Femund Race ABC: How fast can a sled dog run?

Author: Kjetil Svanemyr / Morten Haugseggen (Transl)     Photo: Kjersti M. Godin Mj√¶rum     Publish date: 30.01.13 19:13

The most common dog breeds in modern long distance sled dog racing are the Alaskan husky and the Siberian husky.

The Alaskan husky is a mixed breed with genes from several differenct races. This breed is most commonly used in the longest races since it can maintain a higher speed than the Siberian husky. Both breeds are bred to be able to keep an even and moderately high speed over long distances - 100 kilometers or more. This means that they have a significantly lower top speed than breeds used for sprint races, such as pointers. However, a long distance sled dog is bred for more than just high speeds. They must also have thick fur to withstand lasting cold and bad winter weather, they must have rugged paws, a robust psyche and not least be able to maintain their appetite despite stress and hard work over long periods of time.

The fastest long distance sled dogs can reach a top speed of over 30 kilometers per hour over short distances. During the Femundløpet race the normal cruising speed for a well trained team of sled dogs is around 15 kilometers per hour. Considering that this race is over 600 kilometers long, a difference in average speed of just one kilometer per hour makes a big difference in the end. This is the reason why most mushers try to maintain an even speed instead of trying to break the speed records. High speeds also carry inherent risks such as increased chances of injury, muscle stiffness and general fatigue. Hence the mushers try to keep the speed down during the first stages of the race. However, the dogs are usually eager to run as fast as they can, since they have no way of knowing that the race is in excess of 600 kilometers. This makes it the musher's task to make sure each dog saves its strength. This means that the musher has to reduce the speed of the dogs during the first stages of the race. It is important that he uses the break frequently, keeps calm and try to find a suitable speed. He also has to know when to let up - when to encourage the dogs to increase their speed. For a well trained team the first 200-300 kilometers are usually just a transportation leg. There is usually very little difference between teams during this part of the race. Pushing the dogs to make them run faster early in the race usually means a great speed penalty towards the end. The key for each mushers is to know their dogs well. The top mushers can see and interpret signals from their dogs. This way they can avoid pushing them too far.