Elephant's treadmill goes to the dogs

Courtesy Martin Buser
Badger, a 3-year-old leader, checks out Maggie's old treadmill, which weighs 10,000 pounds and has a 22-foot-long running surface.

Iditarod musher Martin Buser has a new weapon as he guns for a fifth victory in the 1,150-mile race: Maggie the elephant's old treadmill, a fitness machine big enough for a full dog team to run wind sprints.

A treadmill that big isn't something you can pick up at Petco. The one at Buser's Happy Trails Kennels was designed and built for Maggie, the 8,000-pound African elephant who lived at the Alaska Zoo until she cut out for warmer climes in 2007.

Buser, a four-time Iditarod winner, wanted the 22-foot-long treadmill so that he can exercise his dogs when conditions outside don't favor a long run. He'd also like scientists to use the machine to learn more about sled dogs, and he's well aware of the interest tourists might have in seeing a full dog team jogging on a giant treadmill.

The treadmill was the zoo's attempt to get Maggie exercising through Alaska's long winters. But when the overweight pachyderm turned up her trunk at jogging in place, she was loaded on an Air Force C-17 and flown to northern California. Maggie's departure followed years of debate over whether she should leave the 49th state for a warmer part of the country where she could exercise and be around other elephants.

Northern California has proven a better fit for Maggie. She's built up a lot of muscle roaming up and down the hills at the sanctuary, and she recently won the "Miss Tuskany 2009" elephant beauty contest, said Alaska Zoo executive director Patrick Lampi.

After Maggie left town, Buser called Lampi and said he could put the oversized piece of exercise equipment to good use. The zoo reportedly spent $100,000 on the construction of the treadmill. Buser got it for free, Lampi said, though the musher did haul the 10,000-pound machine home and has added the zoo as one of his sponsors.

The treadmill isn't yet operational. The building housing the machine still needs a garage door, and Buser is looking at having the treadmill's motor reconfigured so it's less powerful than the 75 horses it needed for Maggie.


Buser won his first Iditarod in 1992. He lives in Big Lake with his wife Kathy and their two sons, Nikolai and Rohn, who are both named after Iditarod checkpoints. Buser and his two helpers train 60 dogs at Happy Trails Kennels. Besides his four Iditarod victories, Buser also has the record for the race's fastest finish, mushing to a 2002 win in just under nine days.

Buser is an innovative trainer, and for fun his dogs run on huge exercise wheels like you'd find in a hamster cage. He sees the treadmill as a way to keep training in those snow-poor years, or when conditions are so icy the trails are dangerous.

Besides the fact that it's an obvious tourist attraction for Happy Trails Kennels, the treadmill will also allow for closer scientific research of Buser's athletes. Instruments like oxygen consumption masks and heart rate monitors can yield valuable information, but can't be used when the dogs are running outside.

"All that stuff is really hard to do when the dogs are running up and down the trails, but really easy to do when the dogs are on the treadmill," the Swiss-born Buser said.

Sled dogs cruise at 10 to 12 mph, Buser said, but he'd like to get the treadmill up to 20 mph so he can put his dogs through some speed workouts.

Buser isn't the first Alaska musher to see the virtues of running dogs on a treadmill. There's another sled dog treadmill in the state. Musher Aliy Zirkle said Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman has a treadmill at his home near Denali, and that when she ran her dogs on it the results were startling.

Working with Dr. Michael Davis, an Oklahoma State University professor who studies the physiology of sled dogs, heart rate monitors were attached to the dogs. Zirkle said that while a normal heart rate for a resting sled dog is about 90 beats per minute, within 40 seconds of running on the treadmill the dog's heart increased to over 200 beats per minute. The amazing part, she said, is that as soon as the dogs stopped running, their hearts immediately recovered and dropped back down to under 100 beats per minute in about 30 seconds.

"It's really neat to figure out why these awesome Alaskan athletes can run clear across the state in under 10 days and not look the worse for it," she said.

Now that it's snowed, Buser said getting Maggie's old treadmill running is not one of his top priorities. He said he probably won't get his dogs on it until after the Iditarod, which has its ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 6.

"Now my winter will be taken up with training dogs the old-fashioned way," he said.

Contact Josh Saul at jsaul_alaskadispatch.com.