JUNIOR MUSHERS - A COACH SEES HIS SKI TEAM GO TO THE DOGS
Featured in the July/August 2006 Issue:I know that Sheryl Crow was not singing about dog sports when she recorded the classic, “the First Cut is the Deepest,” but ironically, it fits my circumstances. You see, although I thoroughly enjoy the peacefulness of long runs mushing on the open tundra, my first, true love is skijoring. I was finding some balance between the two until this year when I was presented the once in a lifetime opportunity to coach my son in cross-country skiing, and accepted the position of head coach for both the junior high and high school teams. A big concern with my new role was how to keep both my dogs and me in shape. Ski practice would be a major loss of training time for the dogs, and because a fair number of beginning skiers had signed up, not very physically rewarding for the coach. Something had to give, and I knew that thing would be skijoring. Even before coaching, my skijor days had dwindled - the culprit being my “greed for speed.” At one point in time I swore I’d stop at three dogs and just skijor forever. Two years ago, however, I had enough dogs to buy a sled and race with the local kennel club. Since then, days riding the runners have outnumbered days riding the planks.When the skiing season began, my team of nine dogs was already in peak racing form. But then they were essentially being shut down for the season - turned into weekend warriors at best. How could I skijor with just a few dogs on my free days when there were so many other excited faces looking at me? Throughout the ski season, I was always trying to find ways to keep each session fresh. So, one day I decided to bring two dogs to practice. Frodo and Ripley, my oldest and most experienced skijorers, did well at handling the pressure of being passed off from one skier to another. The move was an instant hit, and the kids were begging for more. The success of that day sent my mind reeling. Had I found a way to get my dogs more miles, to make my ski practices more varied, and to skijor more often? Had I found a way to “have my ski and jor it too?”The next phase of the experiment was to increase the number of teams we could get out together. Since all of my dogs have run in lead for me at one time or another, the biggest problem would not be in keeping the guys lined out, but rather, in preventing them from getting crossed. There were quite a few tangles the first couple of times the teams stopped to regroup. Doing the skijor limbo under a teammate’s bungee line was not a desired effect. The kids found out that the coach wasn’t kidding when he said the best way to keep dogs from moving over into the paths of other skijor teams was by developing strong snowplowing skills. The biggest logistical challenge (aside from rigging up enough lines and belts) was to match skiers of different abilities to the right dogs so that the group could keep from getting too spread out. The larger skiers take my strongest pulling main leaders. My son takes a dog he raised and trained from a pup, and plays “pied piper” for the whole group. Steady but plodding Frodo goes with the least sure skier, and so on. I take two dogs, which gives me the option to swap dogs with kids if they are having trouble.To date, our record for the most out at one time is four kids plus the coach - a total of six dogs. It is very satisfying to see the skijor pairs as they work their way down the trails in unison. Each team becomes part of a spectacular “skijor convoy.” The kids have become more confident skiing with their fury partners (and visa versa), which will allow us to get even more teammates out next year. While the new arrangement is great for me and the dogs, it has some very important benefits from a ski coaching perspective; the most obvious being that my new skijorers have improved their balance by having increased opportunities to handle speed. This is a real bonus since all the race courses in our region have steep, challenging sections, and we have difficulties training for them in the flatlands surrounding Nome.To our skijorers, even going up Gold Hill, which at an elevation of 100 feet is the highest point in our practice area, gives the same effect as a gradual descent without dogs. Skijoring down the hill feels much like a moderate slope at a downhill ski area. The “perpetual decline” derived from this gives us our only real means to practice high speed tucks.We are also learning advanced ski techniques, especially the ones we would otherwise need long speed sections or moderate race declines to master. Most notably, the learning curve for my racers developing the V2 technique (where a skate skier pole plants every time he/she moves either ski forward), and the V2 Alternate (where the skate skier initiates a pole plant after gliding on both skis) has dramatically increased.These techniques are critical for obtaining the highest levels in cross-country ski racing, and skijor racing as well. (Note to all skijorrers – a great DVD for learning both the V2 and V2 Alternate is Lee Borowski’s The New Simple Secrets of Skating).So, it looks like I have found a way to avoid Ms. Crow’s situation of forever losing the thing I dearly love. And in doing so, I am experiencing the best of both worlds. My ski team gets an uncommon experience, while at the same time developing better skate skiing skills. I can still take those long weekend rides on my sled with all the dogs, and best of all, some days I’m able to get most of my dog team out skijoring.