Dog Sledding

Over Martin Luther King weekend, I went skiing at Winter Park with my church’s youth group. It was a pleasure and a challenge to be out of my routines. One of the things I did with my son was go on a dog sled ride.

Dog Sledding

Prior to the ride, we were treated to excellent hot chocolate and a presentation by the resident musher (the driver of a dog sled). He talked about training his dogs, guiding them by voice, and giving them the best food money can buy. He told many stories of crashing the sled and having to rely on the land anchor or the sled’s brakes to slow the dogs. There is no command for “stop.” There is only “jee” for right, “ha” for left, and “mush!” for go.

The musher also talked about the difference between team dogs and a lead dog. As an example, he said a good team dog will cost you $200-300, but a good lead dog can cost up to $10,000. (That’s a lot of Puppy Chow.) The lead dog follows the voice commands of the musher (there are no bridles) and keeps the gang line (the main rope in the center) tight. To get a team hooked up to the sled, the musher first puts the lead dog at the end of the gang line. The lead dog pulls the gang line tight, and the rest of the dogs are put in the harnesses. The team dogs are hooked up in pairs and are attached to the gang line by a tug line. When the dogs are pulling, the lead dog has to keep the slack out of the main line at all times. If slack gets in the line, the team will get bunched up, and fights will break out. (Blessed are the peace makers – those who take up the slack.) Every dog has to be moving in the same direction, at the same speed, and pulling their weight. Otherwise it’s chaos.

The musher said if he has a dog that he thinks could be a lead dog, he’ll harness it next to an experienced lead. If a dog has the ability to lead, the dog will just pick it up from the experienced one. So, it takes a dog to train a dog to lead. The musher doesn’t get in the harness and train a dog. And there is not a training regimen, other than running day in and day out with an experienced leader.

If you want to see pure joy, get on a dog sled and watch those dogs run. They are amazing. There were ten dogs (forty paws on the ground) pulling my son, the musher, me, and the sled. The scenery was beautiful, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the dogs. I wanted to be out there running with them, pulling the sled. A couple of times, I got to talking with the musher, and the dogs would bunch up and nip at each other. With a couple of sharp words and a “mush!” they were soon back in line and running smoothly. With a smile, he remarked, “I can’t ever take my eyes off them.” I asked him what a good movie about sled dogs is, and he said his favorite was “Iron Will.”

Our family watched Iron Will this past week. It is based on the true story of a boy from South Dakota in 1917 who is out to win a 500 mile dog sled race from Winnipeg to St. Paul. He is in it for the prize money, $10,000. It will pay off the family farm and leave him enough money to go to college. (I find his situation parallels runners who come to the United States with a burning desire to win the prize money, go back home, and buy some land.) The opening scene shows Will racing his dog sled against a train to the depot. Will is delivering the mail, and he has been in trouble because he has been late several times recently. The ride is exhilarating, and it shows Will as the sled jumps over fallen limbs and races beside a river.

Once Will decides to enter the race, Ned, the Native American farm hand, begins his training by throwing him out of the house on a cold winter night. Will winds up sleeping with the dogs. Ned’s advice is “Run more. Sleep less.” Run more means the dogs don’t have to pull you as much. Sleep less means you don’t have to be as fast as the other racers. In the race, Will is up against professionals who are tough and fast, but they have more to lose than Will.

Sled dogs go through a lot of food. I recently read that they burn energy at roughly four times the rate of a trained runner. As a runner myself, that got me thinking about the food I eat, and how what I put in my body rebuilds it. So, in truth and reality, what I eat becomes my body. It’s in my best interest to eat the best food I can.

I often say, “the point of the run is the recovery shake.” There is very little in life that I enjoy more than eating two pretzels sandwiching a piece of dark chocolate and drinking 16 ounces of banana, milk, whey protein, and some flax seed, after completing a hard workout. From time to time, the recovery meal varies, but it is always pure joy. I do think of it as the bread and cup of Communion.

The dogs’ recovery shakes are raw meat served in boiling water. And they love it.

After a recent run, when I drank my recovery shake and ate my pretzel and dark chocolate I thought, “This is my body I eat.” And it has become a sort of mantra for me, reminding me that what I eat will become a part of me.

In “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein, there is a chapter focused on sled dog breeding. Endurance sled dogs are now bred with an emphasis on a love for running. Breeders are no longer looking for the strongest or fastest dogs for endurance races, but dogs that just want to run and never stop. David Epstein quotes Eric Morris, a musher and biochemist who created Red-Paw dog food for canine athletes. “These aren’t house dogs. Food will not work as a training device for sled dogs. Negative reinforcement will not work. To go that distance [1,000 miles for the Iditarod] it’s like a bird dog sniffing down a pheasant, it has to be the one thing in their life that brings them the greatest amount of pleasure. They have to have the innate desire to pull [the sled]… And you will find varying degrees of that in different dogs.”

David Epstein notes that work ethic has been bred into sled dogs, and the hardest workers have the most DNA from Anatolian shepherds who would “eagerly do battle with wolves.” This reminded me of Jesus, the good shepherd. Persistence is one of my strengths, but I’m not sure I would be “eager” to take on a wolf.

David Epstein writes about mice, too. Most mice, if given an exercise wheel, will run about 3-4 miles a day, mostly at night. I’ve never owned a mouse, but I have heard stories about their nocturnal churnings from friends. One experimenter decided to take a group of mice and divide them into the runners and the non-runners. The runners were pushing 4 miles a night; the non-runners put in 3. By the 16th generation, after breeding the longest running mice with each other in each generation, their progeny were running 7 miles a night. Enthusiastically. They weren’t doing this because they could, or because they were forced, or to get food. They were doing it because they loved it. And because they had to. Something deep inside them bid them run. When deprived of an exercise wheel, these mice would become agitated and show signs of depression.

I feel some kinship to those sled dogs and mice. There is something in me that wants to run. I used to run a few miles every other day or so. But it has become a much more ritualized and time-consuming behavior for me. I call myself a “running enthusiast.” I know that this is a hobby for me. It’s gone way beyond fitness.

I am a Presbyterian. And Presbyterians typically have Communion once a month. Recently though, our church has been serving Communion on a weekly basis. With the more frequent practice, Communion has become a focal point of our collective worship and has seized my imagination.

This week in church the focus was on Scripture, and the reading from the Old Testament came from Isaiah 40:6. “A voice says, ‘Call out!’ Then he answered, ‘What shall I call out?’ All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”

The phrase “all flesh is grass” is deepened for me by “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, which I am re-reading right now. And I am thinking about the three primary grasses I eat: corn, wheat, and soybeans. I eat these grasses directly, processed, and after they have been fed to cows, chickens, and pigs. And Michael Pollan points out that omnivores and predators depend on their food to provide them with essential nutrients that they can’t synthesize from the environment on their own. People need cows to eat grass (not corn) and turn it into meat, because people can’t eat grass directly. Sometimes I feel like our food chain is collapsing in on itself, and the cycles are shorter and quicker; there is very little chance for the Earth to nourish me, because I give her no time.

You have heard, “You are what you eat.” And, as Michael Pollan points out, “You are what you eat eats.” So, I wonder, “How much of me is corn, wheat, and soybeans? Is that all I am? If God breathed on me, what would I become? Would I become a ‘living soul,’ as in Genesis 2:7, when God forms people out of the Earth? Or would I wither like the grass, since I am corn, wheat, and soybeans? Either way, I am one part God’s breath.”

I have to start eating better.

In the sermon, Jonas Hayes, the pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (www.gcpc.org), talked about Scripture being the Word of God and what that means. As a Presbyterian, I once answered this question, “Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?” with an “I do.” And I stand by that answer. In the desert, when Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread, he says, “You can’t live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” So God’s Word is as important to life as bread itself.

Jonas recounted a story of when he was worshipping at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. The pastor, Laird Stuart, held up a Bible and asked, “Do you want to go deeper in your faith? Then, read the Holy Scriptures… and pray. Do you want to know where you can meet God? Here! This is where we encounter God through the Holy Spirit.”

When it was time for Communion, Jonas walked up behind the table and said these words from Matthew 11:28-30. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This had me thinking about sled dogs instead of oxen.

The Words of Institution as spoken by my pastor go something like this: “ On the night he was betrayed, Jesus sat at table with his disciples and, after giving thanks, he took the bread and he broke it and said: “Take. Eat. This is the bread of life given for you. As long as you will eat of it, you will do so in remembrance of me until I come again.”

“In the same way, Jesus took a common cup of his day, and he poured it out saying: “This is the cup of hope poured out for you. This cup is poured out not only for the few, but also for the many. As long as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you proclaim my death and resurrection until I come again.”

“The gifts of God for the people of God. Let us give thanks!”

I like “This cup is poured out not only for the few, but also for the many,” which Jonas noted he picked up from Rev. W. Robert Martin III, who pastors at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, CA. I take a big tent (tabernacle) view of God’s grace. Jay McKell, my former pastor, once remarked, “God’s grace is like grandma’s night shirt. It covers EVERYTHING.” I like “you proclaim my death AND resurrection,” since eating is a destructive and constructive act. I like “the gifts of God for the people of God,” since the whole food chain (from sun to earth, rain, and time) is something we didn’t invent. We (the children of God) basically inherited it. God provided it.

Jesus is the Word made flesh. And the Word is scripture. So when I read the Bible, study it, and practice it, I like to think I am building up the part of me that is the body of Christ. I like to think that I am becoming God’s Word made flesh.

It is not an exaggeration for me to say that running is worship. Recently, on my way to a workout, someone said, “Have a good day, and may God bless you.” I almost reflexively responded, “I give the LORD thanks and praise,” because that was exactly what I was on my way to do. Thanks and praise come from me as an hour spent running.

You have probably seen the bumper sticker, “God is my co-pilot,” and “Dog is my co-pilot.” The former I find problematic. The latter I find amusing, and I found out it is a charitable organization for rescued animals. But these sayings led me to a parallel for sled dogs.

I thought, “Jesus is my lead dawg.”

I follow Jesus, and most of the time I don’t know where I’m going. I’m just pulling and trying to stay on the trail, the Way, the Path. Jesus became one of us, because that’s the only way to teach us how to live (pull a sled). I’m on Jesus’ team.

What happens to me when I am running? Why is it worship? Running is when I forge resolutions. It is when I fail and succeed. It is when I experience grace: I accept myself and others. Sometimes I think about a passage from the Bible. Sometimes I throw off the dross and become a unity of heart-body-mind-soul; I experience the sacred. I realize that my accomplishments as a runner are insignificant compared to what I accomplish as an employee, father, and husband, which is inconsequential to my calling as a child of God. But never the less, running is my solitude and my renewal. It is my chance to think deep thoughts or not think at all. As George Sheehan put it, “When I run, I am a predator, and the prey is my self, my own truth.”

When I run, if I listen carefully, sometimes I hear the voice of God. And God is saying, “Mush!”

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One Response to Dog Sledding

  1. Pingback: Footprints in the Snow | A Runner's Experiment

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