The last of the warm summer months prolonged through September have finally dipped into cool mornings, crisp nights and falling autumnal leaves bringing with it the onset of very happy mushers and their dogs, early training mornings and late training nights. And once again we come together for the first rally of the 2016-2017 working season.
After a long, hot and very lazy summer for our little Flint Sky team, beginning training once again in the past few weeks of cold has been both a very welcome relief and a bit of a shock to the system! 5am mornings loading up and heading out to begin building miles with the dogs brought about both extreme excitement for the year to come and some small trepidations about the first rally of the year being a little earlier than usual.
For us and many other mushers in the UK this past weekend represented the first race of the season as we headed across to Norfolk and the AMWA King’s Forest Championship rally in Thetford. The rally this year was organised by Paul Pateman, Tina Facey and Irene Valenkamp, and sponsored by Alpha. Though held at the same location as usual, this year the event normally scheduled for the Halloween weekend at the end of the month landed on the weekend of the 15th and 16th. Whilst the temperatures had dropped in many areas to allow for training in the few weeks leading up to it, those extra two weeks of preparation were well missed by all and there was an air of ‘first day of school’ nerves about the event. Lots of new mushers and new teams were there and most were both nervous and excited about what the weekend had in store.
The location of this event is a nice one – and not least because of the quiet serenity of the really beautiful woodlands of King’s Forest in the autumn. Some of the nicest camping areas near the woods were unfortunately blocked off this year, but there was still ample parking for all in the rally site and best of all lots of long, quiet and predominately empty (not counting the abundance of pheasants!) trails to wander around with the dogs before and after runs.
The trail - which has been near the three mile marker for all the years we’ve run it - was altered slightly this year to be 2.5 miles, with the scooter and junior trails being approximately a mile. Though there were some concerns about the harshness of the fire roads on the dogs’ feet, most mushers who came back that I spoke to quite enjoyed the trail, and said it was still a nice mixture of soft grass and hard packed dirt/aggregate.
The afternoon weather on the Saturday was mostly kind, with temperatures being relatively cool and with lower humidity, and the sun staying out for most of the afternoon preparations. Though the traffic conditions (particularly some horrible times on the M25) kept some mushers from arriving early, by 4pm the rally field was largely full and the sound of excited dogs and busy mushers echoed throughout the trees.
After all the rig inspections and musher’s meetings were over, the evening quickly became race time for the earlier classes of Junior, Scooter and Bikejor which began at 4:30 on the Saturday afternoon, while everyone running later that evening had a little while to catch up with friends and other mushers before beginning preparations for their own teams going out.
Luckily for some first time runners in the scooter class the early hour allowed enough daylight for them to run on the Saturday. Those first time mushers who would be in the later classes would have to wait the following morning to run as rally regulations sensibly require a musher’s first rally to take place in daylight. Those I spoke to seemed somewhat relieved to have the evening to prepare and see the other mushers and dogs at work, and many kindly lent a hand to friends who were running that night.
Spatterings of rain began during the early evening runs which unfortunately brought in a spell of warmer air and increased humidity which was definitely felt by the dogs – but the temperatures remained just low enough to run and so despite the unavoidably late hour for the last teams (which again this year consisted of the M2 and M1 classes) everyone was able to get out on the Saturday runs.
There were some very good times on that first day – in particular Kirsty Munday who in the Bikejor class got around the trail in 8:20, and Andrew Gibson in the scooter class who finished in 5:13. Also I would like to mention two new comers in the scooter class Richard Clay and Michael Robinson who came in at 7:04 and 7:55 respectively in their first ever rally running litter sisters Doris and Skye.
There were many new mushers and teams this weekend, including Suzy Fithern running in M2 with her Malamutes Rosy and Bertie who said, “Woo Hoo our first Rally is behind us and what fun we had. We met up with a fabulous friendly bunch of people with their furry friends. I had been to a rally as a helper and to see what it was like, but I was not sure what it would be like as a competitor. I must admit to worrying about getting in the way of the serious mushers, getting lost, and generally bungling it all. We couldn’t run on the night run, but it was great to help friends get their dogs to the start. It calmed me to see that everyone was a bit hyped up to say the least and they still all got to the start in one piece. Sunday morning came and calm I was not. But people were lovely and I could not have asked for a nicer experience. My bitch Rosy’s breeder and experienced musher Kevin Aiston sorted me out and kept me calm at the start which was such a relief and then we were off. Running against a clock really brings out the competitive spirit, very different to training. Rosy and Bertie ran their hearts out for me and the finish line seemed a lot more than 2.5 miles but what a sense of achievement as we crossed the line to a lovely hullabaloo and smiley faces. I’ve asked the dogs if they want to do it again and their lovely smiley faces said it all.”
Also Louise Burgess in MS ran her first 4 dog malamute team which included rookie member Dixie who looked absolutely giddy coming in at the front, and veteran Ruby who shared her final run before retirement with her whole team.
The evening drew to a very late close for those of us in the later malamute classes as we had our dinner back at our vans around midnight with a quick drink and a laugh with friends before giving the dogs one last stretch in what turned into one of the most stunning nights in the forest I’ve ever spent. The moon was full and the Norfolk sky crystal clear and the fields lit up enough to allow a walk with the dogs in the moonlight without any head torches at all. It was all over too quickly though before crashing into a heavy and all too brief sleep leading into the second day.
The morning broke with a stunning sunrise and the sounds of dogs ready to be back on the trail. To our dismay the frosty cold of the night had dissipated and the feel of distant cloud cover had warmed the morning far more than we had hoped it would. The rain began early and everyone wondered if running would continue on the day. There was some discussion about the start time and though it had been scheduled for 8 am it was pushed back to 9 to allow all the mushers to arrive. This did, however, mean a longer wait to see what the weather was going to do but also allowed us all to make decisions regarding our dogs and running.
After an extremely wet spell early in the morning while some of the larger teams were on the trail, a cooler spell descended making it just cool enough that the Malamute teams which went out at around 10 were able to run. As usual most of the runs were a bit slower on the second day – but that was to be expected given the temperature and the fitness level of most dogs at the start of the season.
Tom Wheeler had excellent times both days in the M2 class winning with his Alfa and Junior team and an overall weekend time of 27:00 flat, followed not far behind by Simon Atherton who finished with a time of 27:53. Also a fantastic set of runs from Corinna Clarke – who has been tearing up the trail in the scooter class for years but was out for her first M2 class with Denali and new team member Vortex to take third place at the weekend with an overall time of 30:05.
It was also a very exciting and close match in MS between Jay Wadrup and Kevin Aiston with a mere 12 seconds between their weekend times. Stuart Murray had blistering times both days in CS class of 8:45 and 8:47, and Luke Nichols in DS had a time of 7:02 on the second day with an overall weekend time of 16:20. A huge well done to all the mushers who ran this weekend!
The rain stopped before midday bringing with it warmer temperatures and higher humidity and the decision was made by the organisers to cancel the afternoon classes consisting of bikejor, scooter and junior classes.
I would like to take a moment here at the start of this season to say that we mushers do understand what an incredibly difficult decision it is on the part of organisers and clubs to cancel any class, day or full rally. The work which is put in by the club, organisers and volunteers for these events is immense and we understand how gutting it can be to have to make such a call. It is also impossible to make everyone happy all the time and there will always be people who would rather a different decision was made – whether that decision is to continue running or to cancel classes. Rising temperatures in England are something we as sled dog owners are all having to face and deal with accordingly, and whilst it is up to each of us as individuals to know our dogs and what kind of temperature is safe and comfortable for them to run in – as club members and participants in events we do deeply appreciate when a club makes the hard decisions about when it is time time to cut classes for the wellbeing of the dogs. In particular these decisions are so important for the clubs to make when they are the difficult-to-call temperatures, the ones which are close to the cut-off point. There are obvious temperatures which are undeniably too warm to run, but there are so many variables to take into consideration when it is close to being too warm, be it fitness levels, humidity, the age of the dog as well as differences between individual dogs, breeds and bloodlines. It is a profoundly difficult decision for organisers to make and though I can only speak for myself and my own team in this matter, I just wanted to say how much we appreciate it when any club demonstrates a clear and decisive approach to this and does not hesitate to call off events or part events when necessary. Despite unavoidable disappointments from some of those unable to run, everyone I spoke to felt it was definitively the right call, and personally we would like to thank the Alaskan Malamute Working Association for making such a decision this weekend. It sets an excellent precedent for putting dogs’ (and with the club in question here, the Alaskan Malamute breed specifically) well-being first, as well as setting a good example for dog welfare for those new to the sport. Given how many new comers there were this weekend – we applaud their action on this.
So the rally day on Sunday ended a little sooner than planned, but it allowed many of the mushers who live far away to get a head start on their journey homeward, and the rest of us plenty of time to catch up with friends not seen for many months, stretch out our dogs in the surrounding forest and of course come together for the awards ceremony at the end of the day.
At this event the 1st – 3rd place trophies were replaced with personalised photographs of the teams on the trail by professional photographer Chris Wellstead a fantastic idea which was warmly received and I think a lot of mushers are hoping that it is a trend which will continue to other rallies.
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.
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.