. There was also a huge number of members of the general public sharing the space – which increased as the day wore on with walkers and loose dogs. In the end we felt it was better to leave our dogs crated whilst at the venue.
The temperature, though not at all what we had hoped it might be this much further north, did have a welcoming chill to it when we first arrived on Saturday morning, and the wet which had been predicted seemed to hold off as well. A blustery wind cut through the forest and getting into the café for a hot salted caramel latte once the dogs were stretched and situated was very welcome indeed.
The morning sped past as we all got caught up, prepared the dogs and familiarised ourselves with the site, and very soon teams were heading towards the start line and getting ready to head out.
For many, this is a favourite rally as the trail itself is set out for mountain biking and is a well structured maze through the forest of twists and turns which kept a lot of the Malamute teams excited and enjoying their runs throughout. It was also quite a fast track which can really be seen in some of the larger sibe team times. The majority of the trail was quite a hard packed track and for most it seemed that the dogs loved the trails and were quite happy to run on them. There were also a number of grassy areas the dogs had to keep things interesting, and all in all it was a trail well set up for racing.
Originally set to be between 3.4-3.8 miles, the course on the day was just under 3 miles, and luckily had been cut to a distance more appropriate to the temperature, which continued to rise throughout the day.
The mushers’ meeting was held by the start line and as always was thorough and clearly informed all the mushers about what to expect on the day. The rally began with the BS (4-6 sibes) class and very quickly moved on to the Malamute teams of MS (3+) M2 and M1; then later in the morning the mixed freight, smaller Siberian husky teams, bikejor, scooter and junior classes ran.
It didn’t seem like there was very much time for socialising before we were getting the dogs out and harnessed and ready to run. It was cooler than predicted on the Saturday, though as with almost every rally this winter we were constantly wishing it would get colder. The dogs really seemed to enjoy the windy twists and turns of the trail and the clear paths – though there were a few moments with off lead dogs at the start line which were a bit hair-raising. The organisers and helpers were very quick to sort it out and the teams then went off on time.
The times that came back on the day were very impressive. Notably Michael Clapperton who finished a whopping four minutes faster than the second place team in M1 on Saturday, and also finished first on Sunday with a collective time almost ten minutes faster than the other teams! Also Adrian Walker – running a novice team of his two Malamutes Indi and Zeko in only their second rally together as a team – had a time of 16:59 on the first day getting him a third place in the very competitive M2 class on their first heat.
With our races over, the dogs cooled off, stretched and put in their crates for a well-deserved snooze, the café was once again the port of call. At the end of the lunch rush it was a bit tricky finding a table, but the normal lunch crowd soon abated and we managed to find enough seats to accommodate some muddy, tired and very hungry mushers. The food was hearty and most importantly warm – and we all sat around and had a good laugh about our day and the runs that we had had. And as Michelle Anderson may have happily mentioned to one or two of us, her boy Sirius obviously loved the trails – and even sprinted!
Once all the work for the Saturday was done, and all the socialising to be had – some of the mushers camped overnight at the site either in their vans or caravans, but for us and a few others it was a much needed bit of luxury and local dog-friendly hotels. A hot shower, a bit of carvery and a cheap hotel bed never felt so good!
The next morning we made it back to the rally site a little less early, and were met with cloud cover and some spitting (but thankfully never heavy) rain. The temperature unfortunately had risen just that little bit from the day before, and so most of the teams ran a little bit slower on the second day.
Being a Sunday the venue was even more populated on the second day, so real care had to be taken with both walking and running the dogs due to the presence of families, dogs and cyclists. For the most part everyone was very courteous and polite and a number of times I saw groups of cyclists stopped at the trail side to watch the dogs run.
The scooter class was a great one to watch this rally, with Corinna Clarke - running her new puppy Vortex - finishing the scooter trail in 12:56 over the weekend, and Lorna Bartlett - running her dog Peppa - coming in first place over the weekend with a total time of 11:43.
For some of us it was a long drive home – so goodbyes were said quicker than we would have liked – but it was great getting to see everyone at this rally. Congratulations to everyone who took home one of the stunning trophies provided for this event by the organisers (especially Mark Lovegrove – who only just beat us to the podium in M2 by seconds!)
As always we would like to extend our appreciation for the hard work on the part of the organisers for putting on the event and to all the volunteers who helped it to run smoothly over the course of the weekend.
We would also like to send Gwynne Lewis our very best wishes for a speedy recovery as she sustained an injury whilst running her Siberian husky team, though still managed to come in second place! Wishing you all the best and hope to see you back out on the trail very soon!
Please see AMWA website for full results and times from this weekend’s rally.
"The opinions, observations and comments included in these race reports are solely from the writer and do not necessarily reflect the position of either Snowpaw Store or of any specific club. These reports are written from the point of view of a spectator and/or participant and though every effort is made for unbiased, factual accounts, they will likely not represent everyone 's experience of the event. You are warmly welcomed to attend events for a more first hand experience!"
All photos taken by Red Anderton-Tyers and used with her kind permission.