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The couple that owned the Ophir checkpoint cabin filled Lainey full of hot stew. Volunteers, mushers and drying gear filled most the available space. There was no room for mushers to sleep inside, but Lainey did not mind, wanting to be with her dogs after her extensive rest break in McGrath. She easily slipped back into the rhythm of the race, making sure her dogs were fed and watered and healthy before caring for herself. It took a little doing, but she forced herself to drink two of her fruit juices instead of one as Scotch had directed.
After a three hour nap, her alarm woke her with soft beeping in her ear. She quickly looked around to see if Roman had ditched her, but he snoozed on his sled a few yards away. There were four other mushers taking their breaks here, but she was not worried about them. With careful movements, Lainey got up and began her parting chores. She did not want to wake him if she could help it, though she figured he would be up on his own soon. No reason to give him more of an edge, was there?
She did not talk to her dogs this time, not wanting her voice to carry to Roman's sled, though she still gave them all the affection they were accustomed to as she fed them. She stepped lightly and tried to make as little noise as possible. By the time she was halfway through her tasks, Roman jerked awake, probably from his own alarm clock. Seeing her in the middle of her preparations, he shook his finger at her and dragged himself from his sleeping bag.
Lainey grinned, moving faster since she had no more need to be stealthy. Before he had time to finish feeding his team, she was booting dog paws and cleaning up their parking area.
She waved cheerily at him as her team mushed past, heading for the checkpoint. She thought she heard him grumbling at her, and she chuckled.
It was about six thirty in the morning as her team left the Christmas cabin. The sky was still dark though the sun would begin to rise in about an hour. Lainey waited until they got away before drinking more juice, mindful of Scotch's warning. She could not allow herself to be as messed up as before. There were no more twenty-four hour breaks ahead and still two thirds of the race to go.
The trail was still fast and easy, both a gift and a curse to her. Cold weather and easy trails let her get farther in less time, but also gave the same advantage to Roman and anyone else in the vicinity. Within the first few miles, the team crossed the Innoko River twice. Then they went into trees and onto tundra for awhile, paralleling the rivers as they went. The dogs trotted along, still energetic after their long layover, and Lainey could not help but feel proud of them. She had trained them all season and they seamlessly worked together as if they had been doing this for years. Granted, most of them had, but not together in this particular working arrangement.
As the miles passed, she kept an eye out for Roman. She estimated he was close to a half hour behind her as far as checking out. Whether or not he would catch up before she reached Cripple was the question. The sun rose, and she turned off her head lamp, putting on sunglasses to combat the glare of light on snow. Her heart ached at the sheer beauty of the area. According to her research, if the Iditarod did not go through here, no one would pass along these hills and river at all. This section of trail was too remote for anything more than back packers and the like during summer.
She snacked her dogs, keeping an eye behind her for evidence of Roman's approach. Still nothing. Had he decided to take his time?
The trees thinned and disappeared. Blackened stumps thrust from the snow and even in the dead of winter she could smell a hint of ash. A fire had come through here at some point in the past, and the trail led right through the damage. Lainey prepared herself for a rougher ride, but it never materialized. This burn was far less dangerous than the Farewell Burn.
Her team ate up the miles, rolling in snow to cool off when she stopped to snack them, and biting at it to quench their thirst. The trail crossed the river again. Burnt trees faded, replaced by uninjured ones.
Lainey's bladder began to argue with her about all the liquids she was drinking, and she fought with it for a while. Sooner or later they had to come to the next checkpoint. She dug out her copy of Scotch's notes, flipping through the pages. Scotch said it was normally a four to six hour run at the most. Lainey checked her watch. She had been on the trail for close to four hours. Should she stop and find a shrub or keep on a little while longer?
Deciding to tough it out, she continued on. She fantasized about being in the middle of the desert, trying to convince her body that she had not had anything to drink for days, that she was parched with thirst. It worked for a few more miles, but as the sled hit various ruts and bumps her bladder twinged more and more.
She debated how long it would take her to drop her drawers long enough to pee and move on. Her worries grew by leaps and bounds as she went, becoming so water logged that she almost missed the checkpoint as it came up.
"Whoa!" she called, stomping on the brake, and then cursing as the liquid in her bladder wobbled dangerously. Just what she needed was to pee her pants out here in the middle of an Alaskan winter.
She checked in, breathlessly demanding the location of the latrine.
The checker, a thin woman with a bright orange parka, chuckled. "It's over there. Go ahead, I'll have the vet wait until you're done."
When she finished, she ambled out of the outhouse with a relieved smile. Her dogs watched her, grinning and laughing as if to say they had it far easier than she. Of course, they did, having been trained to relieve themselves as they ran. A couple of men were with them, already checking each animal's health.
"Feel better?" one asked.
Lainey chuckled. "You can't imagine." She found her vet notes and handed them over.
"Looking good," the other said after completing his examination. He made some notes on one of the pages. "That one has some cumulative abrasions to her paws, though."
She gave Heldig a concerned look. "I don't want to run her into the ground. Do you think I should drop her now?"
The veterinarian considered a moment, even going back to Heldig to go over her feet again. "Not yet. I think she's good for a few more miles. She's definitely healthy enough to get you to Ruby, maybe even Galena."
Lainey nodded. Ruby was the next checkpoint and seventy miles away. Galena was the one after, about sixty miles further. "Okay. Thanks."
As she turned away from the vets, she saw Roman arrive. She debated snacking the dogs and getting out of the checkpoint to camp in the wild. No. Just her luck, he would decide to do the same and pass her up somewhere on the trail. Then he would know it for the ruse it was. There was still plenty of time for friendly competition as they neared the end of the race.
She directed her dogs to the holding area and began the process of feeding them and putting them to bed. Melted snow for water, two Gatorades drained, dog chow distributed and straw laid out for them. She was pleased to see Roman remained at the checkpoint, as well. She heated a couple of Molly's sandwiches on the lid of her boiling pot. She downed them, followed by warmed pumpkin bread slathered with butter for dessert. The butter tasted better than the bread, and she remembered Scotch eating a stick of butter at an earlier break. While the thought of doing the same still made her lip curl, her mouth watered a little.
Maybe one of the upcoming villages would have a store or something. She certainly did not have any extra butter in her food drops like Scotch did, not having planned for the craving.
Lainey yawned, and she put aside her considerations. She heard Scotch's voice in her head. "If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of your dogs." Smiling, Lainey prepared her sled and sleeping bag for a nap.
When she woke, it was still daylight, though the sun hung low enough to play hide and seek among the tree tops. It was cold, but not terribly so. She had a small thermometer attached to her sled, and it indicated the temperature hanging somewhere above zero. Lainey felt a mental burble of laughter. That was not what she was thinking last year about the weather! A few other mushers utilized this checkpoint for a break. As before, she kept her activities concealed, making as little noise as possible. Roman had learned his lesson, though. He had parked as close to her as he could, and woke when she started up her cookers. Lainey sighed in resignation as he rolled out of his sleeping bag with a knowing grin.
"Fool me once," he said, and began his own preparations.
Lainey smiled. "Didn't anybody teach you that the female is the more devious of the species?"
He barked a laugh. "Is that my warning?"
She did not answer, giving him a placid look. He laughed again, and she turned her attention to her team.
Heldig's paws were worn but not too much so, just as the veterinarian had said. Lainey donned her latex gloves and hand warmers, and slathered Heldig's pads with ointment. "Duct tape is still an option," she told her. Her response was a snuffling kiss on the cheek.
Chibee whined in excitement as dinner was dished out. "You act like I never feed you," she said. He ignored her words, falling to his chow with single minded purpose.
Nearby, Roman chuckled. "It's never enough." He glanced up from his cookers. "You might want to up their fat intake a little. How much are you running?"
"About a half pound." Lainey went back down the line with the extra water.
"Maybe make it three quarters, at least through the interior. They'll burn it up."
She murmured a response and continued her tasks. Would Roman endanger her dogs by giving her poor advice, all to beat her? From what she had read and heard of the Spencers, they seemed to be decent kennel owners. At the very least, Georgio Spencer had won three Iditarods and two Yukon Quests over the years. Roman had the experience of being raised in a kennel, just like Scotch had. There was also her own craving for butter. Were the dogs feeling the same?
Lainey decided that he would not give advice designed to affect her dogs and, hence, her standing in the race. Besides, what would be the point? So he could arrive in Nome a few places before her? He would be in upper middle of the pack, anyway. The major champion contenders were already jockeying for position.
Regardless, she resolved to not take his advice. Not until she could talk to Scotch, at least. Chances were good they would see each other in Ruby. She could ask her then. The only reason Scotch had not been at the Cripple checkpoint was because she normally blew through to camp in the woods nearby. Lainey, however, still held a little trepidation at being so far from civilization. Even the meager population of a checkpoint in the wild felt safer. There would be no choice between here and Ruby, though. The next checkpoint was too far away for the dogs to run all in one round. Lainey would have to camp in the wilderness next time.
She gathered doggie dishes and blankets, cleaned her area, and booted her team. It was becoming second nature. She finished the task in less than fifteen minutes this time. By the end of the race, she would be doing the same thing in five. This time she grabbed a bail of straw and lashed it to her sled. The dogs would need some warm bedding out on the trail.
"See you out there," she told Roman, who was in the final stages of preparation himself.
"I'm right behind you."
Lainey grinned at the inherent threat of his words. Rather than take the bait, she ordered her dogs toward the check out point. It was time to put some distance between them, at least for a little while.
The straw lashed to her sled made the ride a bit ungainly, but the good weather compensated for the extra weight. Cool temperatures and the setting sun made for decent trail. Anything that had softened up during the day would freeze over in the night. Lainey's team trotted along in the footsteps of thirty mushers with little difficulty. She joined the dogs, stripping off her parka to combat overheating as she ran alongside the sled.
They passed through an abandoned mining town, with old and deteriorating cabins on either side of the trail. This was Poorman, once a booming metropolis in the early 1900's when the siren's song of gold had plucked the string of many a man's heart. Even after they left Poorman behind them, occasional mining camps sat desolate and forgotten off to either side. Lainey almost wished she could stop and explore. If it were not for the threat of Roman overtaking her she might have. Instead, she sighed and continued to run with her dogs.
The team climbed to high ground for a bit. When the team dropped to Sulatna River, Lainey hopped back onto the runners. Iditarod markers were easy to see, which was fortunate. Along this stretch there were many trails, evidence of wildlife, trappers and trail breakers. Even with the well marked paths, it was easy to be distracted onto a different one and Lainey was forced to keep her attention on the trail instead of sight see. It was just as well since the sun would be setting soon.
Lainey went over her notes while on the easy sections, though she kept her eye open for sweepers. She expected some difficulties once they hit the road. Chuckling, she said, "What the hell is a road doing out here?"
No answer was forthcoming, but her timing was good. The road in question loomed up before her, and the team ran along it. Up ahead was the Sulatna Crossing, a steel bridge spanning a creek. According to trail markers, Lainey was supposed to go right over it, but she halted the dogs. The bridge looked pitted and worn in her head lamp, just like Poorman had. Was it truly safe to cross?
Lainey snacked her dogs and checked Heldig's paws. She still had one bootie on, and Lainey put on three more. Then she walked back to the bridge and peered down. The drop was about fifteen feet, no worse than falling off the roof of the cabin. But at least there she would not have a heavy sled and fifteen dogs to tangle in if she slid off. She reached out and thumped the steel. It seemed solid enough, and there were no tracks showing mushers taking a different route. She had not gotten lost because the way had an official Iditarod marker.
She heard barking behind her and ran to her sled. Damn. Roman was coming. She would be damned if she let him catch her ogling. "Let's go!"
Her dogs, eager to keep ahead of the approaching team, bustled across with ease. Lainey glanced back to see Roman coming up to the bridge. She envied his assurance as he never wavered, letting his team pull him across without a second thought. Was she more cautious than he was? Or did he simply have the benefit of hearing Iditarod tales as he grew up?
In any case, he was here now, and she could either urge her dogs forward or let them run at their own pace. Lainey had to remind herself that the race was already won and she still had days to go before reaching the end. Risking her dogs now would do nothing but force her to scratch before Nome when they became too exhausted.
Keeping that firmly in mind, Lainey refused to become too disgruntled as Roman passed her with a grin. Much. Her trash talkers had other ideas, though, as they bitched and kvetched at Roman's dogs, who returned the favor with lots of swagger and tail wagging. She laughed at her team, proud of their attitude. "That's right, you tell them," she said.
The trail continued on the road for several miles. They followed it between two lakes and across a creek. There was some overflow here but nothing too dangerous. A decent breeze pushed through the area, causing small drifts that smoothed into the trail, but even that difficulty hardly slowed them.
Lainey passed Roman while he was snacking his dogs, and tried not to grin too impudently. They were evenly enough matched that he would pass her when she stopped to do the same.
Apparently the road followed switchbacks that the trail did not. Her team went off the road for a time only to return to it for a while longer, then repeated the procedure. In the dark it was a rude surprise to find herself suddenly in a ditch due to glacier like run off crossing the trail. A couple of times Lainey balanced on one runner to keep upright. A spiteful little voice hoped that Roman would have the same difficulties.
They passed a highway maintenance shed, though there was no way this road could be termed a highway, even without snow and ice covering the pavement. Providing there was pavement under the snow. The breeze was stronger here, but the treeline kept it to a minimum. It was not long before the trail climbed out of that meager protection.
Here the wind was stronger and had scrubbed parts of the trail clean. Lainey learned first hand that the road was not paved as her teeth rattled from going over bare gravel. Rather than worry about Roman overtaking her, she now ran along with her team to lighten the weight of the sled, hoping the runners would survive the rough ride. She had spare plastic runners to replace the coverings that were shredding, but if the metal parts of the runners themselves were damaged . . . Lainey only had one other sled waiting at a checkpoint, her sprint sled at Unalakleet, and that was two hundred miles or more away.
The sled trundled along for some time, the occasional patch of remaining snow giving sharp contrast to the grating of the road and the wind pulling at Lainey's parka. Finally, the trail dipped back into the protected tree line, and snow once more carpeted the ground. Lainey breathed a sigh of relief.
She passed a sign, Mile Point 30. It would be time to stop soon. Lainey turned off her head lamp and looked behind her, not wanting to give Roman a chance to see her if she could help it. His lamp was nowhere in sight. Either he had dropped back or he had turned his lamp off for the same reason. Lainey grinned.
More signs, these indicating the trail where it ran through a summer village called Long. Everything was boarded up for the winter, but the buildings were well cared for, not like the aging Poorman she had passed outside of the last checkpoint. According to her notes, she was at the halfway point between Cripple and Ruby. If she went much further, she would be back into exposed wind and weather. Again she glanced back. Had Roman stopped for a rest break? Should she?
Outside of Long, Lainey pulled her team to the side of the trail. She turned on her head lamp to read her watch and was surprised to see she had only been out for four hours. She still had two more to go before reaching her recommended run / rest schedule. Two more hours would put her almost to Ruby. It would be ridiculous to rest then, knowing she only had twenty miles to the checkpoint.
Lainey snacked the dogs, giving them moose liver chunks which they snapped up as if starved. Then she returned to her sled to grab a bite for herself and think.
Scotch was at Ruby already. Lainey really needed to talk to her about increasing the fat intake of her dogs. Besides, she missed her. They had not been separated for this long since Lainey's arrival in June. It had been over twenty-four hours since Lainey had seen her. If she were to follow her original plan and camp out, she might miss Scotch in Ruby.
On the other hand, running the dogs on through might be a hardship for them. She had confidence they could handle the extra mileage, but worried that it would upset her carefully planned schedule. Why had she put a rest break here?
Lainey flipped through her notes. They were a combination of Scotch's trail notes blended with Thom's Iditarod days and Lainey's personal research. She sipped at a juice pack, absently nibbling at a frozen Twinkie in between pages. It took her a few minutes, but she finally located the reason she originally planned a full rest break.
When Thom had been running the race, the trail between Cripple and Ruby had been over a hundred miles long. For various reasons Lainey was not privy to, the trail had been altered a few years earlier, cutting that mileage to just over seventy. Scotch's notes showed a good place to camp out near Long, but Scotch also tended to blow through checkpoints and park away from people. Lainey had combined the older trail information with Scotch's camping spot, and assumed she would need to park before reaching Ruby.
She frowned at the bale of straw lashed to her sled. Damned if she could drop it out here for no reason; it would be the same as littering. She would look like ten kinds of fool bringing it into Ruby. Lainey blew out a breath. Oh, well, nothing to be done for it now. At least she could take the time to go over her sled runners and change them out if needed.
It was too early to feed the dogs, so Lainey gave them a second snacking instead. Then she began the process of unloading her sled in order to turn it on its side. A few minutes later, she was pleased to note that the sharp gravel had not done as much damage as she had thought. She chewed her lip, wondering if she should give the runners a good waxing before packing up again. Her team sprawled on the snow, some catching a quick nap and others watching her as if to ask, Are we staying or going?
If she stayed much longer, all her dogs would be sleeping. She would play hell waking them up. An interruption like that might cause them to give her trouble for disturbing their slumber. She set her sled upright and quickly packed it again, talking loudly to her team to keep them awake.
By the time she tied the straw back on, most of them were at least sitting up. Lainey went down the line, scratching, petting, and wrestling with them until even Bonaparte was ready to go. She returned to her sled, popped the snow hook, and called, "Let's go!"
They were back on the trail before she thought of Roman again. Where was he? Surely he would have passed her by now. Lainey turned to look behind her but saw nothing. Maybe he had had far more difficulties than she did on that stretch of gravel. Either that or he had the same outdated information she had and was holed up for a nap.
The dogs took her through a quiet little valley. With no sign of pursuit, Lainey's eyelids began to grow heavy. She yawned and forced herself to stand up straight. Now was not the time to snooze. Rummaging in her personal bag, she pulled out a fresh battery pack for her iPod. Soon she was dreaming on with Aerosmith.
After hitting mile post 18, she climbed a high ridge, maybe thirteen hundred feet in altitude. On the other side was a gradual downgrade. She was still on the road so overflow and ice was still a problem, making an easy run hazardous. The trail bottomed out and crossed a bridge before rising again. She went up and down hills with some regularity, always on the road. In some cases, her head lamp illuminated nothing to her right, indicating steep a drop off. She kept a wary eye on the trail at those points. An overflow heading down hill could force her toward the edge before she knew what was happening.
At the top of the last hill, she realized she was at an intersection. Grinning, she could see lights in the distance. Ruby was just ahead. As the sled battled the icy road, she made out large square shapes on the side. At first she thought they were small buildings or tree trunks, but one was near enough that her head lamp lit it well. It was a sign, a crudely drawn picture of a dog team with a childish scrawl over the top - 'Welcome to Ruby Checkpoint, Iditarod Musher!'
Lainey laughed. Six hundred fifteen miles done, and only four hundred ninety-seven to go!
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