2010 INTERNATIONAL PEDIGREE STAGE STOP SLED DOG RACE

It’s race day. Dozens of dogs circle the truck. Ears flop. Tails wag beneath the Rocky Mountain sky. Some dogs play. Others relieve themselves. The mood is jolly and unconcerned. Blayne Streeper starts up his snowmobile. He and his fiancee, Lina Gladh, take off toward a snow-covered field. Fifty dogs follow. The dogs lope around the field in a pack. When they return to the truck, Blayne’s father, Terry Streeper greets them there. Hardly a typical dog handler, Terry is a three-decade sprint racing legend. He loads the dogs in the truck while Blayne and Lina prepare their sleds and lines for the race. This was a daily sight at the 2010 International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race (IPSSSDR). Blayne Streeper and Lina Gladh finished in first and second place, respectively. Streeper won the 290-mile event with a time of 22 hours, 35 minutes, and 35 seconds, and Gladh followed in 22 hours, 59 minutes, and 3 seconds. While the Streeper Kennel established and maintained its dominance from the beginning, Joe Gans, racing a team for Lloyd Gilbertson’s kennel, placed third in 23 hours, 47 minutes, and 49 seconds, and consistently battled for daily top standings. Iditarod veteran Aaron Peck finished fourth with a time of 23 hours, 53 minutes, and 32 seconds.This article highlights training techniques from these top three kennels, as well as things to consider about the unique stage format of the IPSSSDR, an eight-day race that travels through ten communities in Wyoming and Utah. RECIPES FOR SUCCESSStreeper Kennels, located in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, is home to 150 dogs. Blayne and his father Terry own and operate the kennel as full partners, sharing the responsibilities of caring for the dogs, as well as planning, training and implementing race strategy. Add Blayne’s fiance, Lina, into the mix for the 2010 IPSSSDR, and Blayne says, “We competed at 150%.”The Streeper race dogs are bred for performance, and most of the dogs trace back to lines that the kennel developed over the past thirty years. Compared to most of the other teams in the IPSSSDR, the Streeper dogs look “houndy,” with their long legs, flopped ears, speckles, and short coats; however, Blayne and Terry remark that they are having more success as they breed away from the purebred english and german pointers. The Streeper race dogs at this year’s IPSSSDR were one quarter hound or less. According to Blayne, gait is more important than breed for an IPSSSDR race dog. He says, “I can count on one hand how many dogs trot in our kennel.” This seems to be an essential characteristic for a winning Stage Stop team—no trotting. Blayne Streeper won the IPSSSDR in 2004 in his first attempt, but he is best known for sprint titles, including five victories at the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship, five wins in the Yellowknife Dog Derby, and track record and two-time winner of the Fairbanks Open North American Championship, among others. Blayne started racing when he was 2 years old, so it’s safe to say that sled dog racing is in his blood. How did the Streepers condition their dogs to compete at the longer mileages of the IPSSSDR? For the 2009-10 season, Blayne recalls, “We did the same training up to November 1 as we would have done for open class preparation, traveling at speeds of 15mph and lower. After November 1, we increased the mileage and reduced speeds to max 15mph. Our longest training run was 45 miles.” Forty-five miles sounds short if you consider the longest stages in the IPSSSDR (60+ miles). Some speculated that the best day to make up time on the Streeper teams was on the Day Six stage out of Kemmerer. The route included snow drifts and wind much more like the Iditarod’s Blueberry Hills out of Unalakleet than the groomed sprint tracks of open class races. Blayne did not win this stage, but his fiance, Lina, won with the Streeper B team. The longer distances did not hinder their success.While an article cannot capture the heart and soul of any training program, clearly the Streeper Kennel mastered the art of slowing down their dog teams, and increasing their endurance. Blayne, Lina, and Terry trained with a GPS all winter, keeping track of the mileages covered and speed performed by each dog. Their challenge was to figure out exactly how much the teams needed to be slowed in order to maintain stamina for the necessary mileage of the day. Contrary to the common sprint racing strategy of going out hard and trying to maintain the swift speed, the Streeper Kennel adopted a different philosophy: go out at a speed you can maintain the entire way, and finish fast. This approach worked brilliantly in the IPSSSDR and it is noteworthy that three weeks after claiming the title in Wyoming, Streeper won the 2010 Fur Rendezvous World Championships with the same dog team. Equally impressive, his fastest race split in the Rendezvous was the final mile of the 3-day race. Yes, Blayne put patience and precision to work for the IPSSSDR, but was also able to speed up his team for the subsequent open class races in 2010. He raced undefeated in the 2009-10 season. While the Streeper challenge was to slow down the teams to a maintainable speed, many long distance mushers had to figure out how to speed them up. This was Iditarod musher Aaron Peck’s task for the winter. Coming off the 2009 Iditarod, Aaron had to figure out a way to convince his dog team to run faster over fewer miles.Aaron Peck, from Grande Prairie, Alberta, operates a kennel of 55 dogs. This winter, he helped train an Iditarod dog team for Ross Adam, as well as his own IPSSSDR team. Did he use the same dogs for both events? No. Aaron intermixed the 55 dogs for the first month of training, and evaluated gaits and potential speed. By September, he designated a core group of twelve dogs for his stage race team. In October, Aaron selected eight more dogs so that he had a team of twenty dogs to train solely for the Stage Stop. How did Aaron convince his dog team that they were stage racing, and not mushing a thousand miles to Nome? He trained faster and less often, with significantly reduced mileages. He selected dogs that he knew could make the transition from a long distance trot to a mid-distance lope. “I started with dogs that are naturally hard driving and smooth gaited,” said Aaron, “I let them run fast, and really stretch out, and eventually they got the message.”While the Streepers did not train on hills, Aaron did a significant amount of hill training to prepare for the steep Wyoming terrain. During the dryland training season, he ran the dogs up hills fast, not making them pull, but just giving them the idea that running uphill is about speed. He wanted to cultivate excitement for hills. Once a week, Aaron slowed the four-wheeler, so that the dogs had to pull hard up the hills, and get the necessary conditioning.In addition to preparing his team for hilly terrain, Aaron did a significant amount of personal fitness training to ensure he could help his team during the race. Aaron believes that his own athleticism was a major ingredient to the success of his 2010 race. He said, “I don’t want to take anything away from my dogs, but my own work behind the sled helped a lot. Unless I was going downhill, I was helping them by either kicking or running. The dogs are used to that with me. We work together. I supposed if you train a team to run faster, you don’t need to help as much, but this is my way.”Which is harder–to slow down a fast team, or speed up a slow team? There is no clear answer. Logistically, it is easier to slow down a team, because you can do it by putting your foot on the drag until the dogs literally have to slow down. Speeding up a distance team can be tricky. It is more of a mental shift to convince the dogs that they are not running all the way to Nome, but instead just a few hours to the next finish line. Picture this. Just two weeks before the 2010 IPSSSDR, several mushers, including the Streepers and Aaron Peck, were training their teams at West Yellowstone to adjust to the high altitude. One afternoon, Aaron approached Terry Streeper and asked, “What was your average speed on this training run.” Terry replied something in the range of 14 mph. Aaron looked down at his own GPS and saw 10.5 mph, a perfect long distance training speed—a horrible thing to see just a few days before the IPSSSDR start. Somehow, Aaron convinced his team to pick up the pace. He even managed to beat Blayne on the longest stage of the race, Stage Six, by more than ten minutes. However, Streeper’s fiancee, Lina, beat Aaron for the day.Third place finisher, Joe Gans, raced a team for Caribou Creek Kennel, owned by Lloyd Gilbertson. This kennel won the IPSSSDR in 2005 with musher Hernan Maquieira, and in 2007 with Wendy Davis. Kennel owner Lloyd Gilbertson raced himself in 2003, but at 6 feet 5 inches tall, he said, “I had some good stages, but there was too much of me on the sled. I saw more potential for my team with a smaller musher.” While Gilbertson did not compete in the 2010 IPSSSDR, he traveled with his teams, acting as the handler and coach. Joe Gans raced Gilberton’s A team, and Mike Barnet raced the B team. Unlike long distance events where mushers are on their own, handlers on the IPSSSDR play a major role in the care and strategy of the race team. Each night of the race, Gilbertson worked with Gans and Barnet to select the best dog teams for the next day. It was a group effort. Gilbertson explained: “We put our heads together to figure out which dogs to race each day. Joe and Mike gave feedback, and together we moved forward.” Gilbertson believes that an ideal stage racing team is not a matter of sprint or distance, but “I think of it as a versatile dog team.” He contends that an ideal IPSSSDR dog has the capability of running up to 20mph, and needs to be able to hold 14mph for long runs that include climbs. Unlike the Streeper kennel, whose longest training run was 45 miles, and Aaron Peck at 50 miles, Gilbertson’s mushers Joe Gans and Mike Barnet drove their dog teams on several 8-9 hour runs at 8mph before the race. Gilbertson described this as LSD training, known to human runners as long slow distance. They also completed 50-mile training runs at race pace. Hill training is not a major training element for Gilbertson, in part because there are not a lot of hills near his kennel in Chatham, Michigan. Also, Gilbertson believes that the LSD training acts as an alternative to hills. IPSSSDR- More Than a Dog Race: Mushers travel from far away to compete in the IPSSSDR. The purse is high, the competition is stiff, but there’s something else too. The race is a community-based endeavor, where mushers, dogs, handlers, sponsors, veterinarians, volunteers, townspeople, and officials share a common experience. “One of the highlights of the race is the traveling aspect,” said Blayne Streeper, “We see new towns, new trails, and new people every day. There are tons of schoolchildren at the race starts. It’s a community effort.” A stellar group of IPSSSDR veterinarians, officials, and race organizers lead the sport in professionalism. According to race marshal, Mark Nordman, “The IPSSSDR is as organized a race as I’ve been involved with.”Even the dog handlers have a central role. While dog handlers often end up sleeping in cold parking lots waiting for their dog teams at long distance races, the handling experience at the IPSSSDR is entirely different. Because the race stages end in the afternoon each day, handlers care for the dog teams in the evenings, and can play an essential role to the competitiveness of the team. Take the 2010 race for example. High profile mushers Terry Streeper, Terry Adkins, Doug Swingley, Melanie Shirilla, and Lloyd Gilbertson were some of the handlers, not competitors at the IPSSSSDR. Yes, wisdom speaks from the sidelines at the Stage Stop. Looking Ahead-IPSSSDR 2011:The Stage Stop is getting faster and faster. This may be in part because the race has shortened its mileages. Whereas in the past, the race included campouts and stages as long as 110 miles, the present-day IPSSSDR features runs between 30 and 60 miles. Also, the level of competition is increasing. Blayne Streeper averaged 12.9mph over nearly 300 miles in this year’s race. This average included steep hill climbs at altitude, and trail conditions that were not always hard and fast. Race director, Frank Teasley, who founded the IPSSSDR fifteen years ago, commented on the current state of the race: “Like the Iditarod, the IPSSSDR is evolving. More mushers are focusing on it so the teams are getting more competitive and thus pushing the pace.” Pedigree Food for Dogs, the title sponsor of the race, has enabled the race to have a large purse, which in turn lures mushers from far off places. While Blayne Streeper and Lina Gladh dominated the event in 2010, don’t count out challengers for the 2011 race. Lloyd Gilbertson will return with a team, as will Aaron Peck, and many of the other top 2010 IPSSSDR competitors. Additionally, the winningest musher of the IPSSSDR, Hans Gatt, signed up for the 2011 race after winning the 2010 Yukon Quest and placing 2nd in the 2010 Iditarod. Ryan Redington, grandson to Joe Redington Sr., known for excelling at mid-distance races, also signed up. The International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race has become a melting pot for sprint, mid, and long distance mushers in the sport. The training methods may be varied, but all dog teams and mushers come together under the Rocky Mountain sunshine. According to Teasley, the race is designed to showcase the most versatile mushers and sled dogs in the sport. Blayne Streeper clearly demonstrated versatility with his IPSSSDR win, and subsequent undefeated 2010 race season. Streeper is the team to beat in 2011, but the many dimensions of the IPSSSDR leave room for surprises. •

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