Full Name: Sarah Kassing
Dog’s Name: Lyra (my main go-to for canicross)
Age: 36 Dog’s Age: 3.5 years
Hometown: Audubon, MN
Current Residence: Flagstaff, AZ
Occupation: Emergency Veterinarian
1. Okay, what the heck is canicross?!
Canicross is a sport that stems from the sled dog world. It started a way for mushers to train in the off-season but has evolved into a highly competitive sport throughout the world. It involves a dog harnessed and attached by a bungee line to a runner wearing a specialized hip-belt. The dog assists the runner by pulling (typically hard!) and enables the runner to run significantly faster. The dog pulling the runner dramatically alters the runner’s foot turnover, stride-length, breathing, posture and more morphing it into an entirely different sport.
I didn’t recognize it as it being different from hands-free running with a dog until I started. The sport is typically held as a class at most dryland sled dog races and is extremely popular in Europe where many elite runners have taken to it. It is starting to become more popular in the US, especially in the Midwest and Northeast.
Races are extremely short by running standards - World Championship events and qualifying races are typically less than three miles and on a trail on par with that of a cross country course. However, it is becoming more popular in the trail scene under the name “canitrail” where events are significantly longer and often on more technical trails with elevation.
2. Can any breed of dog participate in canicross? Is endurance-specific training needed for the dog (as well as human)?
With some exception, most breeds can canicross as long as they love to run and pull, but purpose-bred mixes definitely dominate the sport: Alaskan husky, Greyhound, and German Shorthair Pointer. Greysters (German Shorthair Pointer/Greyhound mixes) and purebred German Shorthair Pointers are the true rockstars of the sport.
Dogs are endurance athletes (sled dogs’ Vo2 maxes are in the 200’s and their percent of slow-twitch muscle puts ours to shame) and it often is more mental training for them than physical. Heat is the bigger issue as humans are definitely better at handling the heat than dogs. Dry land races are often canceled if temperatures reach above 60F.
We are very careful with acclimating ours but can still run with them in harness up to the low 70’s for super short distances. In temperatures higher than that we will let them free run with us off leash and they easily handle 80 degree weather all day.
3. How much faster per mile/km are you when running with a dog? Do the dogs need a break before you do?
Lyra is my go to race dog and I average 1-2 minutes per mile faster when I run with her over a 5K. This is typical of most competitive canicross dogs and has been compared to running a 5K with the effort of running an 800m race. It is brutal! I definitely need a break before them. I can’t hold my pace with Lyra up for more than 4-5 miles while she can go several more.
Ben Robinson, a canicrosser in the UK, is a 15 minute 5K runner but is considered the top canicrosser in the world. He has the canicross 5K record at 12:09. Other dogs might pull just enough to take the edge off, perhaps taking 30 sec - 1 minute/mile off of runner’s pace, and make running a breeze.
4. How does a bungee leash work differently than a regular dog leash? Is this and any other equipment required to participate in canicross races?
The bungee line aids in shock absorption so both the runner and dog feel less jerking during quick turns and unexpected movements. And the elasticity helps keep the line from going slack should either the runner’s or the dog’s pace change independent of the other.
The International Federation of Sled Dog Sports (IFSS, the sanctioning body hosting World Championships) and the International Canicross Federation have rules specifying the bungee length and type of connection to the belt (quick releases often aren’t allowed) as well as other factors such as the length of spikes on shoes (microspikes are definitely recommended in icy conditions!)
5. There are so many variations, from biking to skijoring (where a dog pulls a person on skis). Which version of dog-powered sport do you find most enthralling?
There absolutely are so many variations! But each is very much its own sport. While under the umbrella of sled-dog sports, canicross, bikejoring (in which a dog is pulling a rider on a mountain bike), scootering (the driver is on a specialized off-road scooter), and skijoring are further classified as monosports, as they are typically done with only one or sometimes two dogs.
Of these, bikejoring is hands down absolutely a blast! You’re still working hard and panting at the end, but it is just a fun wild crazy ride. That said, I so wish I could say skijoring, but I am absolutely awful on skate skis!
6. Do you ever prefer to run by yourself instead of with a dog?
So...yes. Again, canicross is just brutal! 90% of my running is without a dog and most elites typically only canicross at most a few times of month as it is just so hard on the body. While I mostly run on my own, our dogs get the majority of their miles bikejoring, free running with us, or pulling as a team with our training cart (an ATV frame).
7. You hosted a canicross race in October 2020 in Flagstaff, AZ. What was that like and how can others find out more about canicross events in their area?
We had so much fun! It goes without saying that it was a tricky year for events and we wanted to be extremely careful and maintained guidelines set by Coconino County. We held it at the Arizona Noridic Village which was a perfect venue. We had participants and volunteers from California, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, and as far away as Georgia. It was great to see such enthusiasm!
Social media may be the best way to keep posted of events. Canicross USA (which is based in Wisconsin) has local chapters throughout the country and I host Canicross USA Arizona’s Facebook page. There is also the North American Canicross page and group which is active in posting events. Otherwise, I would also recommend following and searching for dryland sled dog race events.
8. Speaking of Arizona, what do you miss about Minnesota that AZ does not offer?
Ooh, it’s a toss-up between lakes or a good, hard, snowy winter. I grew up in prime lake resort country and was an absolute lake-rat water skiing every weekend. I do miss the loons and I love the North Shore and Lake Superior, but the humidity and mosquitos are horrendous!
9. Favorite post-canicross beer?
Surly Furious (brewed Minneapolis, MN), hands down! However, it's honestly hard to turn down any beer after a canicross run and I absolutely love a good microbrew.
10. What are your training goals and/or race plans for 2021?
There is a canitrail race in the French Alps called the Trophée Des Montagnes that I am seriously considering. It’s an 8 day stage race ranging from 5-10 K per day with intense vertical gain.
Some of the downhill is technical enough that runners are allowed to let their dogs off line and free run during some sections as it would be too dangerous to have them attached and pulling. It is typically held in August and if it’s on, I might go for it.
Otherwise, I would love to return to the World Championships for Team USA. They’re held every two years and we had such a blast in Sweden at the last event. It's tentatively on again in 2021 to be held in Bristol, Canada, so we’ll see!
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