Paula Royce will turn 72 in three weeks and has been sick for most of the past year, but that did not derail her and her canine pal, “Harley Jane,” from their arduous trek Saturday afternoon.
Royce, from Louisiana, was among 1,200 people who converged at McClellan on Saturday for the U.S. Canine Biathlon, a 4-mile competitive trek through water, in woods and over and under obstacles.
“She’s more fit than I am,” Royce said of Harley Jane, a chihuahua. “I’m not very fit this year.”
Royce said she was in better shape the first time she completed the course, last year, but being ill hindered her this time around.
The biathlon’s founder and director, Paul Hammond, has worked with dogs for more than 30 years in various capacities with the British military, with a private organization that supported the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense, and in his current position as president of Vapor Wake K9.
He started the biathlon six years ago because there was not an event like it that opened competition to people in military, law enforcement and civilian sectors. Every year it has doubled in size, he said.
The biathlon takes place at VWK9’s facility, which is the second-largest canine training facility in the United States. There Hammond designs and puts together the 4-mile course with more than 80 obstacles to be “very challenging.”
“I always bear the canine in mind first,” Hammond said.
While he may prefer the animals, Hammond said he is very concerned with safety of them and their handlers, so he is always the first to run the course.
“I do it myself to make sure it’s survivable,” Hammond said.
Hammond added it takes months to build out the course and make sure the route is free of unplanned hazards — but even that could not prevent Bill Kleinfelder from dislocating his shoulder.
It happened when Kleinfelder and his Australian shepherd, Indy, were descending a hill they had climbed up. Indy went one way and Kleinfelder’s shoulder went the other, as it has done a few times since 1986 when he served in the U.S. Navy.
Hammond saw the incident take place and asked if he wanted to stop. Kleinfelder responded by taking a piece of rope he had on him, creating a sling and completing the course.
Kleinfelder said this was his first time at the event, but he would definitely return.
Ali Whipple, a vet technician and groomer from Kentucky, also ran the course for the first time. She donned a rainbow tie-dye tank top that matched her poodle’s mohawk.
“He may look like a froufrou dog, but he’d be much happier if he were muddy,” Whipple, who is 33, said of “Apollo,” who turned 9 Friday, as they prepared to run the race.
Hammond said the “age handicap system” works to level the playing field and encourages a variety of competitors. The system knocks 15 seconds off a competitor's time for every year they are over 21 and 30 seconds off for every year the dog is over 2.
For Whipple and Apollo, that is 6-and-a-half minutes. For Royce and Harley Jane, who is a 7-year-old, 5-and-a-half-pound chihuahua, that is 15 minutes.
Royce said some of the obstacles are extra challenging because Harley Jane is so small, but she gets Harley Jane through them by lifting and lowering her by the leash.
“The bonding experience between dog and owner is second to none,” Hammond said. “You help your dog through some obstacles and your dog helps you through others.”