In the years since we began mushing in the UK, I’ve never actually made the drive west to the Forest of Dean and the second AMWA rally of the year when it wasn’t pouring rain. It was a very novel and incredibly pleasing experience, as we found ourselves driving through Gloucestershire to the forest in glowing, golden afternoon sunlight - another novelty as usually we are watching the dawn break as we arrive at the rally site. Amazingly, somehow we were also greeted with freezing cold, crisp November weather and a quick stop at the services for a warm holiday coffee was a very welcome to start to the weekend.
Like a number of other mushers we had decided to treat ourselves to a stay at the Speech House Hotel on the doorstep of the event venue. Normally a painfully wet weekend awaits us in the Forest of Dean and so the thought of a warm cottage room and a proper meal was far too tempting to pass by. There was no camping on site at the event so many of the mushers found themselves at a nearby campsite as well for what I heard was a pleasant and lively post rally evening of camping whilst a few others including my own team revelled in the decadence of a pre-Christmas hotel stay to make the weekend an even more enjoyable one.
There’s a great sense of historic comradery about the meet up at the Speech House beforehand, and it’s a bit of a shame that the mushers don’t receive the same hearty welcome they did in years past as tales abounded through the night about the olden days when the dining hall of the Speech House rang with mushers conversation and laughter through the afternoon and into the evening, and what an incredibly sociable event it always was. Nevertheless, the excitement of pulling into the parking lot and spotting familiar dog vans arriving at the same time added a sense of excitement and purpose to the night, and getting out to find the temperature well and truly cold was an exciting one indeed.
This was the second AMWA rally of the season, organised by Paul Jolley, Tina Facey and Jay Wadrup and sponsored by Alpha. Though the event was held at the same location as last year (and previous years as well) the track was changed around to address a few of the running problems that mushers had last year and to make for a more enjoyable run through the forest for the dogs. This year’s event was a day and night rally, with the shorter run classes of bikejor, junior, scooter and veteran beginning at 3:30 and the other classes starting a little bit later this year at 7:30. Though it was not a long drive for us, the luxury of showing up for a 7:00 pm musher’s meeting was almost too decadent, and so there was loads of time for catching up with other mushers (each of us revelling in the frosty chill in the air), a good stretch and wander for all the dogs in the grounds of the Speech House and then an early meal together which the on-staff chef so kindly fixed for us earlier than the allotted time for dinner.
It was a very sociable evening where we dominated one side of the dining area talking about races past and the night race to come, and such a novelty was it to sit warm and well fed before the event that the night passed quickly and all too soon we were kitting up and heading out and making our way down the adjoining forest trail to the event itself.
The darkness closes in quickly in November, so by the time we were headed out to the rally site it was long past dark but finding a parking spot was not difficult given the several areas of the site available for roadside parking. Staking out the dogs was a bit trickier in the blackness, but we all managed to find a spot and this year even got a great place not far from the start line or too far from the finish.
The start and finish lines were swapped this year with the start being at a much straighter trail and the finish being up the large hill that was the start last year. This made for a much better trail in many regards (though the looks on the musher’s faces coming back up the hill on the second day may have belied that somewhat!)
The trail overall was a good balance of up and down hills with lots of good turns and straights – very clearly marked and with a good level of organisation on selecting an interesting trail which the dogs could enjoy. The length of the trail was also very good at 3.2 miles. Obviously much effort had gone into selecting an appropriate trail and though it was a bit hard underfoot for some of the larger Malamute boys, overall the mushers I spoke to said they and their dogs really enjoyed it.
The temperature stayed cool throughout the evening and soon the big teams of DS, ES, ASFDC started running at 7:30. Given that the malamute classes of M1 , MS and M2 were out last we had plenty of time to stretch the dogs and get them ready for the evening runs though it did make a late evening for somewhat sleepy (and already well fed) mushers!
The fast teams were out first and there were some excellent times including Matt Hamersley in BS finishing in 13:56 and coming in first place overall in that class, and Luke Nichols who came in at 14:25 in CS and 12:44 in DS taking first place overall in both classes and gaining the fastest time on the full course over the weekend.
The rally site had gotten a little bit quieter by the time it was ready for our team to go, and as we had such an easy walk to the start line it was a rarely seen almost stress-free start. A few moments of bright lights at the start line, screaming malamutes and a woosh into the darkness and all that was left for myself and the other musher’s mates was to make our way to the finish line and wait for the glow of head torches in the distance to start bobbing their way back up the final hill.
It wasn’t too long of a wait as only about 20 minutes passed before the first lights were seen (or an 18:47 minute finish in Corinna Clark’s case.) The darkness stretched out long for the first of the mushers coming in and head torches could be seen a very long time before we had any idea who was coming in, so there was excited calling in of teams from all sides, everyone waiting to see in that last moment who had arrived in first. Tom Wheeler was first over the line in M2 with Corinna Clark fast on his heels – and Diane Jackson could be singled out long before she arrived at the line by the energetic bobbing of her head torch and she worked harder than anyone up that final hill! The times were decent for everyone in the evening, though we did find that some of the larger Malamute boys struggled with the surface of the trail which had become harder after recent rain washouts. The girls were extremely happy and wanted to go faster, though, and came in raring for more!
But trail and times aside – everyone I spoke to was extremely pleased with how they had been placed in the line-up of their class leading to lots of safe and happy clean runs from across the spectrum of mushers.
It was a quick stretch and cool-down for the dogs after our run as we were all very keen to get back to our respective campsites, vans and rooms to make the most of what was to be a very short night and back out early the next morning. We hurried our way back to the Speech House thinking it would be a quick drink then off to enjoy the little time we had in our hotel room, but as so often happens the laughter and comradery and good company of other mushers (and the slight disgruntlement of late staff ready to close up) we stayed in the hotel with warming drinks as long as was allowed.
The morning began oh so early after just a few hours’ sleep in the hotel room with a heavy freezing mist over the trails and even colder temperatures. After much debate and consideration a few of us with larger boys decided the trail was a bit too harsh for them after the rain so opted out of the second day of running. However there were still jobs to do for the event so we rolled down to the rally site once again only lamenting the lack of sleep and spent the morning socialising and sorting out all the dogs at a more leisurely pace than usual.
Though we weren’t running our team on the second day of the rally, it turned out to be an incredibly nice day for us as there are so many teams I never get to see out or in because they are either running in the same class as us or are running when we are preparing ourselves and our dogs. I spent a good part of the morning along a few other mushers helping out the other M1 and M2 teams who were still running set off, and we all had a great time calling in the M1 class participants given how hard that last hill was for the mushers of one dog teams. The times were even better on the second day for Mark Lovegrove running his dog Sampson coming in at 21:53 and winning the class on the second day and the fastest M1 time of the weekend, but John Binding running Polar was incredibly consistent running just 3 seconds slower on the second day and taking the overall first place for the weekend.
In M2 things got even more exciting on the second day with three of the teams not running, and though Corinna took the first place overall for the weekend with two excellent times, Kevin Aiston took the win on Sunday with a time of 19:24 – also the fastest M2 run of the Sunday. Also Suzy Fithern – a rookie musher in her first competitive season running her Malamutes Bertie and Rosy had a much better run on the second day making up almost 6 minutes on her time from the Saturday!
Kevin Aiston also did incredibly well in his other classes coming in second place in MS just 27 seconds overall behind Jay Wadrup, and first place in the scooter class
All too soon we were off once again headed home with sleepy puppies and a muddy van, already planning our next event!
Many thanks to the organisers of this event, much work went into this and your efforts were very evident over the weekend!
For full rally and championship results, please see the AMWA website: http://www.amwa.org.uk/events/event-results/
"The opinions, observations and comments included in these race reports are solely from the writer and do not necessarily reflect the position of either Snowpaw Store or of any specific club. These reports are written from the point of view of a spectator and/or participant and though every effort is made for unbiased, factual accounts, they will likely not represent everyone 's experience of the event. You are warmly welcomed to attend events for a more first hand experience!"