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Going to the dogs, in a good way

Father-daughter dogsled team achieves prominence in competitive sport

by Mark Foynes
Contributing writer - The Baysider

FOURTEEN-year-old Lara Renner of Alton has been racing Siberian huskies since she was 10. This past year she participated in the Halliburton (Ontario) Highlands Dogsled Derby and the Great North Woods Sleddog Challenge here in New Hampshire She is currently fundraising to participate in the Iditarod​ ​in Alaska next winter. Courtesy Photo. (click for larger version)
April 05, 2017
ALTON — It would be fair to say that Lara Renner and her father Steve are infatuated with Siberian huskies. They own 14 of them and sled race competitively in major events throughout the region and beyond. And their common love of their dogs has brought them - and their whole family closer together.

The Renners began with two puppies that were brothers. The subsequent addition of a female resulted in a litter of six puppies that joined the pack, which now consists of 13 mushing dogs and an additional husky that was adopted from a friend.

"I've loved huskies for almost as long as I can remember," Lara said.

She said her fascination with the breed began at the age of five when she found a stuffie of a Siberian husky among her father's belongings. He had owned it when he was a child, and she fell in love with it. At the time, the Renners didn't own a dog, so for years, the stuffed toy had to play a surrogate role.

But, coupled with a love of sled dog movies such as Iron Will and Eight Below, Lara's fondness for huskies grew.

"Every birthday and Christmas, I asked for a puppy - it was an annual thing," Lara said with a smile.

When Lara was eight, the Renners attended the Laconia sled dog race, where she watched the junior races. She said seeing some racers not much older than her added to her enthusiasm.

"It was something I knew I wanted to do but even then knew it was going to be a lot of work," she said.

Her persistence and patience would pay off as she was about to turn 10. Lara recalled the family was on a drive one day and stopped into a bookstore. When her parents bought her a book on dog care, she knew her dream was about to come true.

Storm and Anakin were the Renners' original two Siberian huskies. Since then, they've been joined by other huskies bearing names such as Artoo, Chewie and Solo.

"We're kind of into Star Wars," Lara joked.

This is the origin story of Team Snowspeeder, which has been gaining attention and accolades at events as close as Laconia and as far as Haliburton, Ontario. Next year, Lara plans to enter the Jr. Iditarod in Alaska.

But four years ago, the Renners didn't quite know how to begin mushing - even on a purely recreational basis. So Steve reached out to the N.H. Mushers' Association where an official recommended that Lara find a mentor who could teach her the basics.

In a stroke of good luck, one of their referrals was a sled dog racer living a mere five minutes away.

Peter Franke, whose current pack consists of 10 dogs, has been dogsledding since 2006. A resident of New Durham Ridge, he started Lara out by having her help with kennel chores. In the process, she learned some best practices. She also learned firsthand how much work is involved in training, managing, and racing a team of sled dogs.

"With 10 dogs that poop twice a day - you can do the math," Franke joked, noting that he was appreciative of the help and the opportunity to help bring a young person into the sport.

He said he was grateful for the chance to help continue a sporting tradition that has deep roots in New Hampshire. Franke cited the famous Laconia race, the competition at Wonalancet, and the cultivation of the Chinook sled dog breed in Tamworth.

"This is a state that is very famous for its tradition in sled dog racing," Franke said, "and Lara and her father are carrying this forward."

"They have what it takes," Franke concluded.

Once Lara demonstrated her commitment, Franke began teaching her the basics of driving a team. He said he runs his team on the Devil's Den trail, a 10-mile route out to Mt. Calvary, and along several Class VI roads.

Franke, who's from Germany, said he gives his team commands in German - a practice the Renners picked up on.

And while Franke appreciates the effort the Renners have demonstrated in carrying forward the tradition of New Hampshire dog sledding, he says the opportunity to collaborate with them has created a bond between the two families. Franke said he has children the same ages as Lara and her sister, McKenzie, adding that the Renners' visits took on the feel of a play date.

A big takeaway the Renners learned from Franke is just how demanding the sport can be.

"Racing isn't just hopping on a sled - there's a lot more involved," Lara said.

Her father, Steve, agreed, noting the fact his daughter is homeschooled gives them the flexibility to structure her educational demands with the needs of their canines.

"Everybody chips in," saying that they "tag team chores."

The father-daughter team have worked out a division of labor. When they drive a two-sled tandem, Lara drives and dad brings up the rear.

"She's very intuitive," observed the father.

But driving is only part of the equation. A pack of 14 Siberians requires ongoing vigilance.

Steve said the recent cold snap made watering the puppies a challenge.

"We had a lot of bucket-shaped chunks of ice that just slowly melted after we switched out fresh water," Steve joked.

While most dog breeds don't take well to extended periods of time outdoors during the winter, Siberians have adapted a thick undercoat and a thermal regulation system that allows them to withstand the cold. These traits are extremely important during multi-day races.

Caring for the pack - and getting increasingly involved has become a family affair.

As time has gone on, Lara's sister McKenzie and mother Tuesday have made inroads into dog-based sports.

McKenzie, for example, has taken to skijoring - a winter sport where a dog (or dogs) pull a cross-country skier. And Lara's mother is starting to learn how to drive a sled.

"She said, 'How can you do this all the time?'" Steve kidded, noting the physical demands of mushing.

"You're not just getting onto a sled and going for a ride," he continued, noting that exceptional core strength and balance are imperative.

Lara, who runs half marathons, agreed, elaborating that she and her dad work with the dogs in a true team spirit.

"My dad and I have a saying that every second we can save the team by helping the dogs in the middle of the race is a second we gain when we need to sprint at the end," she said.

Lara explained that it's not uncommon for them to jump off their sled and run from behind to reduce the weight the dogs need to pull. Minimizing the heft of the gear they pack also helps, they agreed.

"You and the dogs almost become a unit, all working together - you can feel when they're working harder and you do everything you can to make it easier to work together as a group," said Steve.

Team Snowspeeder's dedication to teamwork seems to work. Lara completed last year's 30-mile Fort Kent, Maine CanAm race in fourth with a time of 3:17:37. (Incidentally, she bested her mentor, Peter Franke, who came in eighth that year with a time of 3:28:13). This past month, Lara competed in Fort Kent's 100-mile race and came in fifth overall. At the 87.3-mile mark, she was at 9:01:50. This was her first 100-mile race.

Earlier in the season, she'd finished first in the 30-mile class at the Greenville (Maine) Wilderness Race.

"I am very proud of her," Steve Renner beamed.

The father's no slouch either. Back in early February, he completed a three-day, 54-km (107.7-mile) race in Haliburton, Ontario.

"That team was extraordinary and it's an experience I'll never forget," he said. "The dogs were strong and steady, and they ran their hearts out."

He added, "The hills just never seemed to end."

Steve said the contest was for mushers aged 18 and up so his 14-year-old daughter could not qualify.

"Some day, though," he said.

The Renners are now training and fundraising so Lara can participate in the 150-mile Jr. Iditarod next year.

Both explained that training is a year-round endeavor. With the recent snow, the sled training season will be extended a bit. But they explained that during warm weather, they harness their Siberians and drive behind them on an ATV or on a bicycle.

"They like to run, and this keeps them is top condition," Lara said.

While there are purses for top contenders in most races, dog sled racing is not a lucrative endeavor. Steve stressed that the real satisfaction comes from the thrill of the competition and the bonds that his family as forged with its canines.

"There's a saying in the dog sledding world that the best way to become a millionaire doing this is to start out as a billionaire," noting the considerable expenses related to care, training, and travel.

To this end, he said he will be seeking support to help him and Lara make the trip to Alaska for the Jr. Iditarod. He said that he has a tentative agreement with a Fairbanks homeowner to spend several months up north. In exchange for lodging he and Lara will look after his house and kennel while he is offsite. That notwithstanding, the Renners still need to conjure up funds to transport themselves and their dogs to Alaska - and also to help with basic living expenses and entry fees.

Team Snowspeeder has a Facebook page, where readers wanting to learn more about this extraordinary father-daughter odyssey.

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Varney Smith
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