The Femundløpet race is a long distance sleddog race that takes part in February in mid-Norway. The race starts in the colourful streets of the historic UNESCO world heritage mining town of Røros and teams mush through eight districts and the fascinating countryside of Sør-Trøndelag and Hedmark counties.
There are three race categories you can compete in. One category is 600km long and you race with a 12 dog team. There are eight checkpoints, where you can rest your dogs and feed them. The second category is 400km long, has five checkpoints and is raced with an eight-dog team. Since 2012 we also have the Femund junior, This is a 6 dog race of 200km (with two checkpoints) and to participate mushers have to be between 15 and 17 years of age.
The Femundløpet is extremely challenging and mushers and dogs are faced with all the elements nature provides: Temperatures as low as -40C, high winds, snowstorms and whiteouts are just some of the things that add to the difficulty of this race. In addition mushers have to deal with sleepless nights, sleep deprivation, long hours of standing on the back of a sled, miles of running up hills to help the dogs and small trails through winding wood or over endless long lakes – in short – Femundløpet is tough!
Along the trails there are several checkpoints where teams can refuel and rest. The checkpoints provide food and sleeping areas for the teams. In addition veterinarians are on sight to check the dogs and provide advice where needed. The handlers travel to the checkpoints by car and are allowed to assist the mushers. Food and entertainment is also provided for the public and local population.
Handlers are people (mostly friends or family) who help the musher along the trail. The rules of the Femundløpet allow you to have someone follow you along the trail in a car or dog truck and provide some assistance. The assistance however is limited. The handler may deposit bags of dog food and extra equipment at designated depot areas. Handlers are however not allowed to help the musher with the care or feeding of the dogs. The handler is allowed to watch over the team when the musher is sleeping and inform or wake the musher if there are any issues. The handler is required to take care of any dogs the musher decides to drop. In this case the role of the handler is to ensure that the dog recovers its health as quickly as possible and to liaise with the musher and veterinarian about any follow-up treatment required.
More than anything however the handler provides moral support and encouragement and for many top mushers a good handler is worth gold and part of a winning strategy.
The race has several rules, which are there to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the team. For both classes there are mandatory rest stops (with the start time differential that is added on at the first mandatory stop). In addition to the mandatory rest stops the teams take additional rest somewhere along the trail. How many rest stops and how long these should be, is up to the musher and his race strategy. In addition there is also mandatory equipment that all mushers have to carry in their sleds at all times. The equipment includes extra food for the dogs and the musher, a cooker to heat water, outdoor survival equipment, booties for the dogs and many other things. These rules exist in order to ensure the safety of the teams in case of fierce weather that might oblige teams to camp out in between checkpoints.
To compete in this race, teams have to be well prepared. Top mushers train all year round and everyone starts their training already in August on karts or ATV’s. They build up from just a couple of kilometre long runs to 60km or longer training runs with camp-outs in November or December.
The race can only be completed if mushers give the dogs the adequate care and nutrition that is required. Over 50% of a kennels budget goes into food. High quality kibble as well as high fat and high protein meats are mixed together to provide the dogs with the nutrients and energy they need to perform at their best. In addition to the regular feeding the dogs also receive snacks/sausages along the trail high in fat and protein. A racing sleddog can consume over 8000 calories per day during the race. This is a huge amount of energy and therefore dogs are taught already as puppies to eat well and eat whenever they are offered food.
A team of professional and experienced veterinarians provide vet care during the race. Every veterinarian has to be specially qualified in order to work as a volunteer at the race.
The veterinarians are posted at all the checkpoints, the start and finish line. The vets perform routine checks at every checkpoint and their medical test includes listening to the heart and lungs, checking for signs of dehydration and watching for any signs of lameness. All mushers carry a veterinary booklet with them, which contains the name of every dog and empty spaces for the veterinarians to make notes. If there are any issues of concern or injuries the vet will note these in the booklet, so that the next vet at the next checkpoint can follow up and check that specific issue on that specific dog. Throughout the race every dog is examined at several checkpoints and at least 2 times during the whole race. The rules allow for veterinarians to take a dog or a whole team out of the race if they deem that the animal is unfit to continue. There has however rarely been need for this rule to be enforced, as the vets and mushers have a dialog of mutual respect and both make their decisions in the sole interest of the dogs’ health and welfare.
And why do the dogs do it? Because they love it! The atmosphere at the starting line in Røros, where thousands of barking dogs, lurch forward in their harness and strain to go just says it all. These dogs are highly trained athletes and just love what they do. This is what they are bred and born to do and if you don’t believe me, just come to Røros and see for yourself!
The Femundløpet long distance sleddog race has existed for over 20 years and each year sees more competitors at the starting line. In November 2010 Femundløpet was made into a shareholder company in order to face the challenges of a volunteer based organisation. A General Manager now works full time and during the whole year to ensure the good organisation of the race. In addition the race relies on over 700 volunteers who work many hours around the clock. Jobs required are: organising checkpoints, running teams up to the starting line, ensuring safe road crossings, cooking for a bunch of hungry mushers, handlers and volunteers as well as computer programming. All the communities in the region are involved in this race and it’s thanks to the huge volunteer effort that this event is made possible.
Competing in this race is more than a competition. It is a state of mind; it is a way of living; for some it is the race to complete in order to become a “real dog musher”.