Picture: dog. running. athlete. Without another word many of us conjure up an image of a dog, running joyously over a long lawn, ears windblown, feet stretching, reaching in a great gallop. Are you smiling? There is beauty in the motion of rippling muscles. I have always admired an athletic dog. I have patients who ride jet skis, catch Frisbees, and dive under water to retrieve balls. Several have entered competitions of Flyball racing. There are field trials for hunters, Search and Rescue dogs, Agility competitions and Herding trials. Police dogs and those who train in Schutzhund (protection dog) hold awe inspiring competitions to showcase their talent.
One of the greatest tests of endurance, however, is the Iditarod Sled Dog Race of Alaska. It is the ultimate marathon for man and dog.
I do not consider myself an athlete – active, yes, but not particularly skilled in any sport. So it might surprise you to learn that I recently completed a half marathon. Certainly it astonishes me.
Dog or human, we all undergo a process called “training” to achieve our goals. Training involves education in a course of exercise and diet to prepare for a sporting event. Hmmm. Similarities?
The Iditarod covers 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Travel is by dog-pulled sled, with a human “musher” to guide along the trail. It honors the days when dog sleds were used as transportation for work and village to village through the Alaskan wilderness. The winner has often completed the race in 8 – 10 days. The dog breeds allowed to enter are the Alaskan sled dog, the Siberian Husky, and the Alaskan Malamute. They are best adapted to the conditions. The race begins with 16 dogs and at least 6 dogs must finish to qualify. Do the dogs love this? Yes, as a pack animal, Puppy wants to be with you, please you, and do as you do. Their reward is positive attention. Only athletes need apply to the Iditarod. These dogs aren’t interested in half marathons – why would any dog want to run 13.1 miles to be rewarded with a Tinkerbell medal?
I wanted to join some people I love doing something they love. Not much different than Puppy, huh? I signed up before Christmas (I’m never in my right mind then), bought an expensive watch which I wore faithfully both times I trained, and found some bright turquoise scrubs which subbed in for those tight black running pants worn by every single other of the 11,406 women running that day. I’d have stood out if we hadn’t been nested together like sardines.
The Puppy in the Iditarod will have spent over two years in training. Puppy will roll over for protective booties to be secured to their paws and stand to be harnessed. Most have a personal veterinarian. Sixty to 100 teams usually enter.
Since my training was at best incomplete, I set my sights as low as possible : I hoped simply to finish. I knew I could keep pace with a 13 minute mile, IF it lasted less than 3 miles (in runners’ parlance we prefer the 3 mile distance measured as “5 kilometers or 5K”. You see the superiority of the metric system demonstrated here?). Coached by seasoned marathoners, I was prepared. Sunscreen, check. Hat, check. Sneakers, check. I left the watch at home.
They recommended carb loading the day before. This I triple checked. “Carb” is short for carbohydrates and includes many fine foods: pastry, desserts, really anything with sugar. The list also includes whole grains and legumes. Who even knows what a legume is? I checked : Alfalfa is a legume. Cows eat it. People legumes include peas, beans, lentils and peanuts. Peanuts are double winners, a source of both carbs and protein source. Every athlete knows that you need protein to build strong muscles. The day before the race I sacrificed my natural preference for lentils and bravely consumed two limeade mint juleps (non-alcoholic. Athlete! Stay focused!) and downed a few beignets coated in powdered sugar. I could almost hear the cheers from the stadium.
High performance dogs require the double calories found in a high fat diet. Each sled dog may burn over 10,000 calories a day. They are fed high quality kibble and A LOT of high fat salmon. Chunks of frozen salmon are canine energy bars on Race Day.
I paid close attention to the stuff that mattered for my Race Day: stay hydrated and carry food. Exhibit halls hawk high protein bars and gummy candies or high caffeine supplies to keep you moving. I pondered the science of balancing electrolytes, proteins and carbs. I sampled their wares. I will never understand the beauty of carob over fine dark chocolate. I struggled with this part the longest. On Race Day, I came equipped with a king size PayDay candy bar : salty and sweet (electrolytes, yes?), protein AND carbs!
The Iditarod has a tradition of “The Red Lamp”. It is kept burning brightly throughout the race and awarded to the last team to cross the finish line (even 32 days later)- recognition for perseverance. Three hours and 22 minutes later I crossed my finish line. I ate my PayDay. Success is sweet.
Christine B. McFadden, DVM