FINNMARKSLOPET: THE EUROPEAN IDITAROD

Alaska, with its races such as Iditarod and Yukon Quest, appears in the dreams of those who fall in love with mushing.

These people can be found all over the world. Mushers live in my country – the Czech Republic – too! As time went by, I became one of them. The symptoms are almost the same: The childhood goes from Jack London´s books to the first sled dog bought by the novice, followed by another one and more and more.

Then you move to John Balzar´s and Gary Paulsen’s books and go to bed with a never-changing dream – to stand at the starting line of the most famous race of all one day…Some dreams remain dreams, and some try to fulfill those dreams. It depends on how far one wants to get or what he or she can or is ready to sacrifice.We have our own Alaska in the Orlicke Mountains.

Many European mushers come here to live their dreams for a while. A 222 km and 333 km long race called Sedivackuv Long (http://www.czechlongtrail.co) gives everyone a chance to check his or her abilities and live the dream with only a few dogs. This race can ignite a desire to go further – that is what happened to me.

These days it is easy to travel the world via the Internet and it´s impossible to miss Scandinavia on the virtual tour. It is a fantastic part of the world. Its northern part, called Laponsko, is made for dog sledding and long distance racing. The Norwegian north, Finnmark, is home to the nothernmost race in the world, the Finnmarkslopet which has two distances – 500 km and 1000 km. The Finnmarkslopet 1000 km has been starting and finishing in Alta at the beginning of March for the last 25 years and is also the longest European race. This race attracted my attention a long time ago and for many years

I followed it on the races web page (http://www.finnmarkslopet.no).

Last winter was dreadful in the Czech Republic. Having almost no snow to run on, most mushers sat at home watching the big races on the Internet and exchanging desperate jokes on Internet discussions. I suddenly thought, “Why am I not there?”

That day I dusted off my childhood dream and started working on it.With such a decision came a mountain of work to prepare everything for my journey to the North.

A critical moment for me was getting in touch with Johanne Sundby who runs Siberians in Norway. Johanne contacted me and offered her help. Our discussions led to my visit to a symposium held by the Hadakal Sled Dog Club. Support from other Norwegian mushers Geir Wiik and Hans-Christian Orjeatad suddenly made my plans look much more realistic.I got a lot of support from my old friends at home and also from the Czech dog sled equipment producers ManMat, ZeroDC, and a sled maker Franta Chla. Devold CZ and Sir Joseph helped me with clothing. I also had a great meat supply from VOM og hundemat during my stay in Norway.

I owe many thanks to all of them.The training itself started in August of last year. The peak of our preparation in the Czech Republic was taking part in Sedivackuv at the end of January. We set out on our journey to Norway at the beginning of February. The journey to Alta was 3500 km on the road. Everything felt strange in Alta and we felt like total strangers there.

We didn´t know a soul. I quickly found new friends: Arnt and Hege, Linn, Paul, Knut and also the famous Norwegian musher Roger Dahl, nicknamed Mr. Finnmarkslopet. He taught me a lot of important things, particularly about feeding the dogs during the race. We arrived in Alta one month before the race and had enough time to acclimate. Training in the Czech Republic is mostly done on zigzagging forest trails, passing houses, crossing roads, and bending our teams in sharp turns.

And then there is Norway! Norway is a vast flat plateau, where you see neither its end nor its beginning, just blue. People, as well as the dogs, have to get used to it. The time was ticking, and our Day D was getting closer and closer… We got to the start very early. (Actually, we were the first to arrive.) As time passed and everything got inevitably closer and more real I had butterflies in my stomach and my whole body trembled with an inner feeling of desperation. I began to work on an auto-pilot. I put on the harnesses and the booties, and we began to hook up the sled.

Finally, the race handlers in their yellow waistcoats came and led us to the starting line. The starting corridor was full of lined-up dogsleds and every minute one competitor after another crossed the starting line. The air vibrated with the maddening noise of barking dogs, loud music, race announcers and the rumble from a passing helicopter. I found myself at the start. I felt a heartbreaking cry of desperation deep inside my soul. It was the last minutes before the start.

I was nervous, really nervous. And finally, the countdown: THREE, TWO, ONE, and GO!!! The dogs shot out like bullets, and we were almost flying through the corridor surrounded by hundreds of people. Everyone shouted and waved. It was mad. I waved too and my heart was beating rapidly. Going through the start here is the ultimate life experience!Out on the trail it was all quiet at last. The trail follows a frozen river, on and on. How long is five hundred kilometers?

No, I thought, I must not think like that! We were heading to Jotka, which is 53 km into the race and another 88 km to Skoganvaare. Then we would travel on to Levajok, Karasjok, Jergul, Jotka and back to Alta. It started to get dark at about 6PM. A vast bluish slightly undulating plain is all I could see. As the daylight faded I saw nothing else but the yellow beam of my headlamp and my dogs´ butts rocking.

I sat in a snow hole as the dogs were having a rest. It was dark all around me. A thought entered my mind: Was it possible to give up the race here? There were no roads here. I learned at the pre-race meeting that they start looking for a lost competitor 24 hours after the last contact. The thought of waiting for a day before somebody rescued me made me get the dogs up and off we went again.

We were still going through a black tunnel, with just my headlamp to guide me. Good thing that I took the GPS with the trail coordinates marked. I could clearly see my position, and the display also showed me various little lakes and streams. I saw none of it.

All I could feel was the deep powdery snow crushing under my feet. I made the dogs beds from straw at the check points. I prepared water for the dogs and made their hot meal. They snuggled down into the straw and I massaged them. I dressed each dog into a warm outfit so their muscles could have a rest as well. No one protested.

I wrapped them all into blankets and then they all slept. I woke up after three hours of sleep and it was morning already. I could see that we were neither first nor last. The temperature was below zero, the sun was shining and the right positive thoughts were finally taking over my mind. It was only 88 km to Alta, just over the hill. The truth was somehow different. The trail started to rise steeply along the side of the mountains and a strong wind started blowing.

I put my glasses on and tightened all the covers around my face and head. Running through such wind was not new for me; I was not afraid of it and I knew that the dogs did not mind it either. It was important to follow the navigation poles and not to let the dogs be blown away from the trail. We got over the hill and found no footsteps in the deep snow. We had to find our way forward by ourselves again. The poles only showed the direction but did not say where the hard-packed trail was.

When the leader dogs stepped off the trail, they sank up to their ears into deep snow. I took over the leadership and led the dogs myself. They didn’t want to go any further. They only wished to dig a den in the snow and wait for somebody else to go first. Luckily we came across a skidoo trail and went on. It got a little warmer, rising up to only minus 1˚C. The temperature dropped down to minus 43.6˚C in 2006. I was grateful for the gentle minus 1˚C.We got on our way at 1AM. The trail rose to an upper plateau and it was dawn when we reached the top. Everything seemed to be in a blue haze. The miniature birches peeped out from the haze. There were only various shades of white and blue in front of us.

I couldn’t tell where the horizon blended with the sky. It was like a white-blue vista. I watched the never-changing countryside around me. Dogs who are cared for properly get through this race easily and without big problems. The problems lay with the humans. It is the humans who don´t finish the race. It is mainly the people who cannot persuade their minds anymore that the end will come soon.We took a break for nine hours. Surprisingly, the dogs were in very good shape. They ate, drank and got back on the trail with enthusiasm. The temperature was dropping again. We felt a hard trail under our feet for the first time during the whole race.

We had run in “snow-sand” until now. We were back in the darkness again. A light aurora borealis could be seen in the distance. We came to a place where we turned around during a training run just behind a huge lake. My leader Becky and I remembered this place very well. I knew that we would be going up a little hill now and then down and down to a lake. And there will be Jotka. We knew our way from Jotka. I didn’t want to stop again because I would not make the dogs get up anymore.

We had to keep going and finish this race.I felt dizzy from a lack of sleep and exhaustion. We had been traveling all night and it was starting to get bright. I was holding tight to the sled to make sure that I didn´t fall off. I still had to keep an eye on the dogs. When I concentrated and focused my eyes on one place I almost fell unconscious.

I couldn´t stop and sleep there as it was such a short way to the finish! I put my hand into a pocket and filled my mouth with everything I could find in a subconscious movement. It worked! When the mouth moves, the eyes do not shut! I kept stuffing myself with chocolate, dry fruit and glucose tablets till I was wide awake. I could see a shimmering cloud over Alta as the sun rose. We still had about 40km to go.

We were among trees, not just on the vast plains, and I could see the first log cabins. Go on, I told myself, we must not stop! We were coming to a river and we already knew the area here. We passed the Ice Hotel, Rodger’s place where I used to collect stones. There was someone peering at us from behind a bush. It was two elk standing there staring at us. The finish was so close now that I could feel it.I could see the finish line! We were here at last. It was such an incredible relief. This was the end. I had finally done it! 500 km by dog sled! The dogs were lying down, getting their much-deserved snacks. I accepted the congratulations. It was too early, and everyone was sleepy. Next time, I will get the timing right and arrive later in the day!

Our first Finnmarkslopet took us over 501km in 57h 39min. We spent 33h 58min resting. Our total time: 3days 20hours 06min.Thirty-two mushers out of 58 (from 10 European countries) finished the race. We came in 24th. I started with eight dogs and finished the race with all of them! I have raised my dogs since they were all puppies; six came from my own breeding. There is no purebred class in this race, but finishing the race is credited by respectable breeders and trainers. The teams of purebreds seem to be rather unique, like a memory of the good old times. It seems that mushers who use Alaskans can’t understand how others can race with Siberian huskies or malamutes.

I think that this sport is about dogs, but most of all, it is about people who love to care for dogs. Personally, I am very proud to finish the race and would like to pay a compliment to all Siberian huskies. They are fantastic animals that can captivate your heart and change your life for good.

Finnmarkslopet is a fantastic, well-organized race that everyone in Norway is very proud of. This race could become the European Long Distance Championship one day. It has beautiful trails and is easily accessible from all European destinations. I want to try the 1000 km race next year. I know that only one competitor can finish first, and it won´t be me. I also know that everyone who enters the race collects the main trophy: unforgettable memories. No one can ever take these memories away from you.

It is important to have dreams and to live a life that fulfills these dreams…or, at least, little bits of them. What I know for sure is that just standing on the starting line with my 14 dogs side by side with the best mushers in the world will be a great honor for me!!!

Jana Henychova is the first Czech woman to take part in the Finnmarkslopet. Jana runs a mushing school guesthouse. For more information, visit www.huskies.cz.