The rhythm: pole, kick, pole, kick, pole, kick. My jacket was open, my hat was off, and my body was using every ounce of oxygen my lungs would supply me with. My voice called to the dogs, and my heart soared with them. They loped with flailing tongues as we finished our 200 mile race in a side-by-side, deadlocked sprint with another dog team. My only hope was that our speed and endurance would hold for a few seconds more.This is how my first Two Rivers 200 Chatanika Challenge ended. The race took place March 7th – 9th. I had my eyes on the race last season, but with temperatures hovering around minus 40, minimal snow, a young team made up primarily of rogues from other kennels, and my own lack of experience, made me rethink racing in 2007. This season I had a Copper Basin 300 finish and two Tustumena 200’s under my belt. I felt ready for whatever challenges the race could throw at me. Extreme temperatures greeted us at the musher’s meeting. This time; however, the mercury was at the other end of the spectrum. When I pulled my hook to start the race, my thermometer was reading 51 degrees (above zero) in the sun. Instead of diving back into the truck for my bunny boots and anorak like I did at the CB300, I stripped down to my long johns.I had drawn bib #19, last position, to which my husband stated, “Well, we’ve seen it done before, last to start and first to finish!” (Not to put any pressure on me, of course.) The race started at noon under reports of threatening rain, but the high sun overhead instead softened the trail and heated the dark, thick overcoats of the athletes. I’ve been told time and again not to switch systems going into a race, but I knew I would not make it in my usual attire – a cold weather suit. My husband and I quickly traded outfits and I got to test out insulated bibs, which I will now always have on hand! My team was raring to go, but I stuck with their training run speed and took frequent breaks to allow them to cool off in snow and hydrate, even snacking them with salmon a little more often than usual to emphasize moisture intake and positive attitudes. I steadily picked off teams but was primarily focused on the new trail and my surroundings, enjoying the views and experiencing what makes this area so popular. I had raced against mushers from Two Rivers in other events and they always seemed quite proud of where they hailed from. After mushing in the Two Rivers area I now know where that pride comes from. The trail was absolutely awesome. We traveled past beautiful panoramas and went swishing through forests. The course itself made me a better musher in just one weekend, in particular due to the descent down Iowa Dome. It was thrilling to pass teams on a trail only one team wide and to weave through trees and drive over mixed terrain. The differing ecosystems tantalized all my senses; they provided a range from visual splendor to enjoyable aromas. Don’t get me wrong, it was hard work that could have gone wrong in a second if I’d caught a stump or branch, or crashed on an ice shelf, but those things didn’t happen. The trail was such a rush. Race or no race, it was a fantastic experience from the get go.By the first dog drop, 44 miles into the race, I had unknowingly passed 16 teams. Everyone in my crew looked strong and we continued on without stopping. Within a few miles, I caught up to Mike Barnett (who handles for Judy Currier and was running her dogs). I was shocked to see him (and of course thrilled), since I knew he would be driving at least one of the teams to beat. When I came upon him, his dogs were attempting to convince him that he should be taking their home trail instead of the race trail that continues on past Currier’s kennel. Barnett got them by, and then he and I moved together for the next fifty miles along the Chena River for some of the most fun I’ve had in a race. I’ve always read about the camaraderie out on the trail, but in past races I’ve usually ended up traveling alone. This was the first time I really moved with another team for an extended period and not only was it a blast, but I can honestly say it’s what put me in the lead at the halfway point, as we pushed each other the entire time.The Chatanika Challenge is a very dog friendly race, both in its format, with 10 hours of rest in a short 200 miles, and in its community, with the Pleasant Valley store providing a hot meal for the mushers and hot water for the team. All my dogs ate great, got some solid rest and had pee that was clear. This was a relief, because after the day’s heat I feared dehydration. I took six hours rest, leaving four more for the Angel Creek checkpoint, and in the dark of night I left on a rocket ship disguised as a dog team. Mike Mayer of Fairbanks was in second place and only six minutes behind. Mayer was expertly driving his team. He was last year’s runner up and a hometown favorite to win this year’s race. He closed the gap between us in a matter of miles. My dogs got off track in some overflow and his team passed by like a ghost in the night. I saw glimpses of him over the next 40 miles, but continued to just enjoy the experience and run my own race. More twists and turns along a trap line trail kept my attention through the hours of darkness. We later joined the Yukon Quest trail which was exciting in itself, and an honor to mush on. Mayer pulled into the Angel Creek checkpoint 20 seconds ahead of me as the sun was starting to rise. I still had 12 healthy dogs while Mayer was down to 10. His team seemed to be feeling the strain of the warm weather a little more than my own dogs. Mike Barnett was still in third, but he had dropped back to almost an hour behind us. Mayer and I knew this was shaping up to be a race between the two of us. We took our rest and then prepared to leave almost together. I decided to try and rattle his cage a bit, so when he headed out and my time was still ticking I yelled, “You’re going down, Mayer!” as he went by. However, when I turned to run back to my sled, I tripped over straw bedding, while simultaneously my eager-to-chase team pulled my snow hooks. I got a hand on the handlebow, but ended up getting dragged out of there on my belly, much to the delight of the checkers and race judge Leroy Shanks who yelled back to me, “You’re the one who’s going down!”I quickly regained my composure and over the next few miles Mayer and I had a couple of exchanges both in position and conversation. My team wanted to move a little slower at first and he pulled away. Fifteen miles later I saw him once again and figured him to be about five minutes ahead, so I never expected to see him again. Then, nearing the end of the race, it happened. It was the moment you imagine in your head a million times on the race, and a trillion times when out training. I spotted him across a field about five miles from the finish. Two words echoed through my head, “It’s on!” I called the team up and we quickly gained on him. I could tell the moment he realized I was there. I was so excited that I called them up almost too early because we became engaged in a sprint race with five miles still to go, but what a way to spend it. I yelled, “Where’s no-man’s land?” and he responded, “I don’t know, where you want it to be?” I said I didn’t care, and to just let me know. All the while we were both speeding along at well over 15 mph. I guess we both figured we’d just go for it, and we literally moved neck and neck along the roads to the finish line, each hoping our dogs wouldn’t falter.I’m not sure how my team and I finally pulled ahead; I just know that in the final yards we did it. Yes, WE did it! I know it wasn’t the Iditarod, but for this year it was my challenge, and my “magic carpet ride.” It was five miles of adrenaline and the finish of a lifetime. Mayer and I crossed the finish line 15 seconds apart and a feeling of fulfillment blanketed me. It was my first 200 mile victory and I’d earned winnings that actually added up to more than I put into the race. The dogs looked great and they would have been able to continue on if I’d needed them to. My emotions took hold of me, not because of these added bonuses, but because of the realization that the decisions I’ve made (and sometimes agonized over) in maintaining a small kennel living by a humane ethical standard had paid off. That felt so good. I look forward to competing in this event again due to how well it was run, how musher friendly the host community was, and how much it lived up to its “challenge” moniker. Colleen Robertia and her husband manage Rogues Gallery Kennel, a sled dog rescue and racing kennel in Kasilof, AK.


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