The British Sleddog Sports Federation (BSSF) National Championship event was held over the weekend of the 22nd & 23rd February in Kings Forest, Thetford, Norfolk, organised by the Wyedean Mushing crew. The event was also an International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Cup event, giving participants the opportunity to qualify for selection into the GB team attending the IFSS / WSA European Dryland Championships, to be held in France December 2014.
The venue itself was set down a long drive into the forest and is probably one of the best venues I have seen for a dog sport event in all the races I have attended. The camping area was large, dry and sheltered by the trees. When I arrived I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of mud anywhere and how perfect the conditions were for not only the races, but also for hosting over 200 competitors and their dogs for 3 days.
I arrived around lunchtime on the Friday so I could get out on the bike and check out the course in plenty of time before registration began at 4pm. It was slightly confusing trying to find the correct course, as all the course markers were up and there were four different routes for the different classes over the weekend but somehow we managed it. I took Tegan out to accompany me, as competing dogs weren’t allowed to see the trails but she was.
The course itself was all grass and dirt trail, very soft, with long straights and only a few turns to negotiate. It became obvious very quickly that this was going to be an extremely fast course as there weren’t even any hills to contend with. I also noticed there was no natural water anywhere on the route, which many people don’t consider an issue in racing but I like to allow my dogs to drink and so I made a mental note to take water out with me. In all the course was 4 miles of long, grassy trails and the furthest we have ever competed over, so I was nervous about how Donnie would cope, being the smallest dog competing in our class.
Registration was all very straightforward and after getting our number for the weekend, our CSJ goodie bag and getting the bike checked for safety, we were all set up for the first race Saturday morning. Due to the number of competitors taking part, racing was beginning at 8.30 am and continuing throughout the day until after 4 pm to give everybody the 1 minute intervals that was required by the timing system (in the case of the bigger teams it was 2 minute intervals).
Saturday morning started early with the sound of the husky teams waking up for breakfast around 5 am and there’s no disguising the husky woos woos when they start! The first competitors out were the big teams around the 4 mile course pulling rigs and then the bikejor class, followed by the smaller rig teams, the scooters, the canicross and finally the juniors around the shorter courses. It felt like a long wait until our start time of 10.42.
When it came to our turn, Donnie and I were raring to go, knowing we had to pull out all the stops to keep up with the other dogs in our class. We set off and I just had a feeling we were going to have a good run. Donnie was reading my mind again as to the turns and lines I wanted him to take and he was attacking the long stretches with great enthusiasm, which I wasn’t sure he would do. I was disappointed to be caught about half way around by a fellow competitor but we managed to keep more or less neck and neck with them for the second half of the race, finishing before them with a last push from both Donnie and I to keep our speed up. I did stop to let Donnie have a drink, as this revives him and when we crossed the line, I couldn’t have been happier with our first race of the weekend.
We hung around after our race to help others on the start line and watch people finish. One of the IFSS rules stipulates you can’t call in teams on the finish, which makes for a very quiet finish area. I wasn’t sure I liked the lack of cheering but have to say the start and finish felt very calm for the dogs as a result and so perhaps this isn’t such a bad idea for the competitors as a whole. It was quite clear over the weekend how much thought had gone into the organisation of such a big event and although there were some slight issues I was aware of at times, none of it took away from the fact that the event ran extremely well, especially as it was the first event of it’s kind and size in England.
Saturday night was a fun, social event with a mushers meal in the evening provided if you wanted it and there was a talk and slideshow, plus cake for everyone. It was a nice opportunity to get lots of people under the roof of the marquee together to go through the days’ racing and share stories.
We were rudely awakened again by the sing song of the husky teams who were out even earlier on Sunday. All the racing times had been brought forward by an hour to help speed up the racing, as people needed to get home in the afternoon. It was cooler on the Sunday too, which was better for the dogs, as many had found the sunshine of Saturday had warmed the course up a bit too much for some teams.
Our start time of 9.24 reflected the times of the day before, as we were seeded in our class as the third out. I was fairly sure we couldn’t top our performance of Saturday and headed out on the course just to do the best we could. Yet again Donnie was absolutely on form and with only a small stop for a drink and toilet break (!) he kept up a very steady pace for the whole 4 miles. I was over the moon when I realised we were catching second place and it took everything I had to keep us both going up the slight incline into the finish.
We finished and had our vet and microchip check before being told that we had managed to make up a place and were now in the silver medal position. I couldn’t have been any more proud, as Donnie had worked his hardest for me over the whole course and to keep up with him had been a struggle. I took him back to the van so he could chill out for the rest of the day and I went back down to the start/finish area to help others set off and come in. The NATB Dog Sports members had some blinding times out on the course and in the open 2 dog rig class, Petra Broadbelt managed to make up two places to take the gold with her two Australian Kelpies.
Following the Sunday races was the prize giving, where all the competitors gathered in the marquee to say thanks to the organisers and receive their medals and prizes from the race sponsors. There were a lot of people involved in making this event happen and it was a great first national championship for the Wyedean Mushing and BSSF team to have organised. I think this was a big step forward for the UK sled dog sports, as the event was attended by an IFSS representative who oversaw the racing to help ensure the rules were being adhered to and he was extremely impressed by the standard of dry land racing we have in this country.
If anyone is reading and thinks this is all beyond them and their ‘pet’ dog, please be assured that the majority of the dogs taking part in this event are ‘pet’ dogs and the competitors are not all people with huge teams of huskies or hounds. The dog sports of canicross, bikejor, scootering and dry land mushing in the UK are growing rapidly and the sled dog event organisers are opening up more and more events to all breeds of dog, this national championship being one of them. I think the BSSF National Championship event at Thetford was a resounding success and I look forward to attending an even bigger weekend of racing next year!