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wenty below is the temperature at which you can walk

T outside and, if you’re not wearing exactly enough layers,


the cold is in. Immediately. It’s through your clothes and pok-
ing at your skin saying, “Hey, I’m dangerous.” Twenty below is
the perfect temperature for running dogs. You’re working hard
enough to stay warm, and the dogs are working hard enough
to need the cold, and to feel perfect in it. To feel a balance.
Twenty below is like the 60-degree, brisk fall day for a dog.
Thirty below is when it starts to get exciting. A shot of
adrenaline surges through you when you see −30 on the ther-
mometer. You prepare to do battle. You put on a lot of clothes.
You take a breath before you head out the door and steel your-
self against the cold. You actively remind yourself to warm up
individual limbs every few minutes while on the sled.
Forty below and colder is just absurd. When you see −40 on
the thermometer you simply have to laugh. What the hell is
Mother Nature trying to prove here? Forty below is the same
whether it’s Fahrenheit or Celsius.
So in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, on February
7, 2015, it was both −40°Celsius and −40°Fahrenheit and the
Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race was
starting in one hour. But I was not laughing. Tears streamed
down my pallid face as I held my waterproof overboots over
the dashboard heater of the dog truck, dogs yanking the one-
ton rig this way and that from drop chains that surrounded
the vehicle like the hem of a big hoop dress. I looked out the
driver-side window at Ryne Olson’s dog truck, motor running,
and at all the other trucks in the parking lot. Every last one was

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idling to keep its engine from freezing. Out the passenger-side


window were Andy, my brother Jared, and my friend Mandy,
the one who called everyone a pussy. She had agreed to drive
the truck with Andy and Jared for the entire race. They were
preparing our dogs for the extreme cold by layering them up
with coats, leggings, and booties.
I thought back to that first time I’d seen the start of the
Quest five years ago. Finally, it was my turn to have the volun-
teers walk me to the start line. To have my dogs proceed two
by two by two with their hind legs outstretched and lunging
into the harnesses, pulling me irrevocably forward. It was my
turn to don the enormous parka, to stand tall in my big pack
boots . . . except my boots didn’t fit. I had left them out in the
cold truck all night and now they were frozen solid, not giving
a single millimeter. I had tried shoving my wool bootie-lined
feet into the overboots and jumping up and down, jamming
my toes ever forward, but it hadn’t worked. The heater was my
last hope. I was about to run one thousand miles with my very
own dogs. It had taken me years to get here and I couldn’t
even get my boots on.
Panicking, I creaked open the truck door and approached
every other musher in the lot (there were twenty-five besides
me) and asked if they happened to have a pair of NEOS
overboots one size bigger than the ones I held limply in my
hands.
Ryne was sympathetic. She, like me, was having her race
followed by a photographer who was documenting both of
our rookie runs. We had only hung out two or three times

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to meet up with the photographer before the race, but we got


along, even though I’d been intimidated when I first met her
at sign-ups. She was confident and super athletic, with dark
hair and a deep voice and sincere blue eyes. She called herself
“a professional dog musher,” and she knew with certainty that
someday she would win a race like this. She came up under
the guidance of superhero musher Aliy Zirkle, the only female
ever to win the Yukon Quest. And I was sure she would give
me some kind of patronizing vibe when I asked her about
the overboots. But instead, she just laughed at how big my
feet were and said she definitely didn’t have any boots that
size.
“Are you nervous?” she asked, shoulder to shoulder with me
as though she were my very concerned best friend.
“Yes,” I said, looking around at the gathering crowd. “Are you?”
“I’m just ready to get out of here,” she said.
She wished me luck in finding new boots and I trudged
over to Mike Ellis, a tall, gruff musher who was running
his seventh Quest. He looked at me with grave concern and
disappointment. His beard was already firred with frost.
“You didn’t go one size up for the cold?” he asked.
I shook my head no.
“You always go one size up when it’s this cold. The material
shrinks,” he said, reaching over and giving the boots a little
shake.
Defeated, I walked over to Paige and Cody’s truck, where
Cody was preparing to run his second Quest.
“Oh, mine totally did that, too!” he said, surprisingly

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happy-go-lucky considering his penchant for doomsday-style


worrying. “I just stomped into them really, really hard.”
“I already tried that,” I said, choking back tears.
“Go into that building over there where it’s warm and just
stomp your feet as hard as you can,” he said, pointing to the
visitor center on the edge of the parking lot. “Maybe the fabric
will warm up and stretch.”
I scurried over to the visitor center where hundreds of
tourists were readying themselves for the upcoming race start.
It was a cavernous building, kind of like a train station. The ice
cleats on the bottom of the overboots clacked hard onto the tile
floor and echoed embarrassingly loudly as I jumped with the
full force of my weight up and down. Everyone stopped what
they were doing to watch. “She’s one of the mushers,” I heard
them whisper, shocked at such a public loss of composure.
Over and over again I slammed my feet down, leaping upward
with high knees to get the most downward force possible. I
knew there was no such thing as dying from embarrassment.
I also knew I could lose my feet if I didn’t get these goddamn
boots on.
I wedged my feet into the overboots enough that my heel
was only slightly elevated—maybe one inch or less—so that
I walked as though I wore high heels. The start was in thirty
minutes, and this was going to have to do. I knew all about
how dangerous it was to wear shoes that were too tight in
this kind of cold. My feet needed space around them to fill
up with the warmth from my body, and that warmth would
be insulated and protected by all these layers of boots. But I

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had to put that out of my mind now. In about ten minutes,


I’d have to start harnessing my team. I had to focus on what
I was about to do.
I tiptoed back to the dog truck with my toes scrunched and
pulled out the harnesses. Solo knew that we were at a race start
and overbrimmed with eagerness. It never ceased to amaze me
that the same dog who loved tennis balls, belly rubs, and lap
sitting was also insatiably competitive. Racing was what he
loved, and he was so impatient to get his harness on that when
I fumbled in the cold he gave me a hard nudge with his nose,
as if to say, “Give me that thing. I’ll put it on myself.” He was
literally vibrating with excitement.
The rest of my race team watched me harness Solo, wait-
ing their turn. Littlehead was usually Solo’s calm and tiny
counterpart, except I didn’t start with her in lead on race day.
She was the kind of dog who stood at the front of an empty
gangline and waited to be attached to it. There was no denying
her place. Except when she would do this thing we called
“Littleheading out,” when she would just start galloping off
to the side of the trail. That meant she didn’t want to run in
lead anymore. She translated for her sister, Kabob, who loved
to chase animals and enjoyed chaos of all types. “My sissy says
she’s better than the rest of the dogs,” Littlehead would often
say, in her high-pitched whisper of a voice. “My sissy says she
isn’t actually a dog.”
Kabob’s daughter Loretta and son Buck were two phenoms
that made the team as yearlings. Though they looked more like
Solo, their dad, they had Kabob’s unblinking stare, her sweet

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brown eyes, her slow and intentional face licks. Ferlin was the
other yearling on my team—a long-legged powerhouse with
a corkscrew tail and floppy ears. He rolled over for belly rubs
every time he got booties on his feet. Belly rubs were his toll
for being able to pull the hook on a run. And once we took
off, Ferlin never, ever looked behind him and never let off his
tug line. Brothers Ox and Iron were brawny and muscular,
and they leaped on their hind legs to hug each other and
play before I could put on their harnesses. Race photographers
loved Ox and Iron—Ox for his white and gray face mask
and Iron for his reddish coat tipped in white frost. Andy-dog
was a big blonde with daddy long legs and a sharp-ended tail
that stood straight up, or whipped around and around like a
helicopter when he was happy to see us. Though he’d already
finished the Yukon Quest before in Brent Sass’s team, Andy-
dog was a little nervous at the sight of all these people. He
tucked his face into my legs like a shy toddler. And he was not
happy about being partnered with Norton, who reared up like
a great black and white orca breaching from the ocean, mouth
agape, teeth gleaming. Norty was straight-up psychopathic
when it came to hookup. And with the added excitement of a
race, he was not to be contained.
“He will literally give you a black eye,” I warned Mandy.
“Or a bloody nose,” Andy added. “Just make sure you turn
your face away from him.”
Hoss, my eighty-pound gray and tan wheel dog, rubbed his
giant head against my leg and licked my hand. He was the
heaviest dog at Yukon Quest vet checks. He leaned up against

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me and stretched like a big cat. His brother Bullock waggled


his thick black body with his thick black tail, sidling up to Hoss
and rooing with excitement. With these two sweet, massively
athletic brothers in wheel, I knew we’d be able to get through
anything. I got emotional just looking at them. I had watched
Zigzag give birth to them, and now I was about to leave the
start line of a thousand-mile race with them right in front of
my sled. The two newest members of the team—Rowdy and
Magnum—were on loan from Paige and Cody. Magnum was
almost Norton’s identical twin—black and white with dark
brown eyes and an unquenchable desire to pull straight ahead
forever. Rowdy, on the other hand, was a very sweet white and
gray boy with the fluffiest of tails. He loved to play keep-away,
and had taken off on us as we loaded up the truck to leave
Healy a few days earlier. We lured him back into the dog yard
with our neighbor’s female who was in heat. Rowdy was an
amazing leader, but I was taking a risk bringing along any dog
who wouldn’t come when called.
A race volunteer came by the truck to tell us “five minutes.”
Rapidly, we attached the dogs to the gangline, with Solo and
Kabob in lead. I put my giant parka over my head and buckled
my race bib—Number 12. I scanned the crowd through the fog
of frozen exhaust and spotted my mom’s electric orange parka
and, beside her, my dad’s blue one. I couldn’t see their faces,
but I waved and stepped onto the runners of my dogsled.
The dogs knocked people over on our way to the start line,
but even in the din of barking I could hear Andy’s gentle
voice behind me. I could feel the warmth of his touch through

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COUNTRY

all the layers of long underwear and fleece and two


insulated knee-length parkas. In all of this chaos, he
was the steady force, the safety net. And at the end of the
announcer’s count- down, I sped away from him with the
gusto of fourteen dogs hell-bent on destruction.

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