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By Jake Nichols, Cowboy State Daily
Anny Malo made history when she crossed the finish line in Driggs, Idaho, on Sunday to secure her fifth consecutive Pedigree Stage Stop Race.
No one has done that in the 28-year history of the dog-sled race, not even the famed musher Buddy Streeper or his wife, Lina.
The Quebec native has dominated the race since she first threw her tuque in the ring in 2019. A robust breeding program and Malo’s own drive and preparation make her the racer to beat year in and year out.
“Every year when we get back home, we make up a list of things we need to do better next time,” Malo said in a post-race interview. “If you think you are the best one and you sit on that, you are done.”
This year’s 28th running of the dogs had a few firsts and noteworthy outtakes besides Malo’s return to the winner’s circle.
For the first time in race history, a stage was canceled for cold (more on that later).
Wyoming musher Alix Crittenden finished a career-high second place behind Malo (more on her later).
And race rookie Donny Poulin showed he will be one to reckon with in the future with a fifth-place finish overall in his first running of the Stage Stop.
Dogs take center stage at Stage Stop – and kids. It’s been that way from the beginning.
In fact, that’s kind of how the race got started.
Similar to the 1925 Alaska incident where sled dogs raced against time to deliver diphtheria serum to unvaccinated children in Nome – which inspired today’s Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race – Stage Stop traces its roots to a health and human services campaign.
Jayne Ottman was the Teton County Public Health Director in 1995, tasked with improving immunization rates for 2-year-olds.
She also just happened to love dogs, so she approached Frank Teasley with barely a seed of an idea.
The eight-time veteran of Alaska’s legendary Iditarod Trial run (at the time) was growing his local business, JH Iditarod, providing dog sled tours in the Jackson Hole area.
Before long, an idea for the Stage Stop Race was born. It would be a unique sprint-endurance hybrid unlike anything else in the world.
It also would be a more publicly accessible event than a marathon run like the nearly 1,000-mile Iditarod; one that features layovers in several communities in western Wyoming and eastern Idaho — all on National Forest land trails.
Jackson musher Maria Hayashida was the perfect choice to head the educational outreach component of the race. Not only did she compete in the first few Stage Stops, she also was the youth ambassador along the race trail.
Today, that outreach continues as mushers and veterinarians visit students in kindergarten through fourth grades in each of the race’s host communities.
Dogs come first at Stage Stop. One of Teasley’s stated goals has always been to highlight the canine athletes.
A six-person veterinary team dedicated to the race is led by Dr. Veronica Devall. The Canadian has her own practice in Calgary specializing in sports medicine and rehabilitation. She’s been attached to the Stage Stop since 2014. Her first experience with the race was as a handler in 2001 for Bruce Lee (the musher from Alaska, no relation to the legendary, but deceased, master of martial arts).
“This race is unique. It’s such a dog-friendly event. It’s different than the endurance type races like the Alaskan Iditarod or the Yukon Quest where dogs may run between 50 and 100 miles in a day,” Devall said.
She has worked on the medical team in most every dog race run today.
“Here, they typically run a 30- to 35-mile course out and back,” she said.
Vet checks are an integral part of the race. Pre-race, post-stage, all along the way, dogs are well cared for.
“We have a very collaborative working relationship with the mushers in a way that you cannot compare it to other races,” Devall said. “They want to learn how to better care for their dogs. Some mushers enter this race specifically to learn more about vet care, training and nutrition.”
Racers will bring as many as two dozen dogs to the event that begins in Jackson before making stops in Moran, Lander, Pinedale, Big Piney, Kemmerer, Alpine and Driggs.
From those, mushers need to pick their 14 best to race with. Up to 10 dogs can be harnessed to the sled at a time. The others are rotated in and out to keep the team fresh and healthy.
Too Cold To Run?
Need a further example of just how dog-centric the Stage Stop is? Look no further than the Pinedale leg that was scheduled for Jan. 30. With much of the state in a deep freeze, a decision was made to cancel the stage until it warmed up some the following day.
“First off, that’s never happened,” Devall said.
While the longtime vet has seen races run in much colder temperatures, she concedes a special consideration has to be made for the types of race dogs in the Stage Stop.
“These are different types of dogs than most people associate with sled dog racing,” Devall said. There are “very few are the heavy-boned huskies and malamutes you might see in endurance racing.
“These dogs in the Stage Stop Race are bred more for short, fast runs. They are shorter coated and more houndy. And when we get these cold, cold temps the air coming into lungs is very dry. All the moisture is sucked out of the air. It constricts the airway and creates an effect almost like asthma or bronchitis.”
Not only are these leaner sprinter dogs carrying less body fat than their husky counterparts, they travel faster and, therefore, gulp more air.
Where the average Alaska husky might be plodding along at 5 mph, these Stage Stop sprinters will sustain speeds of 16-18 mph.
Feet also are a concern. Dogs pads get uncomfortably cold and raw at anything colder than minus 20. Temperatures with windchill on the morning of Jan. 30 were approaching 50 below zero.
Jackson Hole has always had a local musher in the race, which often features an international lineup.
Hayashida gave way to Aaron Forman (1999), Dan Carter (2000, 2004-08), Michael Wolcott (2001), Beth Gagnon (2002), Katie Davis (2003-04), Stacey Teasley (2007-16) and current local racer Alix Crittenden (2014-present).
Crittenden, 35, owns and operates Sleeping Indian Outfitters in Bondurant with her husband, Sam. They offer horseback riding and hunting trips.
She caught the mushing bug while guiding for Teasley’s day tour company in 2009. Every year, she runs his best dogs in the Stage Stop.
Crittenden has made steady progress toward the top of the standings each year at the Pedigree Stage Stop Race, finishing in the top 5 four of the past six years. This season, she finished 22 minutes behind race winner Malo for a career best second place.
A Team Sport
“Anny has a dog team that is in a different league. But 22 minutes back is closing the gap compared to an hour behind her in ’22,” Crittenden noted. “Not bad considering we are a smaller breeder.
“We don’t breed 30-40 dogs a year like these larger kennel programs. We’re breeding maybe 10-15 pups every two years. And this year was extra special. All the dogs we raced this year were raised by me from puppies.”
Crittenden ran a mix of experienced 3-year-olds with rookie racers who are just 2. Her oldest is a 7-year-old lead dog who Crittenden harnesses up only rarely when she really needs Junie’s savvy.
“Juniper is 7. She’s my energizer bunny,” Crittenden bragged.
The Bondo musher made the decision to put the grizzled veteran out front for the Kemmerer stage because the snow was deep and the trail a bit soft. She feared the dogs would be breaking through a lot and slowing the team down.
“I didn’t go into the day with a plan to win. I knew it was going to be punchy,” Crittenden said. “What made the difference was taking my old girl Juniper. She is really good at finding the trail — searching back and forth across the whole road until she finds the sweet spot where we can move the fastest.
“She has saved my butt so many times in Kemmerer, I was so happy to see her shine that day and finally get a stage win.”
The ‘Oldest Dead Thing’
In addition to the yellow bib for winning a race stage, Crittenden also received the coveted trophy for winning the Kemmerer stage — a 50 million-year-old fossilized fish.
During the presentation Feb. 1, she joked: “My husband and I are outfitters. We have a lot of dead things on our wall. Now this will be the oldest dead thing on the wall.”
While quick to heap praise on her dogs, Crittenden says mushers are more than just passengers during a race.
“You stand your mat, keep tension on the line, especially on downhills. The driver is necessary in this race,” she said. “You run your race. You don’t worry about what Anny [Malo] is doing. Don’t worry about what Cathy [Rivest] is doing.
“Run the team that’s in front of you. Stick to the plan, get home safely and see how it shakes out.”
Education, Outreach Grows Sport
Crittenden is always a big hit with the school-age children she meets. Her team has visited schools in Bondurant and Pinedale, and this year she packed up some dogs and headed to Big Piney.
“We did a presentation for those kids and afterward they came outside and were screaming the dogs’ names,” Crittenden said. “So awesome to see them dip their toe a little bit into the sport.”
As race director Dan Carter points out, these outreach sessions have become generational.
Some of the kids petting sled dogs this year with wide-eyed wonder are the children of parents who did the same 28 years ago.
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