WILLOW -- Forget the gentle swoosh of sled runners over snow. Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey's summer training offers a stark contrast to his winter routine: more than a dozen dogs yapping manically in a 53-foot long trailer, hooked up and waiting to run on his newly built treadmill.
At only 8 feet wide, the tiny space amplifies the yelps to deafening proportions. But with just the press of a button, the belt on the trailer's 50-foot treadmill begins rolling, replacing the roar of the dogs with the hum of the treadmill. The dogs immediately go from jumping and barking to silent and stoic, heads down, trotting assertively with a singular focus.
The treadmill is the latest device in the three-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion's training arsenal. Sled dogs, with their heavy coats, cannot run for long in temperatures much above freezing. That forces mushers to forgo serious summer training and keeps dogs confined to shorter runs in the offseason, if they run at all.
So in an effort to extend his training season, Seavey, 28, is taking climate control into his own hands. He equipped the trailer with a refrigerator that cools the unit down to almost freezing. In those chilly temperatures, Seavey runs almost full teams on the device for about an hour at a time.
Up-close view of his team
Frustrated by the lack of summer training options, the treadmill is something Seavey considered the last two winters. This spring, he finally traveled to New Hampshire to see a dog treadmill designed by a former mid-distance musher. He ended up buying the whole operation and shipping it to Alaska. Seavey declined to say exactly what he paid for the "expensive" treadmill.
But for Seavey, the training benefits are numerous. Not only does it help with warm days, but the treadmill is useful into the fall, when the ground becomes frozen but snow hasn't fallen. Hard ground can lead to soreness and injuries that sideline dogs. Seavey also gets a chance to look at the dogs up close, giving him a clear view of their gaits and how injured dogs are recovering.
"We're not going to use this every day, year-round," Seavey said. "But it could be the next evolution of the sport and I want to be in front of the learning curve."
It's a curve that's not exactly new. Mushers have used treadmills for years in various capacities, mostly in research applications, though occasionally for training, too. Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser notably purchased a treadmill designed for an Alaska Zoo elephant in 2009.
In a phone interview, Buser said he runs nine dogs at a time on the treadmill, employing it only when weather conditions require. With a lack of snow in Southcentral Alaska, Buser used his treadmill "quite a bit" before the 2015 Iditarod.
But the champion racer, who finished 22nd in March, said the treadmill wasn't a game-changer. "It certainly won't hinder the training," Buser said. "It's another tool in the chest of devices that we have."
Downside: cost and monotony
Fellow four-time champion Jeff King has experimented with alternative summer training methods for decades. He notably spent time letting his dogs swim and one year even developed a hypoxic device for his dogs to simulate training at altitude.
Neither method gave his dogs serious advantages on the trail. King said he's fascinated by the concept of using a treadmill, though he has misgivings, particularly with the costs and monotony of running dogs in an enclosed space.
Still, that hasn't stopped him from reconsidering how he could use a refrigeration unit he already owns.
"I think it's still execution of the event itself," he said. "I'm sure (the alternative summer training) counts, it's just not some slam-dunk advantage."
But Dr. Arleigh Reynolds thinks Seavey could turn it into an advantage. Reynolds, associate dean for the University of Alaska Fairbanks department of veterinary medicine and 2014 Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race champion, trains his sprint dogs extensively in the summer, putting up to 1,000 kilometers on dog wheels. For him, that's worked, but he admits the training intensity between sprint and distance dogs varies considerably.
'Gain an advantage'
Long distance dogs have shown they can quickly bounce back into shape after a summer of rest and research has shown that taking time off does not appear be to be detrimental to dogs' overall fitness.
But Reynolds thinks regardless of the results, it's hard to deny the value of all the time dogs and mushers get to spend with one another. He said just hooking the dogs up regularly creates bonds important for racing, even if the payoff is hard to quantify.
"You gain an advantage over competitors, because you're handling your dogs," he said. "There's nothing but payback from that."
Seavey admits the whole thing could be a failure, but he still wants to try. Standing in the trailer, despite a lifetime of running dogs, he still marveled at being able to closely watch his dogs running.
"I'm pretty stoked about it," he said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing