Europe’s toughest dogsled race | DW Documentary
Every year the extreme north of Norway hosts an epic 1,200- kilometer race in which competitors fight their way through icy wastelands — and are celebrated as heroes. The Finnmark Race is kind of like my birthday, Christmas and new year’s eve all wrapped in one. For eight days, the competitors or “mushers” and their canine teams will be pushed to the absolute limit.
It’s something you chose to do! And it’s fun. It’s like a journey into yourself! Who will prevail in this grueling endurance challenge — lasting over a week, with sleep a rare luxury? The dogs are starting to get tired, I am getting a little bit tired, so this is when the hard work starts. Alta, in the Finnmark region of Norway, September 2019. Here,
inside the Arctic Circle, Hanna Lyrek is preparing for the longest dog-sled race in Europe. Hanna and a fellow-musher discuss how many dogs they have with them — and which ones they’ll have to leave behind. Let’s see. Who’s coming? I have been driving dogs since I could stand up straight and I have been around dogs for all my life. So when I was younger, dogs were my best friends. So I have always liked seeing the world through a dog’s eyes.
Her parents’ farm thrives on tourism — especially from the growing popularity of dog-sled tours. The family have more than 80 dogs, all of them hybrids. They’ve been trained in social skills and are highly durable, with a strong cardio-vascular system — and they love to run. We always start going short and slow, and as they get into shape we can always increase the distance and the speed. But these are long-
distance dogs, so they hardly run faster than 17 kilometers an hour. Langfjördbotn, 70 kilometers west of Alta. Ben Voigt lives here with his family and 35 Alaskan huskies.
Originally from Germany, he met his wife while studying geography in Alta. In 2010 the couple bought this old farm. Yes, Savea. Good girl. What else do we need, Ronja? We have the meat and ... Water! Should we go and fetch that too? This is their breakfast — basically a mixture of meat and dry fodder. Taking care of the dogs is a full-time job for Ben. His wife is a
teacher at the village school. You could say we’re living our dream. We have a great place to live, and have so much freedom. We have two happy children, and our own dogs. It’s just ? beyond words.
Ben started dogsled-racing more than ten years ago, and has also won a number of awards for the way he handles his animals. They’re bred for this purpose and want to run. It’s genetic. You can use the dogs, but should never abuse them. You have to know them inside-out from training and living with them. So, you know what their limits are — and that you should never push them beyond that. For a musher who is not even Norwegian let alone local, those distinctions are a very special honor.
This is Ruby — basically the queen, our most important lead dog. They’re a pretty big pack, and sometimes they have their disputes — like in a schoolroom. And as their leader you have to master the art of creating a positive vibe, so that they work together as a team. Ben and Hanna still have another five months to prepare for the Finnmark Race.
For Hanna, too, it is the ultimate challenge. Of course you can meet bad weather, and you can get an injured dog and you get tired and exhausted. So it’s all these things together for a week — and a lot of people, they don’t even last a day. Until the snowpack is firm enough for the sleds, the dogs train with a quad on solid ground. Hanna has to repeatedly put on the brakes to stop her team going too fast. Over the entire season from August through late May, they cover almost 10 thousand kilometers.
In the evening her friends, family and staff gather for dinner. The top subject of discussion is, as ever, how preparations for the race are going. Today they’re joined by a high-profile guest and neighbor: musher legend Roger Dahl, who won the event three times. The training going OK? Yes, I hope so ? I don’t think we did enough training. In terms of kilometers? Yes. Last year we had 650, and now we only have around 300, and it’s already the 19th.
Then it’s not enough. Hanna’s performances have also attracted sponsors. This season she’s getting funding from a dog-food manufacturer, together with other successful mushers — making Hanna the youngest member of the world’s first professional dogsled squad. Although other than sharing a sponsor, the mushers are not really a team — each competing very much for their themselves. Part of the team is the biggest mushers in the world and for me it is an opportunity to learn from the best. So now I am part of that and I
also have a few other sponsors, and for me — I don't have a full-time job and I am not fully educated. I have to have sponsors. If not, I wouldn’t be able to do what I love to do every single day. Ben has to make do without financial backers. Being a non-
native makes him less attractive for Norwegian companies. And only the very best mushers manage to secure lucrative sponsorship deals. Mushing is becoming increasingly sportified up here. It’s hugely popular now, with a growing number of people going professional. We’re now starting to see big-money sponsors, and sponsored teams. As a family-based kennel, it’s hard for us to keep up with them.
Mushing means investing a lot of time — and money. The dogs need to be put through their paces for the entire season from August through the end of May. The financial outlay for their food and equipment poses an additional challenge for the family. We worked out that the animals cost us 30 to 40 thousand euros a year. But we’d love to keep them, and also do the race. So, we’re
taking the plunge by asking if guests might want to go on a tour with us. Ben is able to recover some of the expenses by offering dogsled tours which also provide further training for the animals. Although that venture is compromised by having to tailor the tours to the wishes of his guests. Six months on, March 2020 in Alta. And the Finnmarksløpet is about to begin — the toughest dogsled race in Europe, with one-thousand-two- hundred icy kilometers awaiting the competitors.
But Ben has doubts as to whether his team is in top shape. They haven’t done those long distances so far this year, but have had to work really hard. Ruby’s on board and is fit. I hope she puts in another good showing this year. Yokmok is the clown in the team — he’s been great in the prep races. The dogs get a pre-race check-up from veterinarians. Otherwise,
they’re not allowed to compete. Ben is worried about the swelling on this one’s leg. The doctor says that if he has sound alternatives, she’d suggest taking a different dog.
Fortunately, all the other dogs are OK — giving the green light for Ben’s team. Can I take a photo of you next to each other? Hanna is accompanied by her mother from one checkpoint to the next. Trine competed in the race herself a number of times. She has done so much work with the dogs. To be able to be top 5, top 7 in a race like this is very, very hard. Because so many are good, they know what they are doing. You have to have some luck, but you
have to be good yourself. It’s party time in Alta. Norway’s main public TV station has daily updates of the race. Producer Hans Hartvigsen has been covering the event for more than a decade.
It’s getting bigger every year. It’s a multi-faceted sport - and is enthralling to watch! The starting positions are drawn by lots — with Ben in 14th. The field comprises 30 teams from Scandinavia — plus a couple of contestants from Germany and Switzerland. They’re desperate to get going. I just hope we get off to a good start — and then we’re on our own.
On a journey that will take eight days and nights, Ben sets out on the initial stage. The first check-point is 12 hours away. Among the last starters is local girl Hanna — with Norwegian TV live at the scene. You already won the 500 kilometer race. And the 12-hundred? Oh, they're two different worlds! We just want a decent finish! What’s the best part of the race? Being out there, alone with my dogs. Enjoy, and good luck, Hanna! All that matters now is the finish - with no more interruptions. The
rules are simple. Once out in the wild, they’re not allowed to have any assistance. Over the next 8 days the mushers are granted one extended break of 14 hours — with short breathers always allowed.
Stage one is 132 kilometers — and the longest. There’s little let-up for the mushers, as they literally dig deep and have to push their sled through the snow — especially uphill. The checkpoints are manned by more than 600 volunteers taking care of the dogs. Almost 12 hours in, Hanna arrives at the Levajok checkpoint. And now
every second counts. She’s solely responsible for feeding the dogs. The pack are permitted to take on nourishment — but outside the checkpoint. The faster Hanna manages to feed the dogs and get them wrapped up for the night, the earlier she’ll be able to get some shut-eye herself for an hour or two. It’s a routine Hanna has practiced dozens of times. We rested two hours on the trail. It is a lot of snow, but it's fine.
It's not a problem. Almost two hours later Ben also reaches the first checkpoint — with some bad news. Yokmuk, one of his best dogs, sprained his shoulder after stepping into a hole. If more than 8 of the 14-strong dog- team fail to finish the race, it’s game over. And the early loss of Yokmuk is a bitter setback for Ben. Unfortunately, you have all the other teams braking, which creates divots. And then you have a dilemma. You want to help the dogs
with lots of breaks, but then get the poorer trail. It happens. Whatever. 10 minutes later, Ben sets out again from the checkpoint. He prefers to catch a couple of hours’ nap in his sleeping bag out on the trail, away from the hustle and bustle of the helpers’ camp.
Hanna takes the more luxurious option — and is able to get 2 hours’ sleep in thanks to her family’s camper van being parked at each checkpoint. Hello, good morning. But she has no time to chat. Nothing can stand in the way of her, hopefully, finishing first ? as her boyfriend Matthias knows only too well. She is so focused. She goes in like a bubble, where you just think. You
are going through the race schedule and you're going through the checkpoint routines. Just thinking about what you're going to do. Ben and Hanna now have two long stages ahead of them, totaling 223 kilometers. The route takes them along a river by the Finnish border. Daytime temperatures are already below zero Celsius, as the dogs plough their way through the soft snow. It’s now been 48 hours since the start in Alta. At 3:30 in the afternoon Ben reaches the checkpoint in Levajok.
Over the past 48 hours his dogs have each burned up 24 thousand calories. Now they have to eat as much as possible before they get tired. Ben barely has time to sleep. A little over three hours on the sled, you come close to falling off. But it’s OK. You’re constantly focused on the dogs. It’s something you chose to do! And it’s fun. It’s like a journey into yourself!
And Ben is not the only one showing signs of wear from the past 48 hours. Ruby, his lead dog, has picked up an injury. This is how you can cool the area. Can you try to massage it? Upwards, towards the heart? With Algyval? Sure. But when you remove the ice, don’t spend too much time massaging. You need to get some rest and sleep. And the dogs too.
The Finnmark Race is a monumental test for musher and beast alike. This is the most important dog — the brain of the team. It will be interesting to see if it works. While Ben gets a much-needed if brief bit of rest, Hanna gets ready to get back on the trail. But surely racing at night is even more demanding for the musher and her team? The difference between driving at night and driving by day isn't that big. It is a bit easier to stay awake when it's light. When I am on the
sled, I fall in sleep pretty often, not long at a time, for a second or two. Then you try to stay awake, but it is hard to stay awake all the time. Sometimes the dogs enjoy running through the night a bit better. It's a
bit colder and they’re more awake. So, they enjoy it. Shortly afterwards the snowfall starts to get heavier as a storm approaches. Ben is worried about his lead dog, Ruby. I haven’t slept a wink. I laid down in my bed, but kept on seeing these wild images. All I could think about was her. And now we have this
weather coming up there, so it’s going to be a pretty tough stage over the mountain. The old lady is a bit stubborn. Yeah, I think that’s it.
And the hardest stages are yet to come. Tonight they’ll be heading up into the mountains, where the icy winds know no mercy. Then there’s the deep snow slowing down the sleds. Two teams have already had
to give up. But the dogs certainly need no pushing. The mushers wouldn’t need to use whips and reins — even if they were allowed. The animals tend to dictate the pace — as Hanna can testify. But now it’s time for her 14-hour break.
The dogs are starting to get a little bit tired, I am getting a little bit tired. So, this is the time when the hard work starts. And then they embark on a 20-hour trek northeast, during which Hanna is able to overtake some rivals. She’s already moved up from 20th
on the starting grid to eighth — less than two hours behind the race leader. Ben is struggling some way behind, a further five hours down. Four days into the race, Hanna speeds into Kirkenes, close to the Russian border. She’s already covered 600 kilometers — but this is only around the half-way point. As always there’s no time to dawdle — while also having to keep an eye on all the dogs. Good morning! How are the dogs doing? The one is bleeding in his mouth.
Ok, from about three checkpoints ago wasn't it? Yeah, but he's not eating that well. He eats, but not well. Okay! Which one is that? -It's the black one, Edin! There, with blue eyes. -Ok! The veterinarians receive only token payment for their assistance. But for Roger Troutman, making the trip from the US is worth it.
She is very aware of the intensity and length of the race. It is a marathon not a one- or two-day issue. She is very much on top of it, and I think her team looks incredibly good. Burger or Caesar salad? -Both! She needs meat and fat.
Up until now, I’ve given my dogs a lot of rest. And I see that my team is moving faster down the trail than the teams in front of me. We have more dogs in my team than the people in front of me, and it's still a long way to the finish line. No wonder you’re quicker — you’re a lot lighter! Your team is faster uphill than Kristian’s. Was it very windy? Yes. -A lot of headwind?
From the side. I couldn’t keep the sled steady. It’s not easy. But you only took four hours and 58 minutes. Her boyfriend Matthias also wants to hear her updates. After the last mountain, I even had to slow them down. I had to put on the brakes. Yes. They don’t look too bad. It’s going really well.
? Not so the case with Ben. He’s way off the pace and now stuck with his dogs at the Neiden checkpoint. He has now covered almost two thirds of the race distance. But of his 14 dogs, only six are fit to continue — the absolute minimum. With a heavy heart he makes a heart-breaking decision: We wanted to set out first thing this morning, but it turned out that three of the dogs had swollen legs. Basically, we reached the limit for
the number of dogs required. We didn’t achieve the goal that we’d been working for all year. But with animals involved, you never know, and just have to accept things and try better next time. Once you’re hooked, you have to carry on. You hope to be better prepared in future, and maybe get a bit of good luck too.
Shall we head home, Beetle? It’s that way ? Ben was one of ten competitors who had to drop out. Ahead of Hanna and her team is one of the longest and most challenging but also most prestigious stages of the Finnmark Race. From here they only have 250 kilometers to the finish. Hanna has overtaken another two teams, and is now in sixth place. It’s close to half a meter of snow that we have to go through, and my dogs have been running in that deep snow for around 9 or 10 hours. I have been working and running and kicking, and we are
coming down from the mountains. I called my mom and I said that I am coming in maybe half an hour to the checkpoint, so they can get ready. And she said that she has really bad news. My first thought was that
maybe a dog has died or something like that. On March 12th everything changed in Norway, even here in the isolated north of the country. Due to the spread of the Coronavirus, the Finnmark Race has had to be called off immediately. A shock for all involved.
You know, we have the virus going on, the coronavirus. The prime minister said that everything has to quit. It’s dreadful news for Trine Lyrek, too. Her daughter has gotten just a few hours’ sleep over the last few days. Trine is worried that a weakened Hanna will be devastated by the development. I just cried all the way to the checkpoint. Once we got to the
checkpoint, everybody was there and it was this weird atmosphere. It’s an abrupt and cruel end to Hanna‘s dream of a place on the winner's podium. I feel really bad for Hanna. She was looking forward to this race. Of
course she has been using a whole year of training for this race. It is sad, we used a lot of time. I know we would have a good finish. And I wanted to prove myself
that I could do well in a long race like this. I wanted to prove to everyone else too, that I can do well in a race like this. Even though I know that I did a good race, I don't feel like I proved it. Because you never really finished.
Two days later, Hanna is back home in Alta. I don't really think it has sunk in. I think my body is still in shock a little bit. Because we've been preparing and thinking about this race for two
years. Then we were finally doing it and it was going very well, and then it is just taken away from you. And that is very hard for me, my body and my brain to process. Hanna reckons the race could have continued due to the remoteness of the route. But by late summer her trusty dogs were hooked back up and raring to go again. And hopefully in 2021 Hanna and her team will get
another chance to go for glory.