I’ve been mushing for about eight years now. In that time, I’ve participated in about a dozen sprint races. Some were just “fun runs”, but the majority were ISDRA sanctioned, legitimate races with competitive teams. My dogs usually did fairly well, placing somewhere in the middle of the pack—between the slow-and-steady Samoyeds and the gazelle-like Eurohounds. How we did depended a lot on our order out the chute. If we were behind a fast team, we usually did well, since we could chase them right to the finish line.
Sprint races are short and intense, with teams spaced out only by a few minutes and often interacting on the trail. You’ll also be running against all levels of musher—from recreational newbie to competitive pro. Unlike mid-distance and distance races, which seem to mainly be composed of Alaskans and maybe a few Siberian teams, you’ll see all sorts of dogs at sprint races.
For me, there are a lot of variables that make sprint racing stressful. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy attending races and talking to other mushers. I love seeing the dogs run. But when it’s our turn, I’m usually a ball of nerves.
The funny thing is that I’ve never had any major issues during a race. My dogs are mysteriously polite during the chaos of getting to the start chute and returning back to the van. In my early races, we did get into a tangle and my bike fell apart (ah, Fair Hill), but we made it out without injuries or upsetting anyone. I wish I could break the nerves, but it just seems to be part of racing.
For me, mushing isn’t about the thrill of competing (or winning). I prefer to be alone in the wilderness with my team—a collection of dogs I picked and trained to work together. Just traveling over different landscapes is a victory in itself. I want to grow my team to go longer distances. I want enough dogs in harness that when someone is tired, injured, or retired, the team can still keep going. I want to breed a litter of pups, so I can hand-pick and raise a future team right from the very beginning (this won’t be for a long time, if at all).
I have a lot of goals for me and these dogs: longer miles, overnight expeditions, maybe even some small-scale touring. Racing isn’t part of the plan. Yet, for most mushers, competition is the main goal for their whole operation. Nowadays, sled dog kennels serve little functional purpose other than racing and touring (which tend to go hand in hand—big race kennels often give tours). I don’t know of any mushers who use dog teams for their traditional purposes—fur trapping, transporting goods, etc. (though it still exists in native cultures).
The “purpose" of these dogs has obviously shifted towards competition. As a working dog, their value is determined by how well they do their job. So, it should come as no shock that whenever I ask for advice from other mushers, it comes to me under the assumption that I’m building a race team. But what if that’s not what I’m after? What if my goals don’t align with the majority of the community?
These are rhetorical questions because, truthfully, I don’t care. I’m always going to follow my own path, even if it’s an edge case in an already niche hobby. That said, you’ll probably still catch me at sprint races from time to time. You may even see me at a mid-distance race one day. If you do, please pat me on the back and maybe give me a Tums.