It’s shortly after sunrise on a brisk, sunny, Saturday morning on the Adventure Unlimited Ranch in Colorado’s Arkansas River Valley. The temperature is 29 degrees Fahrenheit, but is forecasted to creep up into the low 50’s by early afternoon here at 9,000 feet. The ranch sits on the edge of open meadows where antelope graze, and the land slowly sweeps up into forests of lodgepole pine that hide a herd of elk. Directly to the west, the 14,000-foot mountains of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness loom above.I’m here with my dog and teammate, Altai – a Jindo – and with my wife, Kelli, who’s come along to lend support and cheer for us. Altai and I are about to compete in our first race together – a dryland canicross race organized by the Colorado Mountain Mushers. We’re glad to have Kelli here. Altai and I have been training for barely a month, and it’s anyone’s best guess how this is going to go.I discovered canicross accidentally during the summer of 2007, while researching an article about skijoring. Altai and I both love the winter wonderland that grips Colorado’s high country six months out of the year. The Rocky Mountains are our playground. Kelli and I adopted Altai in December 2005 when he was just two months old, and two short weeks later, we took him on his first snowshoe outing. His breed—Jindo—comes from South Korea. The dogs. which are in the same family as Akitas only smaller, were originally bred for hunting. They’re highly athletic, fast, and energetic. As Altai grew older and more able in the mountains, the adventures grew, too. Hiking. Scrambling up rocky summits. Backcountry skiing. He especially loved the snow. So did I, but was there a way to tie us together, literally and figuratively, in our common love of snow?Skijoring, I thought, might be the answer. Alas, I discovered it in late spring, when there wasn’t enough of the white stuff on the trails to make so much as a snowball, let alone go skijoring. The first snows of fall seemed agonizingly far off, and so I searched for a summertime dryland substitute. Enter canicross, the joy of walking or running with your dog while harnessed together akin to skijoring.TC Wait and Dave Wurtz, along with four of the couple’s seventeen dogs, showed me and Altai the ropes one August day at Chatfield Reservoir southwest of Denver. Then it was Altai’s turn. He seemed to love it, and so did I.As the fall approached I saw that there was a dryland race with a canicross division on the Colorado Mountain Mushers’ schedule of events. It was to be their second year hosting the race. Many mushers, I learned, canicross in summer to gear up for the arriving skijor and mushing season. Others, like Altai and me, canicrossed for its own sake. I decided to enter us in the race. There were only two problems: we didn’t have the gear, and aside from our one-day lesson with TC and Dave, we’d never canicrossed before.With the race looming on November 10th, I ordered a custom x-back harness for Altai, since his torso is a little short for his body size. The harness arrived in the mail on October 20, three weeks before the race weekend. It was time to start training, and fast. I chose a 3.1 mile loop on trails near our home in south Boulder, and kept a journal to record our progress:10/22 – Our first training as a man-dog team. He’s alert and excited. For the first 1.5 miles he does well, staying out in front and even pulling with a bit of tension. Then he hits a wall and, despite my encouragement, slows until the line is slack and he’s running alongside me. But it’s a good first outing, and we expect to improve.10/23 – We improve our time by 1:20, running roughly 9-minute miles. Lots of distractions (hikers, bikers, other dogs). Need to work on our “on by.”10/25 –Today we did “pulling” training. Clipped a one gallon jug of water to the gang line and then his harness, and called him to me across the grass of our backyard. At first Altai was very tentative, but pass after pass, he became more comfortable pulling.10/26 – Benchmarked our times today, comparing our per mile pace against that of other canicross races from the previous season. Winning times were in the 7 minute range. Slower times were roughly walking speed. Majority of the times were in the 9 minute range, right where we’ve been training. 10/29 – Ran our fastest time today, but very frustrated. Altai not running fast, or ahead of me. Spent almost the entire 3.1 miles running ahead of him and pulling him along. Feel like we’re making backward progress. I know he can do better. At the moment have high hopes for the race, but low expectations.11/1 – Been alternating canicross training days with days running by myself on the same loop for a frame of reference. Solo times are about one minute per mile faster. That’s the standard we’ll shoot for. Kelli started helping us train today – getting Altai used to pulling with me behind him. Wish we started this element of our training weeks ago! Eight days left until the race. Hope it’s enough time to make more progress.11/2 – After yesterday’s good training session, was optimistic about today’s trail run. He was a different dog. Ran fast ahead of me, pulling me along on a taught line. The cooler temps today kept him or me from overheating. Seems the slower end of Altai’s natural pace and the faster end of mine overlap. Overjoyed! Kept praising him with “good boy” as we sprinted along, faster than I could on my own. When we returned to the trailhead, our loop time was 13 seconds faster than my personal solo best. Amazing! A 7:51 per mile pace. Feels like everything has clicked. Bent down and gave Altai a hug and big belly rubs, and he licked the salty sweat off my forehead.11/6 – Second-to-last trail run before the race. Suddenly, we’ve switched roles, and now I’m the limiting factor in how fast we can run. If we run well together on race day I think we’ll place respectably.11/8 – Last day of training before the race. Only unknown factor is that thus far we’ve been training on our own. On race day, there will be other people, other dogs. How Altai will respond at the starting line and on the course is anybody’s guess. Not nervous—yet. Definitely excited.It’s November 10, and Altai and I are just thirty minutes away from race time. The canicrossers gather for a pre-race meeting led by TC and Dave. “Remember, we’re racing for fifty cent ribbons, so sportsmanship takes priority,” Dave reminds us. We’ll be running a 1.2-mile course twice over two days. The best cumulative time wins the race.“All that matters is that you cross the finish line with a smile on your face,” TC adds. We’d like a finish with a smile, and we hope, with some self respect. I don’t want Altai and me to make fools of ourselves at our first event.There are fourteen canicrossers slated to race today. We’ll do one minute staggered starts. Some of the racers are casual. TC will leisurely canicross with one of her Alaskan Huskies, a three-legged dog who had the fourth leg amputated just weeks earlier due to cancer. But other racers are serious competitors. There’s Steph Dwyer and her dog, Hanna. They’re considered semi-pros on the Colorado-Wyoming race circuit. And there’s Fritz Howard and his dog, Otto. They were last year’s winners, and if they run today like they did then, Altai and I don’t have a prayer.Altai and I are the fourth team to start. As the timer counts down our start, I’m excited, and so is Altai. Surprisingly, I’m not nervous. One thing is for sure: this is going to be fun.We run fast, and my lungs are burning, trying to get as much oxygen from the thin air as they can. Altai runs fast and hard, and listens to my “on by” commands. We pass one lady and her dog, and then a young man – Matt – and his dog, Rabbit. Our time for Day One: 7:24. It’s a 6:10 per mile pace, more than a minute and a half faster per mile than we’d ever run before.On Day Two the skies are blue, and Altai and I are in fourth place. Fritz, not surprisingly, is solidly in first place, with Steph not far behind. For our second run of the course, Altai starts slow. But by the time we reach the back turn, he begins to turn on the speed. Meter by meter, he runs faster and harder until I’m sprinting across the finish line. We’re consistent, only six seconds off of yesterday’s pace.Now across the finish line, Altai’s tail is wagging and he wants to play with the spectators who cheered us in. Meanwhile, I’m hunched over, trying to catch my breath and let my weary legs recover. No matter what the outcome, we put in a great showing for our first race, and I’m proud of Altai. Perhaps more important than the race itself, we’ve made some great new friends in the mushing community.As the weekend draws to a close, all of the racers gather together for the informal awards ceremony. Fritz Howard took first place in the canicross for the second year in a row. Steph Dwyer took second. Then, to my great pleasure and partial surprise, Altai and I take third place.Weeks after the race, though, Altai doesn’t remember our third place finish. I’m not sure he even noticed when we received our ribbon. Even if he did, I’m sure he didn’t care. Clearly, he’s in it for the fun.Back home in Boulder, my wife, Kelli, and I prepare to go for a trail run together. When Altai sees Kelli grab his x-back harness, he can hardly contain his excitement. Ten minutes later, the three of us are out on the trail together, running as a team. For Altai, that’s the reward of canicross. The joy of being out together is better motivation than any race, and certainly better than any ribbon he could wear. Even so, as the race season marches on, my sights are set on the calendar and the next potential opportunity to enter a race. Based on our last experience at the dryland in November, it’s just too darned fun not to give it another go.Peter Bronski (www.peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer and canicross novice from Boulder, CO.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,