Petter Karlsson on the most extreme sled dog race in Europe
BY CARMELA MELONE
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 4 2018)
Infinite stretches of white and a silence only a surrounding of snow and ice can bring forth. The biting cold air is relentlessly waving over the dazzling ground as the quiet scene suddenly gets in motion with dozens of dogs cutting their way through the snow. The Finnmarksløpet is known for being one of the most difficult sled dog races in the world, and we were talking to Petter Karlsson, this year’s winner of the famous race.
Mr. Karlsson, congratulations on this year’s win of Finnmarksløpet, the famous sled dog race! Your career shows an impressive trophy cabinet – when and why did you start with this sport?
It did not start as a sport at the beginning. Where I come from in Sweden, we do not have a big culture of dog sledding as it exists in places like Norway and Alaska. As a kid, doing crazy things powered by dogs was just something fun to do. Dogs had always interested me, we had a lot of dogs at home and some of my first attempts at sledding were with them. I remember we had one hunting dog that we used to take out in front of these small kick sleds in the winter with no brakes and no steering. From that start, I was having so much fun I started doing it on skis. With both skis and the kick sled I started taking more dogs – as many as I could. The first time I ever saw “real teams” was when I first went to compete at Vindelälvsdraget, which is a local dog relay race. That really opened my eyes – I started to have a more concrete target to make a team like the ones I saw there. I knew in my bones this was something I wanted to do. And always with this crazy drive to get more dogs, a bigger team, more power, more adrenalin.
Please tell us about the best moments of your career!
There have been so many amazing moments. Even during training as a dog musher, you experience incredible things. But you are always working toward the races. The first race I ever won I remember vividly. It was the Swedish championship in sprint, so a much shorter race than what I do now. It had taken a lot to get there, so it felt amazing to win. La Grande Odyssée was a game changer for me. Again, it was hard to get there and I had to push myself through so many things personally and professionally to make it. But the more I sacrificed, the more I had to lose by giving up, and the more that was riding on the win. My then fiancée Angela and I sank everything we had into that race, so if I had not won, it would have been a disaster. As it happened, I swept the board and we were able to spend some of the winnings on our wedding. But of course, the ultimate high point was winning Finnmarksløpet. It is the pinnacle of dog sports in Europe. The first time I won was incredible – it was a goal I had pursued for so long. But this year, 2018, it was really something else. I almost lost the race. I had a comfortable lead leaving the final checkpoint, only 50 km from the finish. Everything was going great until I started having some problems with my dogs. I managed to sort it out, but I had to stop my team for 1h30 min. My nearest competitor passed me, and it took everything I had to reach that finish line. To pass her, but also keep the dogs going when we were back in front. I knew I could not let up for a second, I had to run with the sled and use the last of my energy to make it. When I managed to pull it back in the last minute, that felt exhilarating beyond anything else I have ever experienced. They do not often have photo finishes like that in 1000-km races!
What are the biggest challenges of the Finnmarksløpet for you and for your dogs?
The dogs are doing what they are trained, born and bred to do, so in a way for them it is another day at the office. My job is to take them to the edge of their capabilities. To do more than they ever thought they could do. My biggest challenge personally is that I am so competitive and so I can get swept away with racing easily. I get supercharged by the abilities of the team, but sometimes you have to choose which race not to win. You need to run and rest in the right way, feed the exact right way, stick to the plan or make changes very close to perfectly to keep everything rolling for such a long time. The combination of the cold, lack of sleep and consistently working 24 hours a day for a week can also be difficult. It is hard to describe the level of work required to keep so many dogs running at such a peak of performance for over a thousand kilometres. They are running 150 km a day throughout the race, it is incredible. They are eating over 12,000 calories a day to sustain that performance. Feeding them out on the trail is hard work, massaging, caring for their feet. It is all extremely physical. Again, being extremely competitive, I work so hard all the time to keep the team running at that peak – and then will literally run with them beside my sled for long periods also. That is difficult enough for such a long time, but doing it at your absolute limit of sleeplessness and in minus-thirty temperatures can sometimes be a horrible combination.
How does the training over the year look for yourself and for your dogs?
We keep the dogs running for most of the summer but with lower intensity and distance compared to the rest of the year. As the autumn falls, we go step by step up in distance and intensity. This continues to a peak around six weeks before the big race. At this time, I am training distances, trails and conditions very close to how the race itself will be. Between runs, I like to let my dogs run loose, keeping a close eye on exactly how they are moving. Dogs in my race team will often be massaged, they will need a lot of extra food to maintain their weight, so there are many different aspects to training beyond just running.
Who else is involved in the racing project besides yourself and your dogs?
Of course, my amazing wife, Angela, is an unwavering source of mental and emotional support, but also really importantly just with an incredible amount of literal hard work that she has put into this madness over the years. We have a big support network who help to make this possible. From our parents, who help with the children as much as they can, which allows me and Angela to go to races. I have a great team of staff that work at my kennel, where tourism is one of the ways we try to reach the massive financial goals this sport requires, as well as farming. To drive dogs at this level is in many ways a team sport – both human and dog.
What are the next goals for you and your team?
Defending my title on Finnmark is my next goal. This winter’s effort is all about trying to achieve that third win. Then in two years I will take a big step into the unknown. The Iditarod in Alaska is the biggest race in the world, and of course I want to win it. Winning the Iditarod is something that has always felt very far away, this vague future goal, but I’ve realised that the time is now. So Iditarod, here I come!
Petter Karlsson has excelled at every class of dog mushing since the late nineties. He celebrated his most recent successes at the legendary Finnmarksløpet race in Norway.
Picture credit © Mårten Dalfors