Vapor Wake K9

Alex Gaines runs Robi through the canine biathlon obstacle course at Vapor Wake K9 at McClellan. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

The competitors call him “The Mad Brit.”

Every year for six years, he’s built a course that requires they climb over vehicles, wade through water, crawl through tunnels and more. Their dogs love it, though.

“You hardly recognize people coming over the finish line because of the condition of the clothes,” said Paul Hammond, the creator of the U.S. Canine Biathlon. “They've got mud in their hair and everything else. And their dogs look nothing like how they started."

The U.S. Canine Biathlon is a 5K race that requires dogs and their owners to work together to navigate obstacles. This year’s biathlon will be held May 17 through 19 on the grounds of the Vapor Wake K-9 Academy on Rucker Street at McClellan. Hammond runs VWK-9, which trains dogs to detect narcotics and explosives.

Competitors check in on Friday evening from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Saturday morning from 7 a.m. to noon. The race begins Saturday at noon and is followed by an awards ceremony around 6:30 p.m. Participants on Sunday can run the course for fun from 8:45 a.m. to noon but will not be in the running for competitive awards. Live music as well as food and beer vendors will be at the event all weekend. The cost of entry into the race is $100.

While the event was originally designed for military and police dogs, it’s open to anyone with a dog who wants to compete.

“I wanted to put together an event that really brought everybody together,” Hammond said. “All types of dogs… different disciplines of working dogs and really just come together for a bonding experience between the agencies, but also between the person and their canine.”

Over the years, John Woodruff, the marketing manager for the biathlon, said the number and variety of participants has consistently grown.

"Most people are just everyday dog owners who are really passionate about being able to do these things with their pets," he said.

Woodruff said they have around 1,200 competitors signed up for this year’s event. Hammond said the first year the biathlon was hosted, there were 60 competitors.

The course includes normal agility obstacles like A-frames and tunnels as well as cross country trails, sand and mud obstacles. Competitors and their dogs also climb over cars and swim through pools of water along the course. All the obstacles are custom built for the event.

There are also mystery obstacles that require competitors and canines to work together in the moment to get through them. While Hammond said there’s no way for the human/dog teams to train for every obstacle, most competitors train by building endurance and working on their bond.

Hammond said that leading up to the event, they post advice on social media along with previews of the types of obstacles that will be on the course. He advises competitors to practice carrying their dogs over logs and getting their dogs comfortable with certain environments.

“You need to be getting your canines into tunnels where they can't necessarily see the endpoint as well as steadily building up the endurance of your dog and the fitness of your dog," he said.

Hammond, who formerly worked with military dogs in the British military, said that during his time training and working with those kinds of dogs abroad and in the United States, he noticed that different branches of the industry – police, military and civilian – tended to keep separate from each other.

“I had some competitive success with a similar type of challenging course whilst I was in the British military,” Hammond said. “I always remember the feeling of it didn't matter whether you're winning the event or whether you're coming in last, the camaraderie and the bonding experience between you and your canine just grew three hundred percent.”

Hammond said the youngest person who ever completed the course was a 4-year-old girl and the oldest was a 76-year-old woman. Competitors and teams come from all over the country to run the course and Hammond said there will even be some competitors from Europe at this year’s event.

“I'll never forget [the four-year-old girl] coming across the finish line, slipping out of her sneakers and putting cowboy boots on to go and get a photograph at the end with a medal around her neck and a beaming smile,” Hammond said.

The course itself takes Hammond and his team three months to build and costs around $100,000.

Every competitor that crosses the finish line receives and medal and a T-shirt. Hammond said that when they are calculating final times, they adjust them using an “age handicap” system. For every year the human competitor is over 21, 15 seconds is taken off the final time. On top of that or every year over that the canine competitor is over two years old, 30 seconds is knocked off the final time.

“The thrill and a smile on their face is unbelievable,” Hammond said. “What's even more shocking is the dogs that come over the finish line, their tails are absolutely high and wagging away."