The mushers have to relive their own nightmares on the way back over the trail's most demanding sections between Nikolai and Finger Lake.
The dreaded Dalzell Gorge is one section of the trail where broken sleds and broken dreams are not uncommon. The word «gorge» means “a narrow valley between hills or mountains, typically with steep rocky walls and a stream running through it.”
Christian Turner wrote about this section of the trail after running it with his team in 2014:
The chutes were vertical drops that I bashed and bounced my way down ..smashing into trees and rocks as I terrifyingly tried to stay upright and in control. I can remember Dallas’s words clearly before the race, ”Once you pass it you do not have to do it again” …crash bounce slide crunch …. I thought to myself.. I don’t think I will be able to do it again.
But this year they have to. The mushers also need to go back past the Burn with sand and rocks and no snow and the Happy River Steps, and there's nothing happy about them. This trail, between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass checkpoints, is a very narrow trail that zigzags back and forth downhill toward the Happy River.
A new battle
It gives the mushers a mental boost to turn around and run back towards the finish line. At the same time, they know that they are only halfway. It's an eternity left, it feels like at this stage of the race. This is the hour when the battle on the trail is intensified. And another battle is also occurring; the fight against yourself.
When the sleep deficit has built up over several days and the body is battered and tired, it is easy to find excuses. With extreme cold on the way back to Ophir, there were probably many mushers who felt how long the minutes can be when you stand on the sled in the dark of night and fight against yourself.
Many mushers experience doubt during these hours. There may be problems with the team, unforeseen obstacles, but often it is your mind that tries to trick you into giving up. It is a survival mechanism; when you reach a certain point of exhaustion, the mind responds with shut down.
In terms of evolution, it makes sense. We are not evolutionarily designed to win races, but to survive. When our mind thinks we are in danger, it will do what it can to secure us, with thoughts of all the reasons in the world why we should give up and stop.
Am I able to do this?
This is when the mushers have to distance themselves from their own thoughts and let the negative pass by. It's about following routine, not thinking too much, one foot in front of the other, one step at a time and never looking back.
If you loosen the grip at this point of the race, you can lose everything. If you treat yourself an hour of extra sleep, it can cost you a lot of placements.
The mushers who manage to be tough with themselves, who follow the plan even when they are exhausted, will emerge victorious from the demanding second half of the competition – and not only in terms of placements, but also in terms of mastery. For the next few hours come with an internal question for many; am I able to do this?
It is when you push yourself out of your comfort zone and you have to find your way through an unknown mental landscape, that growth and change can occur.
It is this inner journey, which tests you to the utmost, that makes these long races something more than just a dog race. It's a lifetime lived in a week. It is life itself.
This is where the race starts getting run, said Dalls Seavey when he arrived first at McGrath checkpoint.
LET THE REAL RACE BEGIN!