Granby musher competes in national race | SkyHiNews.com

Granby musher competes in national race

Anna Winkel
Sky-Hi News Contributor

YMCA of the Rockies Marketing Director Martha Sortland is sleep-deprived.

Not from late nights at bars or parties, although the company she keeps can be rowdy and loud. The 29-year-old dog musher is preparing for a 103-mile mid-distance dog sled race starting Sunday, Jan 24.

Last Sunday night Sortland, equipped with expedition-weight clothing, a headlamp, and a team of eight enthusiastic Alaskan huskies, covered 50 miles of terrain in two 25-mile runs with four hours of rest in between. Sortland, the dogs, and dog handler and coach, Steve Peterson, got finished well past two in the morning.

"It's a huge commitment," said Peterson. "We've been out so many mornings at 4 a.m. while it's cold enough for the dogs."

“She’ll experience things she’s never dreamed of out on that trail at night. … There’s something magical about it.”
Steve Peterson
Sled dog handler, coach, and trainer

Warmer temperatures sap the dogs' energy and impact their morale, according to Sortland, so she trains while most people are sleeping — early mornings or late into the night.

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Last Sunday's race simulation was Sortland's last major training run before her team competes in the national John Beargrease sled dog marathon. The course begins near Duluth, Minn., and follows the north shore of Lake Superior through the Sawtooth Mountains. Sortland is one of 29 entrants for the mid-distance race of 103 miles. She is the only competitor representing Colorado.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am really excited," she said.

Six Months of Training

Sortland and her mentor Peterson, a race veteran, began training last August. The dogs pulled an ATV until there was enough snow to run a sled. Since then the rookie musher and experienced handler have spent countless hours putting together the right team of dogs and building the relationship between Sortland and her team.

"It takes a while for them to trust your judgment. Trust is a big part of it," said Sortland. "They feel like co-workers. It's not that I'm the leader so much as the organizer."

Sortland's team was bred and raised by Peterson. Some have Iditarod pedigrees, and two have previous race experience. The rest are as green as Sortland, who is looking forward to the challenge of her first race.

"It's mental," she said. "A lot of it is positive thinking and feeling prepared."

Sortland recognizes that the cold will be a factor.

"I am aware that the cold in Duluth and Northern Minnesota is a different kind of cold," said the Minneapolis native.

Peterson, also originally from Minnesota, has vivid memories of his 2008 Beargrease run.

"It's extreme. I remember laying there trying to sleep at minus 35 degrees," he said. "I just couldn't get warm."

National Caliber Race

Colorado offers a handful of sprint-distance dog sled races, two of which are hosted here in Grand County. Sortland and Peterson chose to travel to compete on a longer course.

The John Beargrease is one of the premier national marathon dog sled races in the lower 48. The race began in 1980 to honor the Native American outdoorsman who delivered the mail and other necessities to the isolated communities there between 1879 and 1899. He and his dogs spread news of the region and kept people connected.

"We figured we might as well go to the grand-daddy of races," Peterson said.

Sortland will be navigating the sled for 24 hours, with eight hours of mandatory rest for all competitors (dogs and mushers). There are no substitutions — if a dog is injured or sick, she will run short and carry the incapacitated pooch on the sled until she reaches a checkpoint.

"It's all about the dogs," said Peterson. "Being out with the dogs. It's a numinous experience. She'll experience things she's never dreamed of out on that trail at night. … There is something magical about it."

Supporters in Grand County can follow Sortland and her team's progress at http://www.beargrease.com. All the competitors will have GPS units on board.

Coach, Handler, and Mentor

Steve Peterson is the chaplain at the Snow Mountain YMCA and head of the dog sled rides there, now in its third year. His entry into the world of dog sledding began in the 1980s when he was leading backpacking trips in Colorado. He always had his dog by his side.

"When she passed away I wanted a dog to do outdoor things with," he said. So Peterson started researching Nordic dog breeds hearty enough for winter camping trips. One Alaskan husky turned into three, and his kennel grew from there.

"I thought, 'If three is fun, wouldn't five be more fun?'" Once he had 10 dogs he deserted his suburban home in Eden Prairie, Minn., and moved to the country. After mushing his first 40-mile race he was completely hooked. At his most serious breeding levels, he had 26 dogs. Currently he has 19 at his home near Granby.

Peterson's role during the race is dog handler and coach. He will help Sortland get packed at the starting line and be her crew at two checkpoints. Although he is there to support Sortland, his main priority will be caring for the dogs.

"I have to massage all their paws with ointment, make sure they eat and drink enough, and get them to bed down," he said.

Peterson will do whatever it takes, even laying on a tarp next to Yukon, who is deaf, so that the dog will calm down and go to sleep.

He has also coached Martha to prepare for any scenario, no matter how unlikely: a limping dog, a tangled team, a fight, and facing extreme cold.

Martha has built up strength and endurance for handling the sled, which Peterson says is similar to being on downhill skis. She gives commands and maneuvers the sled, at times running alongside for stretches of trail. Most importantly, she must know the dogs inside and out so she can spot any deviation in behavior or speed.

The dogs themselves will do what they are bred to do: run and pull and work together to get to the finish.

"I think they are going to have a lot of fun with the new trail," Sortland said. "And they love chasing the other teams."

Although Sortland describes herself and Peterson as pretty competitive, they are not out to finish first.

"The goal is to finish with happy and healthy dogs," she said.

And then catch up on some much-needed sleep.

John Beargrease Race by the numbers

103 miles: the distance our Grand County musher and her team will cover

24 hours: the overall time to complete the race

8: The hours of mandatory rest required for each team; also the number of dogs

28 other teams are competing in the mid-distance race

48.3 percent: Portion of the mushers are women

10: number of states and Canadian provinces represented at the race

1: The number of teams from Colorado

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