• Josh McNeal

Willow 300 2021 Race

First, a huge thank you to the Willow 300 Race Committee for putting on a fantastic race amid COVID-19. The race was extremely organized, and well thought out. A huge thank you to all the business’s that hosted checkpoints and allowed us stinky mushers to hangout. All the volunteers and vets were incredible. Without these awesome people a race would not even be possible!

Our Willow 300 adventure started out the night before we headed to Willow in Fairbanks. In typical fashion, you would not be going to a dog race if something did not go wrong. As we were packing away, I decided to hook up the truck to the trailer, and get it turned around so we could pull out first thing in the morning after loading dogs. What I failed to remember is the snow hook and gang line I left on the side of the driveway which I proceeded to run over and pop my front tire. A midnight tire change ensued, and I prayed that we would not need a spare on the way to Willow.

Our drive to Willow was uneventful. It snowed lightly most of the way, and we arrived in Willow to a blue bird day. We dropped the trailer at Sheep Creek Lodge so Ashley and Myself could do vet checks. Jobie ran all the way to Palmer, and after calling several shops was able to find an exact matching tire to the other three on the truck, score! The dogs all passed vet checks with flying colors, as I knew they would. We attended the musher meeting and headed out. A huge thank you goes out to Tiffanie and Dustin for letting us use their cabin in Big Lake. It was a perfect place for the dogs and us to relax before the race. Tiffanie and Dustin adopted our retired dog Kenji last winter, and it has been great to see Kenji become a spoiled house dog!

The next morning, we headed to the race. Being one of the last mushers to leave, I was not in a gigantic hurry to get there early. I ended up being bib 41, meaning I left over 80 minutes after the first musher. This was probably the best sleep that I had ever gotten before a race, and the most relaxed that I had been. We had a flawless hook up and uneventful start. The dogs took off at a perfect pace from the start, not to fast, and not to slow. This first run was a long one at 70 miles. I knew several mushers were planning to camp during this run, and being in the back meant we were going to pass a lot of teams. My goal was to push to the front to have more favorable trail, and less germs from other dog teams. The trail was good for the most part being mostly through swamps and on the rivers. We ended up passing 21 teams on this run and pulling into the Susitna Landing Checkpoint as the 18th team. The dogs came in and bedded down like seasoned pros among the chaos that is normally in the first checkpoint of any race. My plan was to rest 4 hours, but after checking on my team I could tell they were rested, and a little annoyed at all the commotion. We ended up leaving at three and a half hours screaming out of the checkpoint. The next run was my favorite run of the whole race. It was a cold run at night through the trees, exactly what my dogs are used to. This was a shorter run at only 48 miles. We made good time to Sheep Creek Lodge and was the 8th team in. I gave the dogs five hours of rest here. Douglas was a little stiff after this run, and with a long run coming up, it was better for him to Join Jobie and Ashley in the truck. We left Sheep Creek checkpoint as the sun was coming up. We immediately entered a swamp where we were greeted with a magnificent view of Denali. We immediately dropped onto the Susitna and halfway across we came across a Coyote who was standing on the trail looking at us. For awhile he ran down the trail as we were “chasing” him. This got the dogs perked up. The first 40’ish miles of this trail were pretty nice. 20 miles from the checkpoint I ended up having to load Aphrodite in the sled, and of course the trail got super punchy. We slogged our way through and made it to the Trapper Creek Checkpoint, after 65 miles.

The dogs got four and a half hours of rest here, and I got to eat a nice Subway sandwich, and catch a few zzz’s. The next run was a short run, 37 miles, but we got to encounter our first hills as we climbed towards Forks Roadhouse. 16 miles in we had to cross the Parks Highway, which was a nice little perk up for the dogs. The race organization had handlers there to make sure that the crossing went well. Our crossing was flawless, and they sure perked up hearing Jobie and Ashley cheering them on. We made good time climbing the long hills and got into Forks Roadhouse around 2 in the morning.

Forks Roadhouse was the one checkpoint that was not on the road system. At the other checkpoints, Jobie and Ashley could drive there, deliver my drop bags and straw to my parking spot, and pick up after me when I left. This checkpoint I was all on my own (which I am used to anyways.) However, the awesome volunteers here delivered our drop bags, straw, and water right to our camping spot. This was so appreciated as it allows us to get our dog chores done faster, which is better for the dogs, and for the musher to get a little extra rest. At this checkpoint Tern ended up getting a slightly sore shoulder, so I left her in the very capable hands of some amazing vets to be taken back to Jobie and Ashley.

I left Forks at around 7 am before the sun was coming up. I knew this was going to be a long slow run at 78 miles. There were two teams that left about a half an hour in front of me and I tried like Hell to catch them, kicking and ski poling like crazy, but we did not quite have the gas in the tank. After a ten-hour run the dogs knew we were coming into the finish and instantly came into a lope and we flew into the finish line, I was so proud. All the dogs ate three snacks at the finish and were jumping, barking, and banging on their harness to go. This is what you want to see from your team after a hard run like that.

Overall, I am super pleased with the results of the race. The number one goal of this race was to finish so that I could run Iditarod this year. This race provided some amazing training conditions that we have not seen this year in Fairbanks due to the low snow accumulation since November, and the dogs rocked it. 11th out 41 teams is not bad either. A big congrats to all the finishers, especially the ones who this was their first race! Thank you’s! The biggest thank you’s go out to my incredible wife Jobie and our awesome handler Ashley. Not only were they rock stars on this race but have been holding the kennel together and training the dogs while I am at work. A big thank you goes out to Ida Mortenson who stepped up at the last minute to keep the home fire burning and take care of all the puppies at the Kennel. A huge thank you to Dr. Carson’s Pet supplements as all the dog’s tummies stayed happy and healthy the whole race! A thanks goes out to Ken Anderson and Mitch Seavey for the training and race advice. And of course, all our amazing friends, family, and sponsors. It truly takes a community of people to get a dog team down the trail. Jobie and I are truly thankful for the outpouring of support that we get from family, friends, and sponsors to make this thing happen. And most importantly thank you to my dogs. I say all the time that they are the rock stars, and that I just ride the sled. Everyday they impress me more and more with what they accomplish, and I am so excited to see where this team goes in the future!

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