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Off Road Handcycling with a Doggy Twist – Mushing

I sometimes get asked “If I could be cured of my paralysis and walk again, would I take it?”. It’s a tough question because the answer varies depending on the details of the hypothetical and where my head-space is at the time of the question. Aside from the fact that I don’t think it’s something that needs to be ‘cured’, the answer is ‘no – I wouldn’t change anything’. This is one reason why…

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Off Road Handcycles and Dogs! Montana: my gentle wheel dog for the dryland mushing.

4th August 2016

There are two things I dislike with a passion; moldy bananas and early winter mornings! But when there’s something exciting and new to look forward to, it makes the challenge of throwing the doona off and entering the chilled temperatures, that little bit easier.

Driving through peak hour for over an hour isn’t that fun either, but it’s bearable knowing that my trusty off-road handcycling is gracefully following me in my rear view mirror.

Heading towards Armadale town center (first time in my 30 years of being in Perth), I met up with Richard, who approached me at Jarrahdale trails not more than a week prior. We took off, about 10 minutes North of Armadale, to a special little spot where dogs do what they’re built for – running!

With what looked more like a compact human caravan, I followed Richard through some unsealed roads to a regular place for Mushing.

Mushing for beginners

No, not the thing that you do when making banana muffins (mooshing) but rather the activity that involves dog-propelled riding. We all know the likes of dog sledding, one type of mushing, but since we are limited to snowy plateaus in Australia suitable for humans, we capitalize on ‘dryland mushing’ (on the dirt).

I first saw this on youtube in Margaret River about 3 years ago and always thought it would be cool to try it on a trike. Now I got the opportunity.

Trying something new

After parking our cars we started to get ready (in the rain). Richard was hydrating the 5 dogs while I was getting my handcycle and gear ready. Once the dogs were led out of the mini caravan, it was madness! The dogs were howling and barking at each other like a group of screeching children released from classroom to lunch. I’ve never seen anyone or anything so excited to do some exercise! Imagine if we had the same drive when going to the gym!

I started to feel nervous. Now, I’ve competed internationally in sports, but it wasn’t that kind of nervous. It was a good anxiety and sense of humility I haven’t experienced since 2008. I use to be highly active in university sports prior to my accident. I was taken back to the days when I would first try a sport; indoor soccer, taekwondo and mixed netball(to name a few), where I wasn’t 100% sure about my ability to take perform or ‘fit in’ with the people on the team.

Despite this, I felt comfortable with Richards directions and safety tips before launching off – and boy, did we launch!

The Take-off

Dogs love running – fact. If you’ve ever owned a dog, looked after a dog or visited a friend with a dog, you’ll know they absolutely love jumping, running, playing and slobbering on you like a $5 squeeky toy. The only difference here is that the excitement is contained in a structured format of towing around unsealed trails.

Once my three dogs were harnessed and secured to the main line, which was strategically anchored to my handcycle, it was a matter of seconds before we were on line and ready to go. I barely had to command the dogs. As soon as Rich let go of the line they were off – along with me!

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Dogs sniffing out my trike.

I wasn’t expecting the power of the dogs to jolt me from starting position – I consider my handcycle fairly heavy compared to a bike. Within seconds the nervousness was replaced with thrill and a spray of dirt, mud and water in my face.

Tip: when you’re head is 50cm from the ground and you have dog paws kicking up dirt from 1 meter in front, then wear some glasses.

After the first turn I built up my confidence and though to myself “these are well trained dogs and have done this so many times that it’s just a stroll in the park for them”. I could do this with my eyes closed (not recommended), and with the amount of exfoliating sand that my eyes were collecting I had to squint or close one eye when things were fast.

The sprint

About half way through the 5km loop I wondered when the dogs would start getting tired – they didn’t! Montana, the dog closest to me, was struggling a bit towards the end but I eased my brakes to slow down the two lead dogs and give Montana some reprieve.

Richard caught up on his bike with his power dogs blitzing past me during the last climb. What a great spectacle – a small pack of dogs sprinting with their little doggy hearts out and bushy tails waving around. It got to a point of harmony, when the dogs where “in the zone” with each other, my commands, the weight loading and navigation. I had full trust in my new companions and felt that nothing could go wrong…

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Richard gaining some ground on me (not that it was a race). Excuse the rain droplets.

… and nothing did (haha, almost got you!).

At some points, when I could see properly, I was admiring the dogs rhythm which reminded me of a graceful rising and falling of a water swell – hypnotizing.

Hard work and rest

Slowing down at the finish, the dogs went straight to a fresh bowl of water to wet their thirsty tongues. All you could hear was huffing an puffing among a sight of satisfied dogs and two grown men feeling like kids again.

You don’t need legs to have fun!

Since my accident in 2008, I have experienced things that would have never ocured to me. This is an example of the consecutive sequence of events in life that lead to new journeys. If it wasn’t for my accident, the course of events wouldn’t have involved MTB at my current level (if at all), and I wouldn’t have been introduced to Mushing. So, the answer is still “no”, I wouldn’t want to undo my accident.

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Dog hugs make the cold rainy misery worth it!
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Not a fan of dog slobber, but this one deserves a kiss.

Looking forward: this would be a great addition to the adaptive MTB community in Australia and I see it bringing many therapeutic benefits to people with a disability. If the MTB aspect doesn’t entice people to get off-road, then the dogs certainly will!

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