Miles of running pounds the joints. Blisters form. Toenails crack. Muscles cramp and ache.
Racers know it takes more than just a desire to run to compete at an elite level. It takes specialized training, nutrition and medical care for injuries. The same is true for the sled dogs that make up top racing teams.
Beginning Friday, 15 teams of sled dogs will compete the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race in Jackson. After the ceremonial start they will spend seven days racing, logging 45-55 miles a day across Wyoming.
The race, launched in 1996 by Frank Teasley and Jayne Ottman of Jackson, is meant to showcase the entire state, with stops in various Wyoming towns. It also is meant to attract some of the best mushers in the business, and with them their elite-level dog teams.
Like world-class human athletes, it takes a team to train and care for competitive sled dogs. One of the most important people on a team is the veterinarian. Four sled dog veterinarians — among the best in the world — accompany the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, and among them, for the 13th year, is Lander’s Lannie Hamilton.
Hamilton grew up in New York City, but knew she’d move west when she visited Jackson at age 10.
“I stepped off the plane and said ‘Wow, this is where I belong,’” she remembered.
She returned to Wyoming at 17 to attend a National Outdoor Leadership School course, and the next year when NOLS offered her a job she decided to put off college.
Hamilton was only days away from starting an intense pre-med program and was leading a course for NOLS when a rock embedded in one of her student’s legs. Hamilton watched the doctor take care of what was a mild injury and it made her sick. She realized she couldn’t provide medical care for people.
Always an animal lover she decided to become a veterinarian instead. “An animal never turned my stomach,” she said.
After opening a clinic in Lander she worked as a relief veterinarian, traveling and filling in at other clinics.
It was in Alaska where she began treating sled dogs and meeting mushers. The more time she spent with sled dogs the better she became at identifying and treating injuries and ailments associated with distance running and racing. She eventually became a race veterinarian for the Iditarod, which she’s now done six times.
During the stage stop race dogs don’t have to pull sleds laden with gear across grueling terrain, spending the night and recovering in the elements like they do in the Iditarod. The stage stop race is shorter, but that means the dogs run faster.
Like human distance runners, the repetitive motion of running causes foot and lower leg problems in the dogs. Running 60 miles at 12 mph stresses the muscles. Hamilton sees sore joints, swollen tendons, infected toenails and occasional blisters on the bottom of the feet.
Treating sled dogs is different than normal pets, Hamilton said. Race dogs receive so much human attention and training they are easy to handle, even if they are uncomfortable, but that can make it challenging to figure out what is wrong.
An awkward gait could be from tight triceps, which she can fix with a stretch, having the dog stand on its hind legs. There are rubs and liniments, manipulations and massages to help soothe tight muscles and sore joints. Under her hand she can feel the muscles relax.
Veterinarians perform thorough exams on all of the dogs before the race, checking heart rates, listening to lungs and evaluating muscles, bones and joints to make sure the animals are fit to run.
At races like the stage stop Hamilton doesn’t see bedraggled dogs before the race begins. After the first day though, it can be a different story. Alaskan sled dogs are born to run, but in a race they run their hardest. The race veterinarians examine every dog team as they come in from a run, scrutinizing the animals, noticing how they run and how they pull. Just the look on a sled dogs’ face can indicate its well being.
They also examine dogs that aren’t eating, seem stiff or have a split toenail.
Alaskan sled dogs are stoic and will try to hide injuries and ailments, said musher Jerry Bath of Lander. The highly trained veterinarians catch things even the mushers, who work daily with the dogs, miss.
They provide IVs to treat dehydration and have been known to sit with a dog sick with pneumonia all night.
Hamilton has also taught Bath tips for caring for his dogs, from what order liniments and hot and cold packs need to be applied depending on the injury, to massages to alleviate muscle cramps.
“It’s so sport specific the kinds of injuries these animals get,” Bath said.
That’s what drew Hamilton to sled dogs – that and a connection she feels with the animals from a shared love of the outdoors and athletic pursuits.
She’s even driven a sled in Alaska, but she doesn’t have her own team. She has horses and both animals are so high maintenance she said she couldn’t have both.