Getting Mushy About Ultrarunning

by Jen Burton

The Starting Line

“How are you feeling? Are you ready for this?”  

“Oh, well, you know … didn’t get the chance to do as many long runs as I’d hoped … not as well-trained as last year …”  

Just after sunrise one January morning, I was at yet another starting line, donning cold-weather gear and loading up on coffee with the other volunteers as we prepared for the usual ultra gig. Trucks and fourwheelers stacked with supplies lined up for the trek out to various crew stations. Volunteers prepared for long stretches of waiting by the fire pit, interspersed with the occasional scramble to jot down bib numbers and times, help participants find their drop bags, direct them to food, and shout, “You’re looking strong!” Mine was one of four teams that would hopscotch between crew stations to check the athletes for dehydration, respond to medical emergencies if needed, and address the smattering of sore feet, diarrhea and minor orthopedic issues that commonly befall ultrarunners.  

I had helped check in participants the night before and was excited to watch them start the race. They were excited too! Wound-up runners sporting brightly-colored footwear were yapping and bounding in the chilly air, grinning broadly, impatient to hit the trail. When groups heard their official “Go!,” runners lunged forward with zeal, occasionally stumbling as each adjusted to accommodate the tight starting pack.  

While delightfully similar to other races I’ve experienced, this one was also decidedly different. Among those well-versed in the sport, I discovered unanimous agreement that Russians are slower than Americans. Nobody was the least bit uncomfortable with the fact that I had, as part of the routine medical check, groped the rear end of every runner I examined. This morning, participants were showing me a lot of equipment I’d never seen before, like the three-gallon cooking stoves each was required to carry throughout the race. Race staff speculated about who would be this year’s Red Lantern.  

The CB300

The Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race traverses the Copper Valley, where Athabaskan natives and their dogs have hunted, trapped and fished for thousands of years. Over the past century, the population surrounding its start/finish line in Glennallen, Alaska, has grown to accommodate gold rushes, copper mining and construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Known for diverse terrain, the race is a qualifier for the more famous 1,100-mile Iditarod. Although dogsled enthusiasts equate the Copper Basin’s 300 miles to a canine half marathon, the event feels much more like a trail ultra from a volunteer’s perspective.  

Participants ranged broadly in age, with lots of male and female mushers and handlers. (As it turned out, women would claim two of the top four finisher awards.) Equipment and dog food make this an expensive sport, but many gain experience – and get hooked – by volunteering for a kennel. Some competitors are sponsored, and some offer lessons or excursions in the off-season in addition to training their own teams.  

Most Alaskan sled dogs are probably descendants of village dogs that worked alongside Alaskan hunters, trappers and traders for thousands of years. The Alaskan Husky is a type rather than an official breed, although Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky breeds are regulars on the race circuit. Purebred Siberian teams are less common, as they tend to be significantly slower than the Alaskans. The CB300 dogs had shorter coats and were smaller than I expected, averaging around 50 pounds. Males and females race equally well, but age can be a factor in performance. Younger pups must learn to pace themselves before they’re ready to race long distances. While older dogs may be a little slower, they may also adapt more readily to unexpected weather or trail conditions. The dogs I saw ranged from 2 to about 10 years of age, and many of the teams were mixed so that the pups would learn from the more experienced dogs.  

Ideal running weather for a sled dog is about -10 to 10° F. Sled dogs spend about as much time sleeping as running, taking several four- to six-hour breaks during a 300-mile race. While running, top performers at this distance might maintain an average pace of 10 to 12 miles per hour. They are good at burning fat, so their rations focus on fat and protein, not carbs. A canine endurance runner needs to snack every couple hours, and their “energy bar” might be a hamburgersized hunk of frozen fish or animal fat. Mushers are required to prepare warm meals for the dogs at every rest stop. The meals I saw were a stew of meat, fat and vegetables. While they may snap up a few mouthfuls of snow during their run, many dogs won’t drink much water, so the liquid in these meals is important to keep them hydrated.  

How does the race work?

Team size depends on the race. CB300 teams start with up to 12 dogs and must have at least five to finish. Once officially dropped, a dog can’t rejoin the team or be replaced. Mandatory equipment ensures that the team can eat, rest and stay warm if a blizzard or musher injury strands them on the trail. As in running, participants are allowed to help each other. The course includes several road crossings, and a team that gets away from its musher becomes everyone’s top priority. Any effort to safely secure a runaway team is legal. Otherwise, each musher may receive specific aid only at designated checkpoints.  

Just like a child’s Flexible Flyer sled, a dogsled can be steered a little by shifting the frame. But that frame-flexing provides just enough directional control to keep the sled upright and pointed toward the dogs; the musher’s only hope of staying on course is that the lead dogs will Gee! (turn right) and Haw! (turn left) on command. Lead dogs are chosen because they are good at following directions and willing to charge confidently forward. The sled dog who hesitates may truly be lost: An indecisive leader could cause the whole team to get tangled up in a tricky turn or water crossing.  

As far as I could tell, “Whoa!” means simply, “I’m going to use the brakes now.” By placing a boot on a foot-wide rubber pad, the person driving the sled can add some drag to slow the team down. To hold the sled at a full stop, the musher steps on a hinged bar to drive ice picks into the snow. Even as they completed a 70-mile run, dogs halted at a checkpoint were still grinning and lunging into their harnesses. To keep the team from running when the musher steps away from the sled, two metal snow hooks resembling anchors are jammed into the snow.  

As teams ran in to each checkpoint, the veterinary crew watched for signs of lameness or distress while race staff checked equipment and recorded times to monitor mandatory rest breaks. We immediately assessed any dog that arrived in the sled bag to see if prompt treatment was needed. Once we knew there was no medical emergency, we gave the musher a chance to gather drop bags, park and settle in before stopping by to respond to any concerns and take another look at the dogs.  

Handlers are responsible for parking their team, caring for dogs that have been officially dropped from the race, and cleaning up bedding once their team is back on the trail. Much like ultra crew, handlers must have general knowledge of the sport and know specific race rules. They must arrive at each checkpoint ahead of their team – not a trivial responsibility when operating a truck that can house an entire team plus food and equipment, in a place where dogsleds and snow machines (snowmobiles) are sometimes the only reliable form of transportation. We got to know some of the handlers as we walked through the dog yards and checked on dropped dogs.  

Only one musher (dog driver) is allowed per team. On the trail, mushers must remain vigilant, watching for signs of injury or fatigue in their dogs while they steer the sled. They may stop to provide a snack, check a foot or move a tired dog into the sled bag - but when they need to go to the bathroom many figure out how to do it without slowing down or falling off the sled. At each checkpoint the musher is required to fetch water, spread straw, feed and examine the dogs without assistance. If you’ve supported ultra runners, you know that “CREW” stands for “Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting.” They arrived cold, tired and hungry, yet I observed that the mushers made dog care their first priority. Even the fellow who asked if the prescription diarrhea medication in my kit had to be prescribed “for a specific dog” managed to complete his chores before shedding his snowsuit and sprinting to the restroom.  

Warm and well-fed thanks to our hosts and sponsors, we kept to our rounds throughout the race. We watched teams enter the checkpoints, monitored patients in the vet tents and cabins, and followed up with mushers and handlers to check on dogs we had seen earlier. At about 3 a.m. on the second night, a few locals nudged me and pointed upwards. For the next 40 minutes, two veterinary teams lay in the snow and gaped at the sky, trying to imagine what people without cell phones or weather science must have thought about the undulating alien-green light show of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.  

What medical issues affect sled dogs?

The athletes were a joy to work with. All were in good physical condition, and nutrition was a priority at every kennel. Some were gregarious, some shy, but all were driven by an intrinsic desire to run. Regardless of desire, however, sled dogs are not allowed to compete with an injury that would be aggravated by running. Pain medications work in dogs as they do in humans: Many block pain by impeding the inflammatoryhealing process, many cause bleeding ulcers, and all can exacerbate injury by making the dog comfortable enough to keep running. For these reasons, sled dogs are not allowed to run on any pain medication. Whips are not allowed, either. As you can imagine, the sled dogs I observed had less frequent injuries, less serious injuries and much faster return to running than their human counterparts.  

Most mushers were keen observers of their dogs, aware of minor issues before the vets spotted them. Typical complaints included limping, diarrhea and sores caused by chafing footwear (sound familiar?). The dogs were good patients, accustomed to having their feet checked and muscles rubbed. At one checkpoint, a musher asked me to investigate a forelimb lameness, which I traced to a knotted muscle in the dog’s shoulder. When I began treatment, the dog relaxed, her eyes drooped and she leaned in – this was clearly not her first therapeutic massage!  

We were particularly watchful for the red- or brown-tinted urine that indicates rhabdomyolysis, or muscle fiber breakdown. Running causes wear and tear on muscles, which sends some extra debris into the bloodstream. The kidneys’ job is to filter out the debris, but dehydration reduces the amount of fluid that flows through the filter and can cause the debris to clog the kidney. (NSAIDS like ibuprofen also reduce fluid flow through the kidneys.) This can permanently damage the kidney, and sometimes creates a lifethreatening emergency. Dogs are pulled from the race and receive IV fluids as a protective measure if “rhabdo” is suspected.  

The Finish

Back in Glennallen, the finish line was just as “ultra” as the start. Checkpoint workers turned in equipment while spectators predicted finish times for the award winners and the Red Lantern (analogous to ultrarunning’s DFL*). For the entire 34-hour span between the first and last finisher, volunteers kept tables stocked with steaming crockpots, veggie trays, and batch after batch of fresh-baked cookies. Race officials, sponsors and local reporters clustered around the early finishers, each of whom claimed a purse that might buy several weeks’ worth of dog food. Just as important, and true to the spirit of endurance racing, someone was present to cheer for every finisher.  

True to the spirit of endurance race volunteering, my team napped when our shift ended, then joined the race staff and finishers to celebrate with a delicious meal and a beer.  

*Dead Last

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of In Passing.