Tribute to a champion
The dictionary’s definition of champion is someone who has “defeated or surpassed all rivals in a competition.” But I have my own internal definition of what makes a champion, and it doesn’t require first place.
I blast off the starting line, mat down to keep the three yearlings in my 4-dog team from overrunning its nearly 11-year-old leader, Buddy. He and Talia are running flat out, and Minbar and Tada! are blasting down the trail behind them. I’m floored, watching Buddy. His tugline is ramrod tight, and we’re just flying down the hill. I suddenly wish for a GPS to track our speed.
Andrea said that Buddy would be okay with a fair amount of speed. Could he be this good? We keep on flying—down the first hill, around the curve, down the second hill, everyone’s tugline nice and tight. Then Talia has to poop. The first time, she just slows down. The second, third and fourth time are progressively worse, and she begins stopping each time. I’m too slow on the mat for one of her stops, and sure enough, Minbar and Tada! run past the leaders and Minbar gets her foot over Tada!’s neckline. She can’t get it back off, and I realize I’ll have to hook down to untangle her. The minute I lean down to set my hook, my sunglasses fog up completely. I fumble for Minbar, a dark brown blob through gray mist, and mostly by feel, I pick her up and shake her foot off the neckline. I run back to the sled, yank my neck gaiter down, pull the hook, and pray that my sunglasses un-fog. They do.
Off we go, flying again. Buddy is driving hard with his beautiful long lope. Little Talia, next to him, is running fast, but it’s Buddy setting the pace. And I’m standing on the sled, just eaten up with happiness to be running these dogs, to see Buddy so cranked up, to watch Tada! (my favorite yearling) barreling down the trail in front of me.
It’s only my second race this winter, and only my fourth or fifth time on a sled all season. None of my own dogs can race anymore, so I’m running Andrea’s Buddy and three of Bonnie’s yearlings. My first race, in the AARP division with all older dogs, was lots of fun but not particularly speedy. I’ve also been running a lot of rehab teams, mixed teams, slower dogs. Most of my runs in the past few years have been a test of psychology and footwork, babying young, slower, or injured dogs, keeping faster dogs from overrunning their teammates. It’s a challenge I enjoy. But it feels like it’s been a long time since I just plain went fast, and I fall into the pure bliss of it. I’m steering the sled the best I can, wishing I’d waxed it, loving the way the dogs are charging, savoring a kind of run I haven’t had in several years.
It will be 6 miles of bliss, one of the best runs of my life. Talia will get a little insecure once or twice, and Buddy will be her rock. About three-quarters of the way around, Buddy’s tug will briefly go slack a few times, but he will always kick back in. We’ll be so strong on the uphill coming home that I won’t dare kick, and I will just hunker down behind the sled yelling, “You guys are soooo good!” and, unabashedly, “I love you!” and especially, “Buddy, you are wonderful!” Buddy can’t always go fast up that hill. On this day, with three yearlings pulling hard to help him, he will travel every single step of it at a full lope.
I will marvel at Minbar’s gorgeous gait and tight tug, and I’ll laugh at Talia’s youthful confusion at the top of the hill. (The trail clearly goes left, but there’s this jumbled part that goes straight—should we go straight?) I will be so pleased with Tada!’s steady drive, even though her gait is not as clean and smooth as her sister, and I will be so grateful to have the chance to run her. I will be delighted beyond words that we’re going too fast for me to kick.
But it will be Buddy who will move me nearly to tears. He will drive for 6 full miles. On the very far side of 10 years old, with his eleventh birthday coming up in a month, he will bring us home to fourth place for the day and a respectable time for the distance, even with that stop to untangle Minbar. We will be a couple minutes off of first place. I’ll step off that sled as happy as if I’d won.
It wasn’t me pushing. I don’t get any credit for a run like that. It was Buddy pushing himself, like the champion he is.