Chasing Down the World's Greatest Dogsledder
On the verge of retirement, Egil Ellis, the greatest sprint musher of all time, takes one last stab at the World Championships.
Photo by Tom Sekula, special for VICE
The eight dogs are clipped to the rig by harness and collar. At the starting gate, a race clock ticks down. A portly man in a yellow vest holds a clipboard and hollers "One minute!" The musher, a thin, weather-worn middle-aged man, wears a blue, long-sleeve jersey under a white bib. On the arm, "USA" is written in red lettering. He and a half-dozen handlers walk the team into position, stopping when the sled's runners reach the neon red mark painted on the snow. He drops a claw-shaped metal anchor and stomps it into place. The dogs are keyed up now, anxious to hit the trail, already pulling. The handlers do their best to calm them, whispering in their ears, rubbing snow on their chests. Some dogs whine; some bark; some watch the musher, eyes wide, waiting for a signal; others sit there panting before suddenly lunging forward into their padded harnesses, as if all the sled needs is one surprise jerk for the race to begin.
On a hilltop meadow in Todtmoos, Germany, a small community just north of Switzerland in Germany's Black Forest, a crowd of about 100 stands in the falling snow, pressed up to the trackside barricades, watching. An older man stands behind the start, speaking German into a microphone. He introduces the musher as Egil Ellis, the American professional. He tells the small Friday crowd that Ellis is one of the best mushers here at the International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Championships, but he's underselling it: Ellis might be the greatest musher to ever hook a hound to a sprinting sled. He's won every competition there is to win, and then he won those competitions again and again until winning became almost predestined. Competitors have been known to register for lesser-known events when he's in town, because what's the point? But his career is coming to an end. He's in his forties now and partially retired already*. This World Championship could be his last.
Ellis checks his team one final time, kneeling briefly with the lead dog, Molly, rubbing her furry head between his two gloved hands before walking back to his sled.
He's on his sled again, ready to pull the anchor and step off the break, when the right wheel dog—the dog closest to the sled—jerks his line as he has without incident thousands of times before.
This time it snaps.
Ellis leaps off the sled. Another member of Team USA, Amy Cooper, holds the dog while Ellis frantically ties a knot. He fumbles. The dog struggles. Valuable seconds tick past. Five? Ten? Fifteen? Thirty? When the lines are tied, he jumps back onto the sled, yanks the hook, and crouches slightly on the runners as the dogs gallop, barking, howling for the woods.
Ellis has been to Todtmoos before. In a way, you could trace much of his success right here to this hilltop. It was at the last World Championships held here in 1994 that Ellis bred his first superleader, a short-haired black dog named Mike. That dog changed the sport of sprint dogsledding.
Of course, Ellis was already a veteran dogsledder by then. His father grew up mushing, but a career as a painter meant the young family moved often, first to Spain, then Canada, and finally to west-central Sweden, where he grew up. Before that final move, Ellis's parents promised him and his brother each a Siberian husky puppy. Ellis was 12 years old. By the time he was 15, he was racing. By his 20th birthday, he had a kennel of about 25 purebred Siberians and a burgeoning reputation in the Scandinavian sprinting scene for being fast.
When it comes to dogsledding, most people think of two races: the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, both brutal, thousand-mile slogs; they're the canine equivalent of an ultra-marathon. What Ellis does is the dogsledding version of a track meet. Like a human track meet, in dogsledding there are many different events. While he's racing in the 8-dog class at Todtmoos, Ellis's specialty is actually in the open class, an event in which the mushers hook up as many dogs as they want to a sled, usually between 14 and 18. Most races are multi-day events with the racers doing daily time trials on the same 16- to 30-mile course. At the end of the weekend, whoever has the lowest cumulative time wins. It all boils down to the dogs.
Siberian huskies are great animals for hauling heavy loads in the snow—which is what they're bred for—but they're not particularly fast over short distances. In the Scandinavian sprinting scene of the early 90s, there was a great deal of variety in dog breeds. Some people ran Siberians or Greenland hounds, dogs with thick coats and, often, beautiful, blue eyes. Others ran German or English pointers, which were bred for hunting and are shorthaired and jowly. Back then, it was difficult to import dogs to Scandinavia due to quarantine rules, and there were only a few Alaskan huskies. With the importation of foreign, potentially faster dogs difficult, the Scandinavian breeders began experimenting with mixes.
"I won a lot of races with [my team of huskies], but then these mixed breed teams started catching up and beating me," Ellis remembers. "So that's when I started looking at other types of dogs."
In 1991, Ellis met his now-wife Helen Lundberg, who was racing teams of mostly purebred pointers, and they teamed up. They began mixing things up in their own kennel, but because of the quarantine, the dogs they had access to, especially the Alaskan huskies, weren't from the best breeding lines.
In 1994, shortly after the quarantine ended, the pair came to Todtmoos to compete. Ellis originally wanted to improve his line of imported Alaskan huskies with "one of the big dogs here." But none of his huskies were ready.
"We had this purebred German pointer in prime season right at this weekend in 94," Ellis says. "So we chose the main leader [of Terry Streeper's, a Canadian dogsledd legend], a pure Alaskan husky male. Bred him to our pointer female, and we got six fantastic dogs out of it. That was one of our foundation dogs."
Ellis and Lundberg called their dogs Eurohounds. The Eurohounds have the short hair and work ethic of pointers with the love for running and majestic eyes of huskies. Theirs weren't the first Eurohounds to ever walk the Earth, but they might have been the best. Mike was the pick of the bunch: a dog with incredible strength, who could run forever, who followed commands, who always pulled hard—a dog that, if the rest of the team faltered, would drag the whole operation home himself.
Talking to Ellis about Mike is a bit like reminiscing with a proud dad or the high school coach of an NFL legend. He gets a distant look in his eyes and starts talking about strength and character, about friendship and teamwork. The difference is that Mike's legacy isn't just in the record books or Ellis's head, it's all around. The dog's genes didn't just form the foundation of every team Ellis ran for the next 20 years, they formed the foundation for most sprinting teams full stop, both in Alaska and Europe.
I ask Ellis how many dogs at this year's World Championships came from Mike, and he thinks about it for a moment, smiles, and laughs. "I'm pretty sure they are somewhere in the pedigree in most of the teams here in Todtmoos," he says. "Our dogs have been spread all over the world."
Watch sled dogs in action, and the first thing that strikes you is how much they love to run. They almost smile when they're hooked to the sleds, tongues hanging out. They finish runs with their faces covered in iced-over slobber and that same goofy smile. Then they eat some snow and lay in the ice for a minute before getting up to yank once more at their harnesses, ready to go again.
That they love it is clear. What's not immediately clear is how well suited they are for sledding. Misinformed spectators can find it cruel watching a dog harnessed to a sled, pulling, working, but the dogs live for it. It's what they exist to do, and they're good at it.
"I think they'd rather run than do anything else," says Arleigh Reynolds from his home in Fairbanks, Alaska. Reynolds is a champion musher in his own right. He's also a Cornell trained veterinarian and professor at the University of Fairbanks who has spent his life doing two things: researching dogs and chasing Egil Ellis.
At Cornell, Reynolds did a study with a comparative physiology group at Harvard looking at the athleticism of his sled dogs. What they found was amazing. They put the dogs on a treadmill and measured their VO2 max—a measurement of how much oxygen a human or animal can metabolize per kilogram of body weight per minute. Back then, a Norwegian cross country skier named Bjorn Daehlie held the human VO2 max record with a score of 92. For reference, Lance Armstrong's best score was 84. "A regular sit-around-the-house kind of human would probably be around the 40s," says Reynolds. The best sled dogs he measured had a VO2 max of 240.
"The way to put that in perspective is that it gives you the size of the motor," explains Reynolds. "If you want to look at ccs on a motor, or cubic liters on a motor, the motor on a dog is that much larger than on a human."
Other studies have measured food intake with similar results: elite dogs can metabolize about eight times more calories per body weight than elite human athletes.
"They're so much fun to work with," says Reynolds, who is sometimes overcome with emotion when talking about his dogs, who are also his research partners. "When we're doing these measurements and discovering all these wonderful things about their metabolism, they're doing something they love to do, and doing it with them is an act of pure joy to be honest with you."
The finish line at Todtmoos is about 100 meters downhill from the starting line. The two are connected by a roped-off staging area, where the teams are hooked up before their runs and broken down afterward. From the hilltop, the meadow is an anthill alive with movement: dog teams go this way and that, kids on sleds come down from above, and spectators scurry to get out of the way of all of it. The race announcer's voice echoes from tree line to tree line, and the barking, whining, and howling never stops. Teams leave the starting block every two minutes, but if one team fails to perform, or the team behind has a great run, two, sometimes three teams can come flying out of the trees at the same time for the 100-meter dash to the finish line.
A relative unknown from Finland named Vesa-Pekka Lehtomäki wins the first leg, followed closely by Swedish veteran Lars Lindh. Ellis is unable to make up the time he lost at the beginning. He finishes one minute and 18 seconds back.
When Ellis crosses the finish line, his teammate Amy Cooper, who races in the 4-dog class, is there again to help with his team. To her surprise, the wheel dog that had broken free at the start is still tied to the line.
"It held?" asks Cooper. She can't quite believe it. Ellis's knot hadn't looked much sturdier than a simple bow.
"It held!" says Ellis.
As the two laugh in disbelief, the dog lunges again. This time, the line snaps.
"To win the big races, whoever has the strongest, fastest leader takes the top prize," explains Ellis. We're back at his hotel, talking about Mike, the Bjorn Daehlie of hound dogs. On a team of dogs, the leader sets the pace and takes commands from the musher. Their ability to run out in front of the team into space, rather than chasing another dog, is something you can't teach. They're born with it.
Ellis and Lundberg knew they had a top leader in Mike, but in Scandinavia, they couldn't really test him. The main difference between the racing scenes in the U.S. and Europe is that in Alaska you race for money, and in Europe you race for glory. So in 1998, Ellis and Lundberg put 40 dogs on Lufthansa cargo, paid about $20,000 in fees, and, like many before them, went to Alaska prospecting for gold.
They found it.
"Back then, most of the other teams over there were only Alaskan husky-type dogs," says Ellis. "When we showed up, our hybrid pointer crosses, they just blew the doors off everything. They had no chance to keep up. We were winning by minutes, every weekend. It was almost embarrassing after a while."
The three most important races in sprint dogsledding are the Tok Race of Champions, the Open North American, and the Fur Rendezvous. Together, they're known as the Triple Crown. When Ellis first won the Tok, in 1998, the race's winningest musher was an Alaskan legend named George Attla. Attla won the Tok 11 times over a 30 year period between 1958 and 1988. (An interesting character in his own right, Attla, a native Alaskan, did it all with one of his knees fused together. He raced long into the 21st century before passing on February 15 of this year.) Between 1998 and 2005, Ellis won the Tok eight times in a row. He'd win it five more times before moving back to Sweden in September of 2014. He's won the Open North American a record 11 times. He has more Triple Crowns than anyone, with five. Of the big three races, the only one he doesn't hold the win-record for is the Fur Rendezvous, which he has only won five times. Ellis's 28 individual Triple Crown race victories ties George Attla for the most ever.
Still, every great champion has a rival. Jordan had Magic. Federer had Nadal. It took Arleigh Reynolds 15 years just to get the point where he was trading blows with Ellis. Over the last five years, the two have won the same number of big race heats, but Ellis tended to win the ones that mattered the most, and thus brought home the silverware. Reynolds didn't give up, though.
Reynolds once appeared on NPR to discuss his mushing career. They asked him if he ever wished he hadn't mushed during Ellis's reign, because he would have won more. "I said, 'You know, I feel the opposite,'" remembers Reynolds. "It's a privilege to race against one of the best, or the best, there's ever been. Then you know not only how good you are now but how good you are historically.
"When we finally beat Egil, that was the crowning achievement of my mushing career. He was the first guy to come over to my truck and give me a big hug and congratulate me. You know, whenever we met each other on the course—one was passing the other—it was always like, 'Go get 'em! You're doing great. You have a beautiful team!' That's the kind of guy he was."
For Ellis, his eventual fade from top of the sport was bittersweet. Many of the dogs that beat him were the descendants of dogs he either bred or studded.
"It shows the dogs are high quality," he says, after a slight hesitation, when I ask him about those last few years in Alaska. "It's good to see. But then, you know, I've been kinda digging my own grave, I guess."
He laughs for a moment. Takes a deep breath.
"But it was a way for us to survive. We had to sell dogs to make it."
Reynolds won his first and only Triple Crown in 2013. Not long afterward, Ellis retired from professional racing in Alaska. Reynolds, suddenly without his foil, retired too.
Among Ellis's main rivals for the World Championship in the 8-dog class, a title that is decided by whichever competitor has the lowest cumulative time after three days of time trials on the same 16-kilometer course, is Lars Lindh. Lindh, like Ellis, has been racing "forever." The two have known each other almost as long.
They were supposed to be teammates. Ellis was set to run his dogs in the open class, but after downsizing for the move back to Sweden, he would have been stretching his team pretty thin. He asked to race in the 8-dog class, but the captain of the Swedish team wouldn't let him. Why? Only they know. Ellis says the captain told him he wasn't qualified, which is a bit like kicking Michael Phelps off the U.S. swim team, because when has he ever proven himself? Ellis seems like the kind of guy who'd it take work to piss off, but the two had words. With a deep breath, Ellis tells me only that it was bad.
While in Alaska, Ellis became an American citizen, so after failing to qualify for the Swedish team, he was left with two options: either sit out the World Championships or switch to Team USA. The switch had the added benefit of being a giant, metaphorical middle finger to the Swedish captain. But on the other hand, Ellis and and his old buddy Lindh now find themselves in the somewhat awkward position of competing not as teammates, but as rivals.
In the late 1980s and early 90s, Lindh and Ellis cut their teeth together on the Scandinavian racing scene, living and training for a time in the same Swedish town. Like Ellis, Lindh built his career in the open category. That they're both here competing in 8-dog is a coincidence that brings a smile to Ellis's lips.
Today, both men are in their forties, both have the same weathered features, the same greying stubble. Ellis is low-key and thoughtful while Lindh has a dry sense of humor and a quick laugh, but both men will break off mid-conversation if it's time to feed the dogs or let them stretch. You wonder if they'd be close friends had their careers not taken them so far apart. While Ellis was in Alaska, throwing record book after record book into a wood burning stove and living the life of a professional dogsledder, Lindh remained mostly in Sweden, where winners don't take home anything but pride and admiration, in his words, "galloping toward bankruptcy."
Lindh, who wears a Swedish team beanie and black coveralls when he's not in his racing gear, discusses moving on from dog sledding even more readily than Ellis, who one imagines might have a difficult time walking away. Lindh has already retired once, although now he calls it "a break," because here he is at the World Championships.
It's not so much that he can't walk away as much as the sport won't let him. His kennel is down to five dogs, which isn't anywhere near competition-sized. Last season, he should have spent the winter at home with his wife in Kiruna, Sweden, but he had an offer to mush for a Canadian team that was too good to resist, and so there he was again, behind a team of howling dogs. This season, the call didn't come from Canada, but from his good friend, Taina Taräs.
In 1996, while representing the Swedish national team in an 8-dog race in Sweden, Taräs fell off her sled. "It wasn't a big deal," she says. "I just fell wrong."
The fall broke her back, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
For the next couple years, Taräs drifted. Unable to participate in the sport she loved and forced to adapt to a life without her legs, she became depressed. "Some of my good old musher friends, they gave me a puppy a couple years after my accident," she says. She's seated in front of her white van, the sliding door wide open, which reveals a wall of kenneled dogs. "That's how I started again. My musher friends, they pulled me back."
As the puppy, a Siberian husky, grew, it began to pull her around in her wheelchair. It wasn't much longer before she had a team of hounds hand selected from the strongest lines in Sweden running in front of an off-road chair in the summer and a specially-designed sled in the winter. The snow in her face, the soft patter of a team scampering through the snow were things she couldn't live without.
For the last several years, Taräs has participated in 4-dog races in Sweden. "I do that mostly just to get the word out that you can mush with dogs even if you are sitting in a wheelchair," she says. Her heart, however, is still with 8-dog racing. But it's difficult to be competitive without the ability to push the sled when confronting a steep hill. This is where Lindh comes in.
Over the last several months, Taräs, Lindh, and his wife Petra put together a training camp in Kiruna, a town famous for being Sweden's northernmost and for having the world's largest underground iron ore mine. After racing in a handful of preliminary events, Taräs and Lindh drove the 3,000 kilometers south to Todtmoos.
After such a long trip, you'd think the two would be sick of each other, but their camp, which consists of little more than a mid-sized van parked on the hilltop, is one of the happiest in Todtmoos. The two are always laughing. It's part of their strategy, and it extends to their dogs.
"Dogs can only run if they're happy," says Lindh. "So that's what we do. Train them properly and then keep them happy all the time."
But not all the dogs are happy. On the second day of racing, the temperature tops out at 27 degrees, but it feels much warmer. The sun is out; sunglasses are on; and the snow, a brilliant white in some places, is bright yellow in others. The handlers are universally diligent with solid waste, but in some camps, along the staked out areas where dogs stretch and play, the snow and the smell tell their own story.
According to the race announcer, there are "at least" 1,500 racing dogs in Todtmoos, in addition to the gaggle of dogs brought along by spectators. Most of the race teams, like Taräs' and Lindh's team, stay in trailers and campers, about 100 of which are parked on the road that leads to the top of the hill. This being a World Championship, the dogs come from all four corners of the Earth, often bringing otherwise local viruses and bacteria with them. Put all these dogs together and weaken their immune systems with travel and you get the idea: the camp at Todtmoos can seem like one giant veterinary emergency room.
The most common ailment is kennel cough, which is highly contagious and comes with flu-like symptoms. But gastrointestinal issues also abound. Regardless of what's bothering the dogs, it can be difficult to tell if they're sick or not until they're on, say, the final kilometer of their run, which is exactly when Amy Cooper, in the first heat of the 4-dog race, realized her team was in trouble.
Just before the final stretch through the meadow to the finish line, the trail at Todtmoos winds through the trees up a steep, 100-meter hill. By Saturday morning, the incline already had a number of nicknames, but in Cooper's case, it will forever be remembered as Heartbreak Hill.
It was on the hill that Cooper's dogs stopped.
A 17-year veteran of dog-powered sports—she races on wheels, sleds, and skis—Cooper, a slender woman with greying hair and a soft, friendly demeanor when dealing with both dog and human, has never had a team stop before. At first, everything seemed fine. The dogs were quick out of the gate, they pulled hard. The conditions were slow and slushy, which makes it a bit more difficult on the dogs, who spend extra energy pulling, but it's nothing they hadn't seen before. She knew something was up when the tug lines between the dogs and the sled, "usually guitar-string tight," started to droop. At first, the slack was intermittent, but after a while, the lines hung low behind the dogs. By the time they got to the hill, "They quit. They stopped. They laid down in the snow," remembers Cooper. "I was like, 'These are not my dogs!'" She ended up having to switch one of the wheel dogs with a leader before suffering the ultimate indignity of taking the team from the front and walking it up the hill. At the top, another team came by, and the dogs, who love to chase, got a bit of a second wind. But Cooper's World Championship quest, which brought her all the way from La Crosse, Wisconsin and came at great expense to her and her local sponsors, was over.
On Saturday, Cooper, who works at a university as a veterinary technician, doesn't come out. She keeps her dogs far from camp, at a hotel in town, and stays with them.
Sick dogs are a reality of racing. Egil Ellis has been through it. There were times in Alaska when Reynolds treated Ellis's sick dogs before a race, only for Ellis to go out and beat him. In Todtmoos, rather than camp out on the hill with the rest of the competitors, Ellis too stays with his dogs at the hotel down the mountain. His strategy reflects his cautious approach toward illness. His team shows up about an hour before race time, and he leaves them in the kennel until it's time to work, about 20 minutes from the start.
Today, unlike yesterday, in front of a crowd in the thousands, Ellis and his dogs show why they are the team to be feared. Lehtomäki posts a respectable 33:15; Lindh, who says in the morning that he's saving his dogs for the the final heat, stays close, posting a time of 33:46; Dominique Couvelard, a French racer, comes in at 33:27, an especially impressive time given that one of his leaders is sick and covered in shit.
Egil's dogs lap up the course, pulling him across the line at 33:09.
An hour later, he's gone.
On Sunday, the morning of the final heat, low clouds encircle the hilltop and it rains. But while the humans huddle under umbrellas and in the food tents set up near the start, the dogs don't mind. They seem to understand the day's significance. The howling and barking—the sounds of anticipation—are just a little crisper, a little more purposeful.
The 8-dog heat begins at 11 a.m., and the teams set off without incident, one after another, two minutes apart: first Lehtomäki; then Lindh; then Couvelard.
Ellis is fourth. His pre-run routine hasn't changed much over the weekend. He anchors his sled and walks to the front, kneeling again with Molly. This time, he walks down the line psyching up the rest of the team, one brief head scratch at a time. With one second on the clock, he yanks the anchor and in the next he's gone.
A half hour later, Lehtomäki appears at the top of Heartbreak Hill. The throng of parka-wearing, umbrella-holding spectators cheer as his team runs hard for the finish. His time is 33:39. Lindh is next. He comes into the meadow in his yellow and blue Swedish uniform, standing almost casually behind his team. He crosses the finish line at 33:33, which isn't enough to displace Lehtomäki, who begins to celebrate wildly, jumping up and down, running and sliding on his belly through the slush and ice.
Two minutes later, the announcer spots Couvelard emerging from the trees. One of Couvelard's teammates begins waving a French flag before another sled comes over the hill, seconds behind. "Wait!" the announcer says over the loudspeaker. "That's Egil Ellis!"
Merde! The French team members at the finish throw their hands up in disgust as Ellis crosses the line in front of Couvelard, who just lost out on a podium finish.
As Ellis stomps the anchor into the ice, the announcer talks the crowd through some quick math. Ellis's time of 32:30 is more than a minute faster than Lehtomäki's. "He won," the announcer says. "Egil Ellis is the World Champion."
Ellis stands for a moment, stunned. He hugs his wife and spends a minute speaking to a European television crew. He takes a moment to compose himself, holding his head in his hands, before turning to the dogs. They were running hard, but nothing out of the ordinary until they started to smell Couvelard. Then the chase was really on. They caught him about a kilometer out before devouring the hill and leaving him in the slush.
"What a team," Ellis says. And just as he did before the race, he takes each head between his gloved hands, one by one. "Holy crap. What a team."
The 8-dog event ended just before noon on Sunday. The award ceremony wasn't scheduled until all the events finished for the day, at around 4 p.m. With a long drive ahead of us, my photographer and I decided to leave early, at about 1 p.m., confident we'd just witnessed sporting greatness.
The following morning, I received a text message from Kale Casey, one of the U.S. team captains. It reads, in part:
"Hi Brian. [...] It rained and poured all night in Todtmoos last night. Also wanted to make sure you knew Egil placed second by 4 seconds once the time keepers did the actual math. We had a big celebration at [the hotel] last night with the Swedes, French and Canadians to honor his epic finish. Black Forest cake and anise [schnapps]/champagne all around."
Correction, March 12, 2015: This story originally misstated Ellis's age. He is in his forties, not his fifties.