“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure some of them are dirt ones” – John Muir
While walking dirt paths may soothe your soul, racing through snow behind a team of sled dogs will leave one’s legs shaking, heart pounding, feet frozen and every bit of you begging for more. This is the 2015 Fun Run in West Yellowstone, Montana.
Forming a team
Salt Lake Community College student Liz Stewart is set to race on Jan. 15 and 16 with Streeper Kennel Racing. Streeper Kennels is based in Fort Nelson, British Columbia and is known for being the only kennel in history to hold a Triple Crown, with wins in Anchorage, Laconia and The Pas.
Streeper Kennels was undefeated in 2010 and was the fastest team in the sport in 2007. Streeper Kennels also received the Humanitarian Award in 2010 for best treatment of their animals. The award is highly prestigious as it is voted on and determined by race vets.
Streeper Kennels owners Terry Streeper and his son, Bud, have mentored, housed and apprenticed Stewart the past four winters.
A different kind of horsepower
“You’ve heard of the Tour de France, right?” Streeper says as he distributes food bowls for his 53 dogs. “These dogs make those athletes look like amateurs.”
Streeper is surrounded by howling dogs eager for their dinner of whole ground chicken, liver, kidneys and host of other nutrient-dense ingredients. Feeding time with the Streepers is Pavlov’s theory amplified 100 fold with 53 eager and hungry dogs.
The dogs are fed an extremely high-fat diet, so high that it would effectively make a house pet obese within a matter of months. However, sled dogs are fine-tuned machines; evolved to burn fat for fuel, unlike humans who tend to need carbs to achieve high athletic performance. The ability to use fat as fuel allows the dogs to maintain an unimaginable endurance rate.
The breed that the Streepers and many mushers use is called the Alaskan Husky, which is really a patchwork of different breeds hand chosen to create running machines.
Several spectators comment on how surprisingly lean, even small, the dogs look. This is understandable, as many people tend to think of massive, burly Malamutes when it comes to sled dogs. However, Alaskan Huskies are virtually perfect sled dogs. They have immense power, speed, endurance and are much more aerodynamic than a malamute.
Another concern among spectators is the length of the dogs’ hair; it’s short.
Won’t the dogs be cold? In truth, such highly athletic dogs benefit from having less insulation. Dogs, unlike humans, don’t sweat. This means they have no way to cool themselves down other than to absorb cold air (or water) through their mouths, noses and paws. Too much heat means a lower level of performance and possibly causes a health risk to the dogs.
Pre-race rituals and the thrill of the chase
Race day began with a 6 a.m. watering and then it was off to the start line. The race site was organized chaos.
Typically, athletes are allotted some pre-game time to “get in the zone” by meditating, listening to inspirational music thrumming through Beats by Dre; not mushers. Their motivational music is 50-plus howling dogs and a team of people hurriedly prepping sleds, ropes, harnesses and booties. It’s absolute madness, chaotic and loud.
The true caliber of the professionalism and synchrony is demonstrated when the mushers mount their sleds and are given the signal to go. It’s instantly silent. The dogs catapult down the path reading and obeying the mildest of commands from their mushers.
The Montana wilderness can be harsh, even for the most well-equipped and high tech snowmobilers and skiers. For mushers, it’s downright merciless.
Temperatures average in the mid-twenties, not accounting for wind chill. The race is 35 miles, which means the mushers must man their teams standing on the back of the sled for at least a two-hour duration. That means no stops for warming up hands or taking a swig of Schnapps to warm up. Mushers must bear the elements and all the discomfort it brings; and what’s more, they love it. The more the temperatures drop, the more the mushers grin as the dogs pull relentlessly through the forest.
Stewart and her team of ten dogs arrived at the finish line first, followed by Bud Streeper and then Eli Goldon, who also races for Streeper Kennels.
After crossing the finish line and dismounting her sled, Stewart immediately begins tending to her dogs; checking harnesses, booties and paw pads. It’s clear that these mushers put their dogs first and awards second.
As the rest of the teams cross the finish line, the resounding barking and howling begins again. These dogs just ran 35 miles, and within minutes of stopping, are ready for more. There is no doubt that these dogs’ athletic abilities put LeBron James to shame.
Streeper took first place overall, followed by Stewart who took second. Sled dog races are based on the time it takes to complete the race, as there is a delay in between each musher’s start time.
The mushers take a moment to accept their awards, shake some hands, and then promptly return their attention to the dogs; after all, it’s almost feeding time.