German musher Ben Voigt crossed the finish line of this years Finnmarksløpet 1000km in 15th place with 11 dogs. Ben Voigt has struggled in the past to finish the Finnmarksløpet, needing to drop too many dogs to continue. He scratched both in 2012 and 2013. This year, he not only finished with the biggest team, but won the Veterinarians Choice Award for best dog care.
By: Barry Siragusa. Photos: Ben Voigt and Charlotte Bendix Sand. Top Photo: Ben Voigt on his way out from the start in Alta.
Surprised and Honored.
— I had not expected to win the Vets Choice award just because I had the biggest finishing team. There were many other mushers who deserved the award as much as I did. I was very surprised. It is an honor to receive the award and I am very thankful, says Voigt.
Voigt admits that just finishing Finnmarksløpet is challenging. However, he knows all to well that the road to the starting line can be just as challenging.
After scratching from Finnmarksløpet in 2012 and 2013, I sat down and tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. I had run the short Finnmark 500km before, but found that there is a big difference between 1000km and 500km. In 2012 and 2013 I ran carefully, but still had to drop a lot of dogs. Last year was not so strange perhaps. The team had been hit by a car a few days before the race. Two dogs couldn’t run because of injuries and a third was killed, remembers Voigt.
This winter, Voigt managed to come to the starting line without any major problems. All of the dogs were healthy and the season had been injury free. He also had a plan to avoid problems he had struggled with in the past.
— This year I made a race plan that was a little more ambitious than previous years. The goal for this year was to actually race and not run the race like a camping trip, but still run and rest based on what was best for my dogs. The most important thing for me was finishing as a team. I only have 14 dogs that are capable of running Finnmarksløpet, and it was important to me to run in a manner that took there best interests into account.
Resting on the trail.
Voigts race plan was built around the idea that a well trained dog can recover after five hours of rest in each checkpoint. Voigt did not want to rest too much, as he wanted to avoid resting himself out of the competition. At the same time, he understood that resting too little was not good either.
I thought that five hours would be enough in the checkpoints. That sounds like very little but my intention was to never run more than six hours without some kind of break. I chose to take a bale of straw with me when I left the checkpoints and rested on the trail between checkpoints. After six hours of running the dogs got a snack, and three hours of rest on straw.
Had to adjust on the fly
Voigt had to adjust his race plan as he went in order to accommodate weather conditions and difficult trail conditions.
It was originally my plan to rest at the first checkpoint, Jotka, to relax and de-stress from the start. When I arrived in Jotka and saw the weather forecast I realized that I had to get over the mountain to Skoganvarre checkpoint before a big storm hit. The run to Skoganvarre went totally fine, we had a lot of teams ahead of us and the trail was good.
The first two times Ben Voigt started Finnmarksløpet 1000km he experienced that after 500km the dogs suddenly started to get injuries.
After the races I realized that the race leg where the injuries appeared was not necessarily the leg where the problem started. The cause of the injuries could have been two or three legs back up the trail. That is why I decided to run easy in the beginning of this years race and run a little harder at the end.
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Ben Voigt during the re-start.
Voigt says that this years Finnmarksløpet was a dream. The only point in the race where anything went wrong was when the dogs got diarrhea in the Neidan 2 checkpoint. With help from the veterinarians and canacur treatments, the dogs were quickly feeling good again.
Of the three dogs I dropped this year, one got dropped because he was stiff, and two I dropped because they got thin while they had diarrhea. I had no shoulder or wrist problems at all.
When asked what the high-point of the race was for him, Voigt says that it was when he left Checkpoint Varangerbotn with 14 dogs.
I knew then that I was going to finish. None of the dogs were limping and all of them were happy and healthy.
After last years Finnmarksløpet, Voigt decided that he would change how he trained, to better prepare for the race. For the first time he chose not to run multiple intense back to back runs in training. He instead ran several short races leading up to Finnmarksløpet. Voigt thinks that the dogs were old enough to not need the mental training of intensive back to back runs.
I had struggled with injuries after the long back to back runs we had done in previous years. This winter I had no injuries leading up to the race. In January I started reducing the intensity of our training. The idea was to use the principals of active recovery.
Size doesn’t matter
When we asked Voigt if he had any tips for other mushers who wish to finish a long race with a big team, he said that no one would win a race shorter than Finnmarksløpet with a race plan like he used. Voigt says that, if the goal is to have a good trip with the dogs and have a good experience for both the dogs and the driver, that his race plan is ideal. At the same time, Voigt thinks it is important to not just measure success based on the size of the team:
I think that everyone should pay more attention to how the dogs that are still in the team look at the end of a race, and not how many there are. A six dog team with dogs that look great is still better than a 12 dogs team where the dogs look sore and tired, says Voigt.
The dogs must be the top priority
In Ben Voigt’s opinion, the lack of injuries in his team during the race was due in large part to luck. The trails were very icy in places and the terrain was challenging. Apart from hoping for good luck, Voigt suggests that mushers consider resting on the trail and run based on what each mushers team can manage and has been trained for. He advises against simply copying the top mushers race plans from previous years. Voigt says the most important thing is to know your own dogs and to remember that in a dog race the dogs are the most important part.
I know every dog in my kennel in and out. It is one of the advantages of having a small kennel. The dogs know me and know that their well-being is more important to me than prestige or prize money. Which is how it should be, Voigt concludes.
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Boris and Petit have always made the team and finished everything. Petit (r) is Voigts main leader. Both will retire after this season and enjoy the sofa life. photo: Ben Voigt