Just yesterday I was chatting with a good friend and she asked “What Checkpoint are you at?” I thought , “Gez… Linda are you off your rocker? It’s summer and the Iditarod is over.” She soon explained her question: If you consider your foot surgery a sled dog race, how many miles do you have left to go?
Hummmmm. I had never thought about my predicament that way. Strange, considering I am currently writing my 2016 Iditarod Trail Notes. I should have thought that way from the start. So, I looked through my current writings and made a few comparisons. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not sure where “I’m at” in the Foot Recovery. But, I’ve just left Nikolai in my Trail Notes. So… let’s say Mile 263 of 975!
The Iditarod: For me, the Iditarod is the culmination of so much. A year of constant brainstorming and thought, acting and reacting on plans and ideas, constantly revising and improving on everything I do. All with with complete and utter dedication.
I look forward to the Iditarod because nothing else matters. It all comes down to one thing. Only one priority. One thing to act on. One thing to worry about: my dog team and our speedy journey down the 1,000 mile race route. No phone calls or emails. No thoughts about the kennel. No family, sponsors, puppies, geriatric dogs, vet bills, fixing sleds, broken dog trucks, dog food deliveries… none of that. Only one thing. It is the center of my world for 8 to 10 days and I love it!
The Foot: It took some research and planning. First I had to find a “real Doctor” – you know one that you can go to regularly, get a check up, phone if you feel sick and generally “have in your back pocket for future issues”. I haven’t had a “real Doctor” my entire adulthood. For the past 20 plus years, when I needed stitches, I did them. But, being in my mid 40’s it seemed about time. Both of my step daughters are nurses and they found me the perfect Doc in Fairbanks (honestly, they were probably just sick of me asking them for doctorly health advice!) Once I was deemed ‘healthy enough’ to have surgery, I just needed to 1) plan the time and 2) find the money. These two significant factors pointed to ‘soon after Iditarod’ because 1) downtime would be possible in April and May and 2) we would have the $10,000 insurance deductible needed from Iditarod race winnings (hopefully!)
The Iditarod: It is was exciting to be starting the Iditarod… again. I was anxious, but not nervous. There were many miles and many adventures that lay ahead. We would take it one mile at a time. What mistakes would we make and what successes would we have?
As I walked in front of my team to the starting line, I had at least a dozen dog handlers holding back the team. The dogs were very well behaved but, understandably very excited to start their upcoming adventure. Under the start banner, I was busy checking in with my dogs. I was also saying thank you to family and friends when the starter got to “3 – 2 – 1 GO!” Although we left the start line a tiny bit late, we still shot out like a rocket.
The Foot: Despite the pleasant surroundings of the Surgery Center, I was nervous and I told Allen “If the Doc doesn’t show up soon, I’m outta here.” It was 6AM and if I was actually going to do this, we needed to start now. At 6:05AM a nurse came to lead me away. So … 3 – 2 – 1 – Go!
The Iditarod: By the time that I arrived at Rainy Pass Lodge, it was late afternoon of the second day. Over half the teams in the race were there. I stopped well before the parking area and checked in with the Race Judge and the Veterinarian. Our food drop bags were piled off to the side of the trail. Well, our food drops were a little farther off to the side since they were sorted alphabetically. “Z”!!!! I asked the Race Judge to stand on my sled brake and anchor hook while I hustled over to get my bags. I knew that another dog team was only minutes behind us, because I had passed it only a few miles back so I hurried. I didn’t want to cause any more chaos than was already apparent with 40 dog teams, 40 airplanes and way more than 40 spectators at the checkpoint.
My team happily followed me over to look through my bags as the Race Judge tried to command my team. “Bad dogs!” They were supposed to stay lined out straight ahead on the trail, but the crinkle of a bag full of salmon snacks was an irresistible temptation for Waylon and Mismo. I grabbed a few more snacks, some other gear and we collectively walked back over to the trail before the next dog team arrived. I signed my Vet book just below the line where the Vet had signed and we were okay to continue. We were off.
We literally threaded a needle of 40 parked dog teams, 20 on each side, as they lay resting on enticing beds of straw with tasty piles of dog snacks and kibble scattered everywhere. I never took my focus off our destination on the far side of all these temptations. I spoke in a strong, yet compassionate voice: “Straight ahead.” As I mentioned, our dogs are not tethered by a leash to their collars. So, if the entire team, or any one member, decides that he or she would really rather stay and camp alongside Ray Reddington’s team (for instance), than they have every opportunity to do so. This requires mental control of the dogs rather than physical control. The complete dedication and obedience of my team not only impressed me, but also several hundred spectators who stopped to watch me pass through. “Good dogs”.
The Foot: Surgery went well. I came home and started to heal. Physically this was all up to my body. Mentally I had to ‘not screw up’. That meant don’t make any mistakes! The better I took care of the incision, the more I would ice it and elevate it, then the quicker it would heal. I needed to be cautious and forward thinking. It was simple actually, just do what you are supposed to do and see what pans out down the trail.
Navigating my surroundings with crutches was my first challenge. It’s not especially hard, it’s just time-consuming and requires concentration. Don’t rush, be careful on the stairs and try to stay on the “main trail”. I did made a few mistakes, now and then, but started to learn how to manage one-legged.
The biggest challenge was the mental hurdle: “Don’t put weight your right foot.” In order for my bones to fuse, I can’t stress them. That’s not normal. My natural tendency is to lead with my right foot. My immediate response to any problem is to jump up a “GO!” Obviously defying my Doctors orders. “Bad dog!” The Doc wrapped my foot in a large, rigid boot and ordered me to wear it “24/7”, so I do. I am convinced that this boot protects my toe only a little. Mostly it is a 5 pound ankle weight that constantly reminds me “Don’t put weight your right foot.” Maybe I’m the kind of dog that needs a neck line?!?
I am thankful to all the ‘spectators’ from who I’ve received: cards, notes, messages, gifts, comments, thoughts and prayers. I do feel like you are cheering me on. Friends have visited, chauffeured me around and been encouraging. So, I’ve gotten quite a few “Good dog!” praises and each one feels great!
The Race Continues
The Iditarod: I sat directly in front of a campfire that I kept stoked with small pile brush and twigs that I had gathered from nearby. My dog food cooker was set up just to my left so I could remain seated and just swivel in order to replenished it with snow. It took quite a while to chip the ice off my shoe laces, untie them and thaw the leather uppers enough to retract my feet. I pulled out the soaking wet foam liners. I then held each boot carefully above the fire so as not to burn it, but thaw it as much as possible. The ice melting off my boots was actually dripping into the fire. All the while, I was lucky that one of the few camp luxuries that I bring along is a pair of goose down slippers. It took a long time to get my boots to the point I was satisfied. I chastised myself profusely for forgetting my overboots. If I had them then I wouldn’t have to spend this extra time drying my boots. This rest period was flying by and I hadn’t even shut my eyes for a moment. Each one of my rests are scheduled for the benefit of both the dogs and myself – skipping a sleep was a poor idea. So, I decided that I would stay longer at this spot than I had originally intended. It’s worrisome to add more rest than your plan stipulates this early in the race because you feel like you are “falling behind”. But, I felt I needed to do it for the long term goal.
I stood up and did the remainder of my chores – sorting and repacking. I had made a large meal for the dogs. I had already eaten my meal. When I stood up to adjust my sleeping cocoon, the dogs looked at me with curiosity. I looked at my watch. We had rested so long that they were already hungry. So, I changed my plan again and fed them before I took my nap. This took more time, and again I cursed myself for forgetting my overboots. Finally, after all my chores were compete, I laid down to get a quick nap. I used my now damp boots as my pillow so that they didn’t sit out in the slightly below freezing temperatures and turn into icicles.
We left our camp spot soon after my alarm woke me from my short nap. Next stop Nikolai. The team was a bit sluggish as daylight came over the horizon. We passed Hugh Neff along the way and Pete Kaiser passed us. It was a game of leap frog.
We pulled into the checkpoint about 10 in the morning the second day of the race. We were about an hour behind the first teams that had arrived. Ironically, the same amount of time I had added to our rest schedule.
The Foot: Passing the third week of healing was a milestone. The incision looked great and the swelling had reduced. Doc gave me the go ahead to do a little more activity. I switched from ‘normal’ crutches to an iWalk Crutch. It changed my attitude completely. I could now use my hands and could start helping around the house.
Allen and I made an agreement that I could visit the outside dogs but only after he fed and did chores. Some of the dogs were frightened of the crutch. I could bond with all my dogs again. They were very excited (as was I) but they quickly learned that I was quite serious when I said, “Don’t jump on me.”
I was really trying not to make any mistakes. I did have one fall – I stepped this way and the crutch went that way. That proves that Doc really knew what he was doing by making me wear that heavy boot all the times, because there was no damage done. But, it was a reality check to slow down. I didn’t, literally, need to take any steps backward. It was hard enough to step forward!
So here I am at Mile 263 of 975. That is certainly a a chunk of time behind me, but still a large amount lay ahead. Of course, I’ll continue to stay positive and keep my head up. You never know what’s gonna happen, right?!