Are You Up for the Challenge?

August 14, 2018

 A few months back while scrolling through Instagram, I came across this amazing photo of a fierce warrior of a woman carrying her dog across a log, both covered in mud and grime but obviously loving every minute of it. Epic!

When I looked closer, I did a double-take. It was one of my Instagram friends from Nashville! I was totally intrigued. What were they doing? Where were they? And what was the #U.S. Canine Biathlon?

Minutes later I was sending her a private message to find out more. Can’t you just see how much your dog would relish the opportunity to do what dogs do best – run, jump, splash, get muddy? I wanted to know more…

Christiana Gable and her two year old Australian Shepherd, Cash, had just completed their second U.S.  Canine Biathlon. This event, held every year at Vapor Wake K9 detection dog training facility in Anniston, Alabama, is a challenging, 4 plus mile course with obstacles designed for humans and their canine companions.

“I decided to run because I’m always looking for fun things to do with my dog,” Christiana told me. “I’m always up for a good challenge. I saw a video from the previous year and I knew I had to do it because it looked like so much fun for both Cash and I.”

A few days later, I spotted a photo on Instagram of another Nashville friend and her dog who had also competed.

 You might know Rebecca Garcia around town as The Dog Shepherdess. She and her three year old Aussie, Truman, had just finished their second competition. “I have always enjoyed road races and a race you can do with your dog? I’m sold!” she told me.

Now I had even more questions. So I reached out to event manager Laura Smoots, to get the inside story of how this canine and human race got its start. Turns out it’s all the creation of race director Paul Hammond.

Paul Hammond (“The Mad Brit”) has a resume that is both extensive and impressive. He has more than 28 years’ experience with working dogs, beginning with his time in the British military. He and his patrol dog, a German Shepherd named Zammo, competed in U.K. Biathlons, taking the top spot in all of them. And it was this bonding experience between canine and handler that inspired him to bring this type of event to the United States, not only for working teams but for the average dog and owner as well.

Since its beginning in 2014, the U.S. Canine Biathlon has grown to over 800 competitors. Even if you don’t have a canine companion, you are welcome to take on this challenging course.

Now if you’re thinking at this point (like I was) this event is only for professional dog teams such as law enforcement, military K9s, Search and Rescue units, etc. you’d be wrong. The race is split into two days; the Saturday race is reserved for the serious competitor- some of who run the course in 30 minutes. Sunday Funday is for those who want to come out and just have a good time, challenge themselves, get down and dirty but aren’t concerned about timing and top prizes. Even the fun runners will receive an official time and a medal.

Best of all, this event is open to all (that means YOU) and encourages dog owners of every skill and fitness level to join in with their four-legged friends.

“Our youngest competitor was four year old Pricilla who competed with her father in our 2017 race. Our oldest human competitor was 77 years of age. This past year, we had a 72 year old competitor run the course on both Saturday and Sunday!” Laura Smoots informed me. “We encourage all ages to try the biathlon just once and go at a pace that is comfortable for you and your dog.”

Does your dog need to be a working breed to do this?

“We have seen all kinds of dogs complete our course, “Laura assured me. “From small less-than-10-pound Chihuahuas and Dachshunds all the way to large, 170 pound French Mastiffs and everything in between.”

Inspirational stories abound in this race. Humans and canines undergoing chemo treatments have completed the course. Another canine/human team included a combat injured veteran who finished the course using crutches!

“Helen is one competitor that inspires us each year she has been able to race. She has been battling cancer for years, and after completing a round of chemo decided to come to Anniston and run our race. She completed the race and had so much fun that she brought 25 friends with her the very next year,” Laura said.

So what does this race include?

How about a challenging terrain of woods, sand and water, and more than thirty water and purpose built obstacles for you and your dog to conquer together.

But what is the driving force behind it? Why do dog owners want to spend the day on a gueling 4.1 mile obstacle course with their best four-legged friend? I think Paul Hammond sums it up best: “It brings people from across the country, of all races, genders and ages together with others who share their love and compassion for canines of all types. They challenge themselves for the sake of the betterment of the relationship with their canine companion. When they cross the finish line, they all become part of our unique biathlon family, bearing the medal which bonds us for a lifetime.” [quoted from an AKC Family Dog article, Mar/Apr 2018]

So if this is sounding like a challenge you and your dog would be up for, exactly what do you need to do to get ready?

Laura Smoots suggests signing up immediately, recruiting a few friends to run with you and join the fun in Alabama next year. “To get your canine ready for the race, we suggest working with them on playground equipment at a nearby park or school, trail running, crawling through tunnels, and practice picking them up.”

Christiana and Rebecca were very kind to share with me their impressions of taking on this challenge. Here’s what they have to say:

1.)  How did you first hear about the US Canine Biathlon?

R : I heard about the race two years ago. I noticed someone on instagram who did it the year before and I was very excited that a race like this existed!

C : I heard about the biathlon from a friend who had run it the previous year with her dog.

2.) What made you decide to take on the challenge? How many times have you participated?

R : I have always enjoyed road races and a race that you can do with your dog? I was sold! This was my second year participating and it was one of the most fun races I have ever done.

C : I decided to run because I’m always looking for fun things to do with my dog. I’m always up for a good challenge. I saw a video from the previous year and knew I had to do it because it looked like so much fun, for both Cash and I.

3.) Are you in it for the fun or for serious competition – or both?

R : I always like to do a race to the best of my ability but safety is the most important to me and I would take extra time on obstacles to make sure my dog and I don’t injure ourselves.

C : I run to be better than my previous time. I’m not a great runner, but my competitive side kicks in while running and I try to catch the people in front of me. I want to be better than myself and push myself the best I can, but I’m not usually too worried about the other runners (unless they’re in front of me and I’m trying to catch them.)

4.) Name, age and breed of your dog?

R : Truman, 3, Australian Shepherd

C : . My dog is a 2 year old Australian Shepherd. His name is Cash

5.) Do you have any prior experience in events like this that made it easier for you?

R : I have done marathons and triathlons before and I stay in regular shape.

C : The only thing I had going for me to help me prepare the first year we ran (2017) was that I had just graduated from APSU and I played softball. I was finishing my senior year, so I was in pretty good shape from all our conditioning.

6.) Tell us about your training – what do you do? How often do you train?

R : I would run the nature trails at Percy Warner to get used to running hills and different terrain. I would run at least 3x a week.

C : I don’t really train a whole lot for it just because it’s fun. I do run some with Cash a month or so before, but with my schedule it can difficult sometimes. I ended up having to run on my lunch breaks with him.

7.) Any special training for your dog?

R : My dog would go running with me on the trails and we would do a lot of frisbee training.

C : I don’t really train a whole lot for it just because it’s fun. I do run some with Cash a month or so before, but with my schedule it can difficult sometimes. I ended up having to run on my lunch breaks with him.

8.) What has been your biggest challenge during the course or during your training?

R : The training wasn’t difficult, but the biggest challenge during the course was when I had to carry my 56lb dog while balancing across a log.

C : The biggest challenge for me is heartbreak hill. It’s at the very end before you get to the last few obstacles and it’s almost a straight up incline. So with tired legs after already running 4 miles then having to climb the side of a mountain usually kicks me in the butt.

9.) What moment stands out as being a highlight or a moment that made you feel all the hard work was worth it?

R :  My favorite part of the race was when we scrambled up and down the top of a line of cars.

C : Crossing the finish line and seeing how happy Cash is and the big smile on his face makes my dying all worth it. He is my best friend and I do anything and everything with him. He’s my sidekick and my best bud, so I suffer through 4.1 miles because he loves it. It also helps our bond because it takes a lot of trust for him to do some of the obstacles. For me it’s worth it if he’s happy.

10.) Advice for someone who has never competed in a biathlon…what would you suggest?

R : I would make sure your dog is comfortable with water, tunnels, and have the confidence to try different obstacles. I would also wear shoes you can run in that will be wet.

C : My advice would be that it’s FUN. I was kind of nervous my first run, but then realized everyone was there for their dogs and to have a good time. I would work with your dog and expose them to as many things as possible. You see a lot of dogs scared to do things just because they’ve never seen anything like it before. It takes a lot of trust for the dogs.

11.) If your dog could speak, what would he have to say about the Canine Biathlon?

R : He would say he loved it!

C : Haha oh goodness. If Cash could talk. He would definitely say that he loves every single second of it and he loves the mud the most. He would for sure say that Mom runs too slow and does all the obstacles too slow and she should probably train more so we can catch more dogs while running. Also it’s fun pulling Mom through mud.

12.) Any tips or advice to share? Or anything else you’d like to add?

R : Be prepared there is a lot of wait time for your start time and bring a lot of extra water for you and your dog, and shampoo to rinse off your dog after the race.

C : I would say over this is just a great thing. It’s so much fun to just hang out with a massive amount of people who love dogs. It’s so fun to be in this environment and just hang out all day even after you finish your run.

Photos courtesy of Christiana Gable and Rebecca Garcia

You can find all the details online at U.S. Canine Biathlon, along with registration information.

More info on Paul Hammond and Vapor Wake

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