Ultimate Race: CopperDog has unique factors being last sled race of season

Provided Photo Tom Bauer of Tapiola barely leads Joanna Oberg of Grand Marias, Minnesota, who eventually finished in sixth place, in this 2018 photo. Bauer finished in twelfth place. Bauer and Oberg are both already registered for this year’s race.

The Copperdog sled dog races are the last races of the season in the Upper Peninsula, and nearly the last in the Midwest region. This creates some unique risks and benefits for organizers and participants.

One challenge is that mushers tend to register within the last two weeks, after they have the chance to evaluate the health of their dogs after other races, according to Copperdog Race Director Jeff Foss.

“As any athlete, they get the risk of being injured,” he said.

Running other races can lead to injuries, and being around other dogs and stress can sometimes spread illnesses like kennel cough, so mushers like to check over the condition of their dogs before registering in Copperdog.

Conversely, the teams that come are in great shape after training and competing in prior months.

“When they come to our race, they’re fired up,” Foss said about the sled dogs.

The flex in numbers late in the planning process can be a challenge in the planning stages, but the race organizers have learned to handle it over the last nine years.

Being late in the season can also become a challenge when it comes to the weather.

Foss said it can be a “fine line” from year to year, between too much snow and too little.

“Snow could go either way,” Foss said.

In Copperdog’s first year, much of the snow melted, which makes pulling the sled more difficult for the dogs. Foss said the race was ended early in Mohawk that year.

This year, Foss predicts there won’t be any trouble with having enough snow. There is a good base built up, so even some warm weather between now and then will not diminish it to the point of a problem.

In other years, Foss said they had heavy weather before the race that built snow drifts over the trail and left the normally well-groomed trails in snow too deep for the sleds to pass.

Mushers often run behind the sleds to help to dogs through tough spots. It is difficult and even risks injury for the mushers and dogs to run through deep, poorly-packed snow.

Two-time Copperdog musher Adam Schmidt said the dogs run best in weather below about 12 degrees. Any warmer and mushers have to slow them down to keep them from getting too warm.

“These dogs can overheat,” Schmidt said.

This is particularly important for the Copperdog, because the format of the race is more of a “mid-distance sprint,” according to Foss.

In qualifying races for the Iditarod, teams are required to stay at different rest points for certain minimum periods, usually 4-5 hours but try to keep rest time to a minimum.

The Copperdog is set up in stages, with predetermined start times. This encourages teams to push hard while on the trail, because fast times not only improve their position, but they also give more time to rest and recuperate before the next stage starts.

It also offers more opportunities for volunteers and spectators to get involved and each day’s start and finish lines.

“It’s a little bit more of a community involvement event,” Foss said.