Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by risk? Balancing the odds of success, the investment you‘ve made in relationships, the value of the win – how do you make your choice? Often it is the actions that others don‘t see that truly defines winners from losers.
I am always amazed when I find myself experiencing one of life‘s lessons while engaged in something completely unrelated. One such event occurred on a winter day in northern Pennsylvania.
A Cold Example
Instead of thinking about a corporate setting, visualize broad, open, snow-covered hills with trails merging in and out of wooded ravines.
Years ago I was fortunate to have been mentored in the sport of dog sledding by a family with a well-established kennel and reputation in the field. On my very first race, I did something that still causes hilarious laughter among my dog-loving colleagues.
Mitch, a highly experienced dog driver, showed trust in my abilities by loaning me a team of dogs. His second, or ―B‖ team, they were seasoned sled dogs used to racing and winning. I was nervous about the enormity of the responsibility. For one thing, dog sledding is not an easy or safe sport.
I was intimidated and worried: could I develop the stamina and endurance to go the distance? Even the strongest drivers have accidents on the trail or could be thrown from a sled in the middle of the wilderness. If I could get into condition to do the work, could I handle the risk? And, most important: would the dogs obey my commands?
The First Team Effort
Mitch spent time introducing me to the dogs, showing me how to learn their different personalities and talents. I worked with each dog separately, understanding their particular task and place on the team. Totally responsible for their maintenance, I spent every available moment with the dogs monitoring their health and comfort. My respect for these athletes grew with each pre-dawn run on the training trails as we became a team.
After weeks of successful training runs, I entered my first race for a three-dog team, requiring us to travel three miles. At our fastest pace we would be traveling at about 20 mph – the entire race would take about a half hour. Working with a new handcrafted, light-weight sled, I was excited about the event and certain I had considered all possibilities. Confident that I had developed a good rapport with my borrowed team, I loaded the dogs securely in their straw-filled dens in our truck and drove several hours to the fairgrounds.
About fifty teams had entered the event, many arriving a day or two before to look over the trail and get in a short practice-run. The class my team was registered to run in had twenty-six teams registered to compete in a late morning start. My husband‘s team completed their early run, so he was able to help me secure the lines and prepare the sled before we allowed the excited, howling dogs to move to their spots and slip into their harnesses. The dogs strained to be off as my husband held the lead dog and I moved to stand on the sled runners.
We had a smooth and fast break; the twelfth teams leaving the chute in time- staggered starts. It was a clear day. When our flag dropped I shouted Let‘s go and the dogs bounded from the gate, eagerly moving with the focused power of an athletic team. I had never felt so strong, so healthy, as I pumped with one foot and stood on one runner, easily falling into the traditional drivers’ task.
Quickly responding to my – haw‖ command, the dogs took the left trail through the woods. It seemed like only few minutes had flown by before the trees were gone and the trail opened into glaring sunlight. We now faced our first hill. I was surprised to see that we had caught up with the driver in front of us! Both he and I were off the runners, working with our teams, pushing the sleds as we began the ascent.
My team was in rhythm, working as we had done on our many practice runs. Taking long strides, we continued to gain speed. It seemed only a moment before the lead dog moved to within 30 feet of the other driver. I was running, pushing and guiding the sled. Calling out the “on by” command would alert the other driver to give way and signal my team to move to the left to pass the slower team.
To my shock, I heard myself calling out, but not to my team. I was speaking to the other driver, asking the polite question ― can we pass? Unbelievably the treasured moment I had worked for had arrived and I was asking for permission to succeed!
The Lead Dog Leads the Way
I don‘t know who was more startled — my lead dog or the other driver. Both turned to me with expressions of disbelief. Hours seemed to pass as I ran: we were only half way up that hill and I was tiring.
It was the lead dog that brought me to my senses. Tana was a sleek red female with the passion and heart to lead her pack. We locked eyes for briefest of moments before she turned back to her task. Running in single lead, I could see her lower her head and hunch her shoulders while lengthening her stride. She was reaching out to win.
Finally, I caught the cue and remembered my task. Tana was almost on the other team‘s sled runners when I finally issued the ―on by‖ command. In an instant, my team moved quickly to the left, continuing the climb with an extra burst of speed. Their energy reached me: digging into the snow, I used every muscle to push that sled up the hill.
While I strained to keep the weight of the sled off the dogs and match their speed, at the same time it seemed that I was part of a unit gliding effortlessly up the hill. We overtook the other team, cutting around and past driver and dogs to reach open trail.
We were a team. We worked together, ran in unison. We did not pause when we reached the top of our first hill. Maintaining our momentum as we followed the trails through the rest of the course, we easily passed several teams before crossing the finish line and completing the race in third place.
Passion of the Team or the Win?
The event caused me to wonder what I was after by participating in this physically strenuous, potentially dangerous activity. The travel and equipment was expensive, the dogs required constant care, and it was time consuming to say the least. What was it all about? What was important? Was it crossing the finish line first? Was it the glory of receiving a trophy and recognition for successful competition? Or was it something much more than winning a race?
I would like to think it is being part of a team—that‘s where the passion lies. The moments I cherish, that I think back and mull over, are not the times I was lauded but the small actions that I found nurturing and enabled me to grow. I remember the joy of learning how to handle the sled on a tight turn, watching the way the dog in point moved from a lope to a gallop, observing how the wheel dogs kept a steadying pace.
I don‘t regret the fact that I didn‘t win any races during my time with the sled dog community. The wealth of knowledge I gained overshadowed any dusty trophy I would have forgotten on a shelf.
Simply put, the value of the effort was very personal. It was the experience itself that I relished. The wisdom shared by the drivers who had weathered many difficult conditions working in an environment natural to their dogs provided a lasting value to the endeavor. And, most importantly, the joy of being, of reaching out, of focusing my life energy with my team, was the unexpected treasure that I learned from the dogs.
Maybe we need an ―on by‖ command to use when we have the passion, the drive, and the commitment to succeed.
Every relationship you build connects you to everyone else.
Every bit of information helps you make your decisions.
You have a network to keep you connected:
as they succeed, you succeed.
When the road you’re on becomes lonely, crowded or unsatisfying -try a new path and let yourself get lost.
Take the risk.
Along the way you’ll see some things you never saw before -and discover the passion from doing what you know is right for you.
Best wishes for continued success, LM