The team is restless; eager to be on the move.
The five dogs – Ruger, Denali, Calypso, Prudhoe and K2 – are harnessed and ready, whining and shuffling their feet as they wait for the signal from their owners to start running.
And when it comes, they take off down the trail, pulling the bright yellow racing rig behind it. Behind the wheel is Nick Weis, offering his dryland mushing team encouragement as they pick up speed.
Seeing this team of sled dogs on the move isn’t an uncommon sight along the Frisco Highline Trail north of Springfield, Mo. Weis and his wife, Joy, will often bring them out to train when the weather is nice.
The 2009 Missouri Southern graduates say raising sled dogs and participating in the racing circuit was never their intention. The hobby simply snowballed as a result of their love for the animals.
One, two, three …
As a child, Nick Weis always wanted a dog … but not just any dog would do. He wanted a malamute – a large, powerful Arctic breed known for its ability to haul heavy freight across rough terrain.
Wanting and getting are two different things, however.
“My parents never let me get one,” he says. “We always got our dogs from a shelter. We ended up getting a dog named Lucky found as a stray.
“Fast forward 14 and a half years and Lucky was living with me and my wife, and I noticed that he was really slowing down. My brother has a German short hair mix, about 2 years old. When he came over with him, Lucky would get up and go play. I thought it would be a good idea to get a puppy and it was time to get a malamute.”
They adopted Ruger, whose high-energy nature quickly became apparent.
“If he didn’t get out and run, he was going to destroy our house,” says Weis. “I started running with him and doing some research to find better ways for Ruger to get exercise. I learned about canicross – which is basically a discipline of dog sledding, where you run cross country with your dog.”
Weis, who ran track and cross country at Missouri Southern before being sidelined by an injury, immediately took to canicross.
“My wife saw how much fun I was having and she decided she wanted a dog, too,” he says.
Enter Denali. Then the question became, “Why not three dogs?” Meet Calypso. Then, as the snowball effect continued, came Prudhoe and K2.
“We’ve added about one dog a year,” says Weis. “We have six dogs now … five that are sled dogs.”
For canicross events, Weis wears a waist belt that is hooked to one of the dogs, allowing them to run together. For dryland mushing events, the dogs are harnessed together to work as a team as they pull the rig.
While Ruger is a purebred malamute, the others are rescues and husky mixes … not as well-suited for covering 10 to 30 miles across snowy terrain. Therefore, he and his dogs from his Lucky Fox Kennel in Lebanon, Mo., primarily focus on canicross events.
“To do well, you have to be a good runner and have a dog that listens well,” he says.
A stronger bond
Weis, who works as an investment manager in Lebanon, Mo., was recently named as an alternate for the U.S. national canicross team in the dryland competition. The world championships will be held in November in Poland.
“Races are typically two-day events,” says Weis. “They’re anywhere from 1.2 to 5 miles. You run on a Saturday and then run Sunday and the judges combine the times together over two days to determine who was the fastest.”
Depending on the weather, Weis runs with his dogs five to seven days a week.
“In the summer it can get pretty warm, so we’ll train when it’s cool enough,” he says. “Sometimes they’ll train as a team by pulling an ATV or the dryland rig, which is a cross between a mountain bike and a tricycle. That’s what a lot of people who have dog-sled teams in warmer climates use to train.”
Weis secured a first-place win during a recent competition in Wisconsin, but didn’t fare as well during a race in Quebec.
“We had a little bit of difficulty,” he says. “That was the furthest we have gone for a competition and the dogs didn’t travel as well as we hoped. But it was the biggest race in North America, so we can’t be too disappointed.”
On this unseasonably warm spring afternoon, Weis is training for an upcoming race in New Jersey.
The five dogs are noticeably more relaxed afterward, having expended some of their pent-up energy along the trail. They eagerly drink up as their owners stop by each one with a cooler of water and some well-earned treats.
“We come down here almost every weekend when it’s warm enough,” says Joy Weis.
While Nick enjoys the competitive aspect of canicross and mush racing, it’s the love for his dogs that makes it all worthwhile.
“Everyone knows the bond you get with a pet dog,” he says. “But it’s so much stronger when you’re working toward a common goal. My dogs and I are up at 4 a.m. every morning to train … the bond is so much more.”