As my husband Erik and I are sitting at the airport in Madrid, Spain after taking the 7 hour flight from Boston, waiting to board our plan to Zürich, Switzerland the excitement sets in – we are only 24 hours away from watching the 2010 Alpen-Trail action. After following one of the most scenic, but challenging sled-dog races in Europe via computer and phone updates from my uncle and past winner Uli Kuhn for several years, seeing this alpine race and the approximately 50 teams from 6 countries in person will be a real treat! This years’ race covered 300 Kilometers over 7 stages, including Lü, Switzerland; Prags/Toblach, Italy and Sexten, Italy and for the first time in several years also included a night run.On Saturday, January 16th at 11:30AM we finally arrived in Zürich and picked up our SUV at the Sixt Rental Car counter, the only rental car company that allowed us to drive their car into Italy. Snow tires and snow chains are a must if you plan on covering the alpine terrain of Südtirol, and locating the appropriate vehicle was no easy task. We decided to spend the first night in Zürich to catch up on some much needed rest, which unfortunately meant we missed the first day of the Alpen-Trail, but we were able to go sightseeing in Zürich for a few hours.On Day 2 of the race, we left the city bright and early in the morning with the intention to watch the start of Day 2 of the race in the tiny town of Lü, Switzerland scheduled to be set off at 10:00AM. Lü lies in the valley of Val Müstair, Switzerland. After making good time despite the serious serpentines we had to drive to our destination, we were quite disappointed when we arrived in Lü, the town with the highest altitude where people live in the Alps. Due to a forecast of a bad weather front making its way towards the dog teams the race started one hour early – we once again missed the start. One of the first people we encountered at the stake out was Dillon Gast, a 17-year old musher from Vermont who had been spending 3 weeks in Europe to handle for and train with Uli. Dillon informed us that the weather on Saturday could not have been better, it was sunny and with crisp temperatures. He was quick to point out that the temperatures were much more pleasing to both dogs and humans than the temperatures in Norway where he and Uli had been spending the last few weeks to prepare the team for the Alpen-Trail. Unfortunately the already thin field of participants had dwindled down even more when several drivers had to scratch last minute, but the race was off to a great start with Heini Winter from Germany leading the 8-dog class and Sylvia Ulrich from Germany leading in the 6-dog category. Due to the impending birth of a new baby, last years’ 8-dog class winner and favorite Marte Heilemann from Norway, did not participate this year.The weather had changed its mind. It was sunny and bright as we wandered over to the start/finish line, unmistakably marked by a gigantic red/white inflatable Royal Canin gate, to observe the teams finishing their second run of the race in over 1319m altitude and over what many mushers stated to be the most technical stage of the race. The distance on Day 2 was shorter (29,2km vs. 37,5km) than the day before, but a bit of new snowfall had made the trail more difficult for dogs and drivers. As team after team crossed the finish line, we were surprised how fit the dogs were. It was tough to spot any signs of exhaustion or even heavy panting. Again, Heini Winter and Sylvia Ulrich were able to claim the fasted times of the day in their respective classes. We caught up with Uli after the run while taking a walk with his dogs to find out that he was excited to have claimed a 2nd place finish after day one, which was a nice way to celebrate his birthday.The Alpen-Trail staff did a great job organizing the event. A heated tent was erected next to the stake out for mushers and handlers to socialize and enjoy some much needed nourishment during the evening after the race. After listening to some tall mushing tales we headed back to the hotel to prepare for the migration from Val Müstair to Prags/Toblach in Italy – about a 4 hour trek by car. We decided to leave first thing in the morning while several mushers, including Uli, decided to stay behind to get a training run for their back-up dogs in. Uli had 4 additional dogs available to rotate into his team since all 8-dog teams are allowed a pool of 12 dogs (6-dog teams can draw from a pool of 8) and did not want to rest them for too long. After arriving in Prags, the mushers set up their stake-outs in Brückele and met for dinner at the conveniently located hotel/restaurant Gasthof Brückele. During dinner, I was able to catch up with Dagmar Kriegler, the Chief Veterinarian, I asked her how the dogs were responding to the challenging trails and high altitude of the previous two days. She said that they were doing well for the most part after the initial runs. She assured me that the veterinary staff of four had spent ample time inspecting each dog on Friday before the race. Some drivers had prepared their teams better for the high altitude runs than others but there were no injuries to report, only slightly tired dogs. The initial vet checks included examinations of the heart, respiratory system, paw health, range of motion as well as an overall fitness assessment and a vaccination check. In addition, the four staff veterinarians checked every single dog each day. Vets are stationed along the trail as well as at the start/finish line and work in the stake-out area. Furthermore the trail staff consults with the veterinary team to ensure that the trail is not conducive to injuries.Day 3 started off rather cold in the start/finish area in Schmieden, Italy. The teams were preparing for another challenging day. The distance was increased to 58km and 1940m altitude. While Dillon and I assisted Uli with preparing his team for the start, Erik positioned himself past the start line to take some photos. The teams made it onto the trail and we quickly jumped into the car to drive to Brückele for some additional photos. This must have been the best stage from a spectator perspective – we were able to catch the start, the climb to the Hochplateau in Brückele and the Hochplateau itself. Once we made it to the Hochplateau to watch the teams, it became obvious that this was a tough challenge, even for the most prepared teams. Both dogs and drivers looked quite exhausted as they made the turnaround, but luckily were rewarded with a steady downhill drive back to Schmieden. At the day awards, Volkmar Stuber from Germany was able to claim the fastest day-time in the 8-dog class. Sylvia Ulrich continued her reign as fastest driver in the 6-dog competition. After the awards at dinner I checked in with Volkmar Stuber who looked rather tired, but excited about his Day 3 results. He mentioned that the trail was great – a bit tricky at times as well as hard and fast, not to mention the beautiful scenery. He really had to rely on his leaders who took his commands very well. The most challenging part for him had been the beginning of the trail. After a day off his dogs were very hot and he had a difficult time holding them back. He only brought 9 dogs to his sixth Alpen-Trail and clearly was at a disadvantage compared to mushers with 12 dogs to rotate. He stated that his dogs were tired, but doing quite well, no doubt due to his thorough preparations leading up to the race. He trained for several weeks in the Alps to prepare the dogs for the distance and the altitude. Day 4 and the teams seemed noticeably calmer in the starting area. Today we decided to drive to the Hochplateau and miss the start since the trail was shortened to 51km and Erik did not want to miss the photo opportunity of catching the teams climbing up to the Hochplateau. I was asked to be stationed along the trail to help teams make the tight, slightly confusing turn at the plateau, where several teams had some challenges the day before. As we made the short hike from the parking lot to the plateau we noticed film crews. Stephanie Zahn, the veterinarian assigned to this spot on the trail explained to the film crew that the teams would be appearing out of the forest momentarily. The film crew had a bewildered look and explained that they were not there to film dog teams, but rather to catch up with the the German Olympic Cross Country Team, who was getting some high altitude training in. Well, they did not know what they were missing. The German Olympic team just finished their interview as the first teams appeared on the horizon. Heini and his team looked hardly out of breath as they made the turn at the plateau and had already taken several minutes away from both Volkmar and Uli before making the return drive down to the valley. Our attention quickly went to a screaming sound coming from the mountain. The French driver, Ludovic Farcy had loaded one of his Siberian Husky’s into the bag and the dog decided to push his head through the seams and proceeded to howl the entire way. Ludovic and Pavel Janovsky from Czechoslovakia, the lone skijoerer racing with a very rare breed, a Czechoslovakian Wolfhound were neck in neck on the way down to Schmieden. I am sure Pavel’s dog would have appreciated a pair of earplugs to block out the not-so-melodic singing of the Siberian. Thanks to a great gesture of sportsmanship by Gregor von Gumppenberg of Germany who loaned his back-up sled to Ludivic (whose Siberian had broken the sled-bag beyond repair.) He was able to continue the race. Once again, Heini ended up with the fastest time of the day, with Volkmar claiming second and Helmut Peer from Austria joining the top 3 in the 8-dog class. Helmut celebrated accordingly by buying the all mushers, handlers and staff a round of grappa at dinner. Sylvia once again claimed the fastest time in the 6-dog class followed by Thorsten Ballas of Germany and Erwin Föger from Austria. Day 5 meant packing up and making the quick drive to Sexten, Italy. We checked into our beautiful hotel at the Kreuzbergpass and made our way to the stake-out area in Moos. There the drivers were preparing for the night run stage. As drivers were mounting headlamps onto their mandatory helmets many spectators were filling in. Many more spectators were expected at the mass start the following day – the stakeout was placed in the heart of an alpine ski area. The trail was only 9,2km long and many drivers decided to rest their dogs and and either put their back-up dogs to work or cut back to only 4 dogs, which was the case for both Volkmar and Heini. Uli decided to go out with 6 dogs, including two fresh dogs who had not competed up until this day. This was a good decision on his part, he was able to take 2:46 minutes back from Heini. The fastest time in the 8-dog class however was posted by Gregor von Gumppenberg from Germany followed by Charley Franch, Spain and Gerhart Offer, Austria. In the 6-dog class, Luzi Bernhard from Switzerland claimed the fastest run, followed by Sylvia and Thorsten.The teams were back to serious work on Day 6 the day we had been looking forward to the most – the mass start! Spectators were in awe of Heini Winter and his dogs as he walked them leash-less through the stake-out area, past horse drawn sleighs, crossed the street and hooked up his team without any additional help. While Dillon and I helped Uli bring dogs to the start, Erik once again positioned himself to take photos of this spectacular event. Sleds were lined up next to each other, five rows deep. Uli secured a position in the front row. Mass starts certainly pose a threat to handlers who are holding dogs and they have to make sure they stand quietly and out of the way of the other drivers. The start went off without any major problems, unfortunately one of the harnesses on a dog in Otto Steigenberger’s 6-dog team broke. Luckily due to the quick thinking of Dagmar Kriegler who had an extra neckline handy, Otto was on his way with less than a minute lost. While waiting for the teams to return, one of the veterinarians stopped by the dog truck to treat Uli’s injured main lead dog, Hunter with magnets and a massage, which Hunter throroughly enjoyed. Despite both Heini and his dogs feeling under the weather, he completed the 46km trail in 1st place followed by Uli and Gregor. In the 6-dog class 1st place went to Sylvia followed by Andreas Wohlmut, Austria and Thorsten. The last day of the race once again started with a chaotic yet spectacular mass start in Moos. This time all handlers had to clear the start area 30 seconds prior to the takeoff due to some difficulties with teams passing them the day before. Unfortunately the start had to commence without Lutz Binzer, the main organizer of the race, who had to be brought to the hospital due to some heart problems. Heini Winter was in for a relatively relaxing run and could certainly enjoy the scenery since he had a 17 minute cushion to second place and Uli Kuhn was down to seven team dogs. In the end Heini was able to claim another Alpen-Trail win. There was a close duel between Uli Kuhn and Volkmar Stuber around 2nd place. Uli was able to claim second place, despite having to load lead-dog Tilly who was exhausted, over Volkmar by 8 seconds. In the 6-dog class, Sylvia’s hard work paid off and she ended the Alpen-Trail in 1st followed by Thorsten. Swiss Driver Luzi Bernhard unfortunately had to scratch during this last stage, which allowed Andreas Wohlmut to move into 3rd place overall. Before the evening awards Dillon, Erik and I decided to rent some sleds, take the gondola up to the Rotwand and attempt to sled the 5km run down to the stake-out area. After an exhilarating run (which resulted in some serious windburn on our faces) we embarked on some quick souvenir shopping and headed to the Sport Hotel in Moos for the awards festivities.The awards included a tasty dinner followed by a regional specialty dessert, Apfelstrudel. Awards were given to the hard-working staff, as well as officials from the town of Sexten. All participants received custom-made mugs and belts with beautiful dog belt buckles. Heini Winter and Sylvia Ulrich claimed Danler sleds as their award.After the awards we headed back to pack and embarked on our 21 hour trip home! We can truly say that the long trip was worth it. We thoroughly enjoyed watching the race, the camaraderie of all participants and the gorgeous scenery!
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,