If you’re going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a hobby, you’d better really love it. Fortunately for Steve Duren’s 39 dogs, he’s smitten. Steve, who is a maintenance director at a nursing center in Spokane by day, is also a highly accomplished sled racer and dog dad to quite an impressive pack on whom he lavishes unbelievable amounts of food, gear, and vet care each year to pursue his passion.
Known as Sierra Racing Kennels, Steve’s team of race dogs is made up of 35 Alaskans, a mixed breed of lightweight running dogs. And while all of them are unique, perhaps none is as special as Popeye. Popeye is two-and-a-half years old and heading into his second racing season. As part of Steve’s A-Team, or primary race team, Popeye is one of his literal top dogs -- and he’s doing it all with one eye.
Popeye was born with two eyeballs, but one of them never formed a retina, so he can only see out of one side. Despite his handicap, Popeye is an ambitious dog and loves to run, giving his whole heart to every outing and helping Steve’s A-Team find success all over the Western United States, where they enter approximately 10 races during each winter.
In sled dog racing, there are four positions on the dog team: leader, the front two dogs who set the pace and steer; swing, the two dogs right behind the leaders who help them navigate and can take over if issues arise; wheel, the two dogs closest to the sled who are often the biggest dogs since they are first to shoulder the weight of the sled in difficult terrain; and team, all the dogs in between who provide additional power to pull the sled. Even with just one functioning eye (which Steve protects with Rex Specs on the trail!), Popeye is able to run in any position other than leader, making him an incredibly valuable and versatile part of the team.
To get Popeye and the rest of the team ready for the season, Steve begins their training regimen in September, carefully monitoring for the perfect conditions where temperature and humidity line up to ensure the dogs don’t overheat and can sweat efficiently. They start with weight training, pulling more and more weight until they are effectively hauling ATVs along their home-built trails. Once the dogs have built up their strength, Steve has them work on speed, scaling up to 14-15 mph over 40 miles, which is a solid, competitive race pace. Popeye and the team tackle both sprint and distance races during the season, so the varied training helps them prepare for everything from short distances to 100-milers.
During big races, the dogs can burn up to 10,000 calories, so where Popeye the cartoon character used spinach to power up, Popeye the sled dog and his teammates have whey powder and a special “slop” of raw beef mixed with water in addition to regular dog kibble to take in enough nutrition to stay in peak form throughout the season.
And if all this training, feeding, and racing sounds like a lot for one person to handle -- it is, but Steve’s not complaining. He has always loved animals and wanted lots of dogs, and after seeing sled racing on TV when he was younger, Steve decided to try his hand. About 23 years ago, Steve started buying Malamutes, and his team did well, but that style of racing just wasn’t active enough for him. After meeting Iditarod veteran John Barron, he started learning about the Alaskan breed and soon began trading mechanical work for dogs that could make him faster. Race dogs are expensive, but Steve worked hard at his day jobs to be able to spend about $20,000 to build up his own team, and from there he worked alongside John to really learn the art of mushing.
Steve starting winning, and the dogs were performing beautifully under his training, so he then began to breed his own dogs and grow his operations to what they are today. Popeye was one of the puppies bred at Steve’s farm, and in addition to helping bring home trophies for the kennel, he is also part of the family.
Steve takes his racing seriously, but at the end of the day, he does it because he’s an animal person. He says that as a musher, his number one priority is the dogs themselves -- if he takes care of them, they take care of him -- and that motto extends from remote trails in rough terrain to games of fetch on the farm to cuddling on the couch in the house.
For Steve, there’s simply no greater feeling than the moment in a race when he and the dogs have settled into a rhythm and everything goes silent. It’s just his breathing, the sound of the dogs running, and the wilderness. And he has no doubt that his dogs, especially one as determined as Popeye, feel the same way.