01/11/2011 at 12:00 PM EST
"I call it the 'magic carpet ride,'" four-time Iditarod
champ Martin Buser says of the famous Alaskan dogsled race. "Silently gliding over the snow-covered landscape with just the slight panting of the dogs and swishing of the runners – that's the drug. The addiction just grabs you."
And Buser certainly is addicted: the 27-time racer will sidle up to the starting line again on March 5, when the Iditarod kicks off in Anchorage. "I'm still young enough to try to win," jokes the 51-year-old, whose last victory in 2002 came in a record-breaking time of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds.
Buser, a married father of two, never meant to become a racer. Growing up in Switzerland, he trained Siberian huskies in his spare time before heading to college and eventually, into the military. After his service was done, a curious Buser moved to Alaska for a year to learn more about sled dogs, with "no intention" of staying for life. "But I got hooked," he says.
The couple he was working for offered him a team of dogs, and from there his competitive spirit took over. He soon opened his own breeding facility and kennel, Happy Trails
, and began racing. Buser entered his first Iditarod in 1980, and logged his first victory in 1992. Training Days
"I compare [the Iditarod] to the final college exam," Buser tells PEOPLEPets.com. "It's like the testing ground to see who's done all of their homework correctly throughout the year."
He prepares his dogs – a "designer" breed called the Alaskan husky – for nearly 365 days, running them as a pack for a few miles each day in summer, then working up to 25-mile runs, and later 50-mile jaunts, as winter comes and the race draws closer. But Buser is working nearly as hard as his pups! "I try to bulk down," he says, adding that he uses a NordicTrack to exercise his legs, arms and lungs. "It mimics the motions we do on a dog sled: pedaling on our feet, pushing the sled left and right and using ski poles to propel the sled."
Each dog born in the Happy Trails
kennel starts light training at about 6 to 9 months old, when they're introduced to the harness. When they reach the age of 18 months, they can enter the race with one of Buser's colleagues, who takes them through the Iditarod non-competitively. The best of that crew ultimately joins Buser's team.
"I don't race any dogs [who are younger] than 2-and-a-half years old," Buser explains. Since the general maximum racing age is 10, many dogs can race eight or nine consecutive Iditarods before they're "retired" to an adoptive home. "My next-door neighbor has four of my geriatrics, and I have dogs all the way out in Australia," he says. Most of Buser's former pups live anywhere from 13 to 17 years, so their retirement is long and happy. "I call them my eternal children," he says Facing the Critics
While Buser has won numerous awards from the Iditarod organization for his humane animal treatment, he's certainly aware of the criticism the race receives from PETA, the ASPCA and others.
"I welcome skeptics. If you're open-minded enough to have a discussion about the race, maybe I can convince you that these dogs are really happy," he says. "If you're close-minded enough to say it's cruel and inhumane, but you haven't exposed yourself to it, you can't speak from an educated point of view.
"Don't get me wrong, when I get to Nome [the Iditarod's Alaskan finish line], I'm really tired, and the dogs are really tired. But that's of course where the reward comes, from the hard work," he says. Buser invites rookies and visitors to his kennel
, where they can meet his dogs, learn about the race and even try a test-run on a sled for themselves.
But Buser worries for the health of his dogs "as I worry for my kids," he explains. "We prevent all kinds of possible scenarios by training them hard, teaching them hard and having multiple veterinary examinations."
At checkpoints, Buser massages his dogs' paws and feeds them well. They're rested frequently, too. "About 60 percent of the time they're sleeping," he says. "They run for about six hours, and that's counterbalanced with the same amount of rest."
The course itself is long, however, and the terrain varied. "I did a little math, and each paw touches the ground about 2 million times between the start and finish," Buser explains. "From a medical point of view, that's 2 million opportunities to get a split toe, cracked wrist, or pulled muscle. You can't have 1,000 miles of smooth sailing. But that's what's so fascinating: the dogs can overcome the steepest hills, ice, rocks, stumps and frozen tundra. It's phenomenal."
And the awe and appreciation he feels toward his dogs is what keeps him going. "They're born loving to run," he says. "And as dog owners, we enhance those God-given talents and abilities. I have no reservations about that." The Iditarod race, sponsored in part by Eagle Pack pet food, kicks off on Saturday, March 5, and can be seen online at Iditarod.com. Through Jan. 21, you can enter to win a trip for two to the 2011 race at EaglePack.com.Read more about the Iditarod on PEOPLEPets.com:Iditarod Dog Inspires Autistic Boy in Alaska