Doctor's life goes to the dogs, competing in sled races

Three years ago, Dr. Randy Cummins - who professes a love for both dogs and the outdoors  - visited Anchorage, Alaska, to watch the start of the world-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an annual competition that pits dogs and their mushers against Mother Nature and each other.

He immediately knew he was hooked.

A family physician in Spokane, Wash., at the time, Dr. Cummins now lives in a remote cabin without electricity in Big Lake, Alaska, where he has 22 hungry mouths to feed - mouths that prefer raw fish, chicken, beef or even better yet, beaver, over their typical fare of dog food - eclectic morsels bought by the ton.

Last September, Dr. Cummins, his wife, Kim, and almost two dozen huskies packed up and moved to 40 acres of "paradise" about 60 miles northwest of Anchorage to train for next year's 1,150-mile race.

"I'd always been interested in the Iditarod and had been following it for years," said Dr. Cummins, Southwestern Medical School graduate of 1986. "It fascinated me, but I didn't ever anticipate running it. I made the mistake of going to Anchorage to see it in 2001 and thought to myself, 'I can do that. All I need is more money, more dogs and more time.'"

Once the bug had bitten, Dr. Cummins first move was to buy a sled and dogs. He heard about a sprint team for sale in Colorado and wound up buying the sled and four huskies: Gavyn, Dumas, Wagtail and Rachis, his favorite that died of bone cancer last fall.

"That's when the real addiction started," he said. "My plan was to have four or five dogs for a year or so and learn the basics. But it wasn't two months later until I got two more, then several months later, three more, and it went from there."

By this summer, Dr. Cummins expects between 30 to 35 huskies to call Huskytown Kennel ( home. Dog teams for such long-distances races as the Iditarod usually number between 12 and 16, requiring a minimum of two or three times as many from which to select.

"It takes a good size kennel to have a team of 16," Dr. Cummins said. "Some dogs will be too old, some will be too young, some will be too sore, and some will be pregnant."

Training is year-round, but is most intense during winter months when there's more snow. "It's a full-time job, training for long-distance. We go out in the morning, come home, then harness up another team and take it out."

On a typical winter day, each team will run anywhere from 30 to 60 miles at 12 to 13 miles per hour. During the summer, teams pull either cars or four-wheelers to stay in shape.

"When the trail conditions are good and the weather is good, it's about as fun as it gets," Dr. Cummins said. "When it goes poorly, it's kind of like being a bus driver for a bunch of rowdy students - particularly when the dogs decide they want to fight or play or get tangled up."

As far as teaching his dogs to pull a sled, there's not much strategy involved - at least for the dogs, according to Dr. Cummins.

"How do you train a new puppy?" he said. "You don't. Just put him in a harness and let him run with the others. Basically what you're doing with a team of dogs is taking advantage of its pack instinct. If you see dogs running in a park, they run in a pack. All we're doing is tying them together and hanging on."

To get the hang of it, Dr. Cummins did "an internship" with Russell Bybee and his dogs last fall. Mr. Bybee won the "Red Lantern" award in 2003 - a trophy and cash prize given the Iditarod's last-place finalist.

"I decided he was the perfect guy to help," Dr. Cummins joked.

Finishing the Iditarod actually is an achievement in itself, he said. The race, usually in March, extends from Anchorage in south central Alaska to Nome on the western Bering Sea Coast. It includes traversing mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and miles of wind swept coast - often at temperatures far below zero and during long hours of darkness. First-place winners usually complete the course in about nine days, with stragglers sometimes taking 17. Some entrants simply drop out, Dr. Cummins said.

This year's Iditarod attracted 87 contestants, with 77 finishing the race.

"My goal the first time is to just finish. It would be nice to finish in the money, but that's not going to hap pen. I figure running the Iditarod will be like childbirth. You're either going to want to do it again and again. Or, you're never going to want to hear about it again ever."

Dr. Cummins hopes to enter the 2005 Iditarod once he completes several qualifying races and selects just the right dogs. First, though, he's got to land a job - maybe practicing emergency medicine in Palmer, about 30 miles away - in order to keep dog food and beaver on the table.

"I'm going to have to put my nose to the grindstone and get a job to feed all these mouths," he said. "I'm not working right now, and my wife is going to make sure that changes soon."

Not that the Iditarod doesn't have some association with medicine. Part of what is now the Iditarod Trail be came a life-saving highway in 1925 when dog mushers and their teams relayed serum to Nome during a diphtheria outbreak.

"Running a sled dog kennel actually has allowed me to use much of the knowledge I learned at South western," Dr. Cummins said. "I get to practice nutrition, sports medicine, exercise physiology, canine obstetrics, parasitology, immunology, minor trauma and liberal amounts of group psychology."


Donna Steph Hansard