Posted by: trevormeers | February 26, 2010

Why Navy SEALs Want To Be Sled Dogs

Quick poll: Who’s the greatest athlete you’ve met in person? It doesn’t take long to find the answer for most of us, who generally go through life without press passes to major sporting events or an addiction to autograph shows. My list is short. I stood in an airport line behind Tommie Frazier once. Interviewed Turner Gill by phone. Saw Bob Gibson at the other end of a press box. Spotted Johnny Bench signing autographs at a trade show, and actually shook hands with Dwight Clark in a similar setting. My only true jocks-and-joes exchange was with Bobby Plump, the real-life Jimmy Chitwood who inspired “Hoosiers” with an epic shot in 1954. We shot hoops together about 50 years after his shot, in the gym where he made it. You surely didn’t recognize his name, but in Indiana, he’s still Tommie Frazier-in-the-Lincoln-airport huge.

No disrespect to Bobby, but there’s no doubt that the greatest athlete I’ve met and talked with—well, sort of—was standing in a pile of dirty straw and sniffing my hand. His name was Fearless, a sled dog that teamed with his lead partner Blondie and 14 other dogs to carry Martin Buser to the Iditarod championship in March 1997. They ran the trail in just over nine days and eight hours, covering 1,049 miles, an average of 113 miles per day.

Digest that stat from the perspective of your own legs for a moment: 113 miles every day for nine straight. The nastiest human foot race on the planet is Badwater, which covers 135 miles of desert and mountain, with the record being just under 23 hours.

The only time humans record Iditarod-style mileage under their own power is in the Tour de France, where they average about 107 miles per day. On bikes.

And the thing about dogs like Fearless, who start the 2010 Iditarod next week, is that they rip off these epic runs with the canine equivalent of smiles on their faces. Tongues flopped off to the side, heads swiveling around for the scent of moose. When mushers are gearing up to leave an Iditarod checkpoint, they use a massive metal snow hook to keep the dogs from bolting off with the sled. When I visited Martin’s kennel on the eve of the ’98 Iditarod, I saw kennels outfitted with massive hamster wheels the dogs could jump into when they needed to burn off a few hundred calories. At least one wheel was spinning the whole time I was there.

When Fearless hopped up on top of his plywood doghouse to let Martin scratch between his ears, Martin launched into an impromptu lecture on the anatomy of a champion Iditarod dog. Essentially no one can help a musher on the trail, meaning that if elite mushers like Martin were in NASCAR, they’d be the equivalent of a one-man pit crew/crew chief/mechanic/driver. Martin brings that Renaissance Man of the Bush attitude to his dog-breeding, adding genetics to his job description. He once calculated the number of steps a dog takes between Anchorage and Nome and studied the body parts that bore the brunt of that stress. Then he set out to breed dogs with the ideal chassis through their chest and front legs for such endurance racing.

Some of these dogs’ inherent abilities seeps through in the everyday pup sleeping by your feet. A few years ago, my black lab Moose begged to follow me on a run, so I gave in, even though he was pushing 10 and out of shape. He clicked off four miles with me with little trouble (other than some sore footpads). How many humans well into their middle age could do that after averaging about 4 minutes of exercise a day?

Military researchers are trying to figure out a way to get some of that performance for us. An article in the latest Outside magazine details how the lab-coat boys at DARPA (the agency that brought you the Internet—pre Al Gore) are studying how sled dogs pound out ridiculous exercise for days on end. This military skunkworks is hoping to develop some kind of training, pill or shot that could give people–specifically, people who fight our wars–something akin to a sled dog’s endurance. Imagine how much scarier a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger becomes when you really can’t wear them out. Most mere mortals have a VO2 max (the critical measurement of your ability to use oxygen in your bloodstream) around 50. America’s preeminent mountaineer Ed Viesturs’ is about 70. Lance Armstrong was known for his freakishly high VO2 max of 85. A sled dog’s VO2 max can hit 200.

Put that kind of athleticism on display in an event that plays out across 1,100 miles of Alaskan wilderness, and you get what I consider the world’s greatest sporting event. It starts March 6 in Anchorage, and you can follow it in captivating detail at the site of the Anchorage Daily News at adn.com. As I keep training for my own race of a mere 26 miles in May, I’ll be watching Martin’s 2010 athletes like Lear Jet, Caribou and Herakles for a little inspiration, and maybe a few VO2 points by osmosis.

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