Cool Runners: The Origin of the Breakaway Siberians

Tuesday, January 31, 2017 | Diamond Naturals Sled Dog Team

Richie Camden’s goal was to find a dog who could run a few miles with him every day as he jogged the Michigan trails.

It’s eight years later, and that one dog has become 14. And those trails? They’re 90 miles long and they cut through the frigid tundra of places like Michigan and Minnesota. When they’re not training in the warmer Missouri climate they call home, that is.

Goals, it seems, are destined to change.

Richie now leads the Breakaway Siberians, a sled dog team made primarily of rescued Siberian huskies who live and train in eastern Missouri. To say the Breakaways aren’t traditional is a drastic understatement. Siberians are no longer bred for the sport, after all. And even so, winning sled dogs are usually trained from birth as opposed to eased into the sport as stubborn adults. You also have that little geographical anomaly; Missouri isn’t exactly a hotbed of arctic activity.

But while the Breakaway Siberians always compete as hard as they can, they aren’t in it only to win. They’re in it for the love. The love of running. The love of camaraderie. And most importantly for Richie, the love of dogs.

Goals big and small

Richie’s practical goal for his Breakaways is to finish a 90-mile race, specifically the Midnight Run held every February in Marquette, Michigan. Just finishing the race with a healthy team would be considered a huge success, but Richie’s true goal is to provide happy, safe and fulfilling lives for Siberians that have been discarded by others. And he achieves that goal every day.

“There’s so many dogs out there that people have given up on,” he says. “Siberians can be destructive, but it’s not really their fault; it’s just their personalities. They have to be doing something. If they don’t have something to do, they’re going to find something to do, whether it’s destroying your couch, digging a hole under your fence, tearing down the trim around the door, eating drywall. Things like that. They can do all sorts of things that are super destructive.”

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But Richie’s contention is that it’s not the dogs’ faults: they’re often put in situations where they have no outlet for their boundless energy. It’s often a case where someone adopts a dog because he’s pretty and fluffy, but they aren’t prepared to give the dog the environment and exercise he needs. And Siberian huskies need lots of exercise.

“This was my dog’s idea.”

Back in 2008, when Richie was simply looking for a running partner, he found Koivu. Fresh out of college, Richie had plans to adopt a German shepherd puppy, but the breed was out of his price range. After some research, he decided to go with a Siberian, figuring that the dog would have enough energy to keep up on his “long” two- and three-mile runs. Richie traveled to Wisconsin to see some Siberian pups and left with Koivu.

“Even as a puppy, he would keep slamming into his collar, pulling as hard as he could,” Richie remembers. “And that was cute when he was 4 pounds. But then he got to be 40, 50 and 60 pounds, and it wasn’t so cute. My shoulder sure didn’t think so.”

It quickly became obvious that two miles wasn’t enough for little Koivu. The pair would get home from a run and Koivu would bound to the window and stare outside, wanting more, more, more. When left alone, Koivu’s endless energy manifested as destruction. He’d break out of his kennel, and good things never happened then! Angry neighbors would call the police and complain to the landlord. Not good times for man or dog.

The two-mile runs quickly turned into 10-mile runs, and Koivu never stopped pulling. Richie even switched to rollerblades from time to time, just to give Koivu something to pull. “He just sort of convinced me,” Richie says. “He was like, ‘You know, I want to be a sled dog.’”

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Koivu, the original Breakaway Siberian.

Richie’s early experience with Koivu convinced him that he wanted dogs to be his full-time gig, and once that decision clicked in his brain, his life changed rapidly. Just before Koivu’s second birthday, Richie went back to school to become a dog trainer. Not long after that, he took a job at a local dog kennel. There he met Leah, now his wife, and they bonded over a mutual love of dogs. The couple soon adopted a second Siberian, Fleury, from a rescue group.

Richie, Leah and Koivu had started a sled dog team.

Gimme shelter

Professional sled dogs are bred for the sport and begin socializing and training soon after birth. Richie and Leah, well, they went another way. Of the 13 Breakaway Siberians now living in the Camdens’ home, 10 are “rescue” animals, some of which had never been around other dogs or even been potty trained. So in addition to training the pack to be proper sled dogs, in many cases Richie has to continuously train bad habits away. The degree of difficulty is off the charts, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“While working with rescue groups, I saw so many dogs who had lost their homes for various reasons,” he says. “I’d see firsthand when owners who couldn’t handle their dogs would come in and just…say goodbye. It was super hard for the owner, obviously, but the dog would know, ‘I’m never going to see my person again.’ I see every day the toll a long-term stay at a rescue can take on a dog. I just watch their sprits break as they realize that they no longer have a human who loves them. That just makes me more motivated to rescue as many as we can.”

“I’ll never have another dog who’s not a rescue.”

The Camdens’ dogs come from an array of diverse backgrounds, and many of them had rough times before finding Richie. Backes, for instance, had been tied to a tree for his whole life, never even given a name. He was three years old when sympathetic neighbors turned him in to a shelter. Some of Richie’s adoptions sat in shelters for months, if not years, getting just two pee breaks per day. Hard times for dogs with boundless energy.

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Backes had it rough before being adopted by Richie and Leah.

Wherever they come from and whatever they’ve overcome, once they become Breakaways, the Huskies’ lives change for the better. Richie recalls the first time he took Spezza, a (now) six-year-old and the fastest dog on the team, out for a run. “Spezza gently pulled on his leash and when I gently told him ‘good boy,’ he stopped and looked back at me with an expression that said ‘Wait. You actually want me to run and pull?’ And with very little encouragement he took off, pulling and leaping with such happiness that he looked like a puppy with the zoomies. No intention to ever stop running.”

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Safe at home

Having 14 dogs in the house (13 Siberians and Leah’s little Pomeranian) would be a tall order for any household. Mix in an intense level of energy and a bunch of behavior issues, and the Camdens have their paws full.

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A happy, healthy home for everyone. (photo credit: Tim Camden)

“It’s everyday life for us,” Leah says. “Sometimes, I forget how not-normal it actually is until someone asks about it. But most of the time, it’s just our life.”

Training makes that life much more manageable. Richie quickly realized that routine and exercise is the salve that cures many behavioral issues. “Once these guys get the exercise and consistency of a daily routine, they excel and their bad habits disappear,” he says. “Once we start training for the season, they almost become like regular house pets.”

The big one

In early 2017, home life is calm for the Breakaways, because the team’s sixth racing season is in full swing. In addition to the Midnight Run in February, the team is running the Ironline Sled Dog Race, a 56-mile run in Iron County, Michigan, and the White Oaks Dog Sled Race, a 12-mile run in Deer River, Minnesota.

The Midnight Run is the big kahuna, the race that Richie is most looking forward to. The 90-mile trek brings the team full circle in a way, because it’s held in the town where Koivu grew up. It was also the first race that Richie and the Breakaways ever attempted. “Five years ago, we were incredibly undertrained,” Richie says. “But I was convinced we could finish a 90-mile race with six rookie sled dogs and a rookie musher.” Back then, not a single member of the Breakaways had been to a sled dog race before. For Mandy, the team leader at the time, the race marked the second time in her life she’d even seen snow.

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The first Midnight Run (photo credit: Leah Camden)

That race, well, it didn’t go so well. On the introductory one-mile loop, the team ran up into the crowd twice, because Mandy and Koivu (ever the friendly pups) possibly wanted to meet a group of kids. Or it might have been because the dogs were trying to get to the sidewalk, because they’d never run on snow before! Richie took the team’s cue and dropped down to the shorter race that weekend, the Jack Pine 30. They finished the race with just five dogs (the sixth, a lab mix borrowed from another owner, decided to hang back at the starting line with Leah). Koivu, Mandy, Spezza, Jared and Fleury won the Red Lantern trophy, the prize for coming in dead last.

It was the happiest day of Richie’s life.

Training Day

Richie and the dogs have put in a lot of time on the trails since that first race, but training isn’t easy. Living in Missouri means that there isn’t a lot of snow, and the warmer temperatures eliminate many days from being training days. Still, either riding behind the dogs in an ATV or on a specialized wheeled sled that doesn’t require that pesky snow, Richie keeps the dogs in racing shape as much as possible.

“During the season, we usually run three or four times a week,” he says. “Just being out there alone in the woods with the dogs and seeing them do what they’re bred to do…It’s an incredible experience.”

When the weather doesn’t permit the long runs the dogs enjoy (Koivu in particular needs a 40-mile session to even approach satisfaction), Richie and Leah keep the dogs stimulated by visiting schools and churches, giving educational presentations about the sport and preaching teamwork and discussing rescue dogs. They attend local events and maintain a positive presence not just in the St. Louis area but in any state they travel through, from Minnesota to Michigan.

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When not racing, the Breakaways visit schools, churches and hospitals (Photo Credit: Richie Camden)

“The dogs love meeting people and people like meeting the dogs,” Richie says. “It’s all part of providing a well-rounded life.”

Here and now

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The Breakaway Siberians are now sponsored by Diamond Naturals, makers of their favorite food!

The Breakaway Siberians have come a long way since that first race six years ago, when they’d never even trained on snow. They have a few dozen races under their collars, and while they still haven’t come close to winning, Richie is constantly told that he has the happiest team on trail.

Even though they don’t win many races, being a happy and well-cared-for team has attracted the right kind of attention. And for the 2017 season, the Breakaways earned an official pet food sponsor thanks to a photo Richie posted on Facebook. The dogs burn a lot of calories while training, which means they consume a lot of food. A LOT of food. More than 2,000 pounds of food per season, in fact. A photo of the dogs posing on their yearly supply of Diamond Naturals earned a response from Diamond Pet Foods, who will be with the team for 2017.

“This sponsorship means a lot,” Richie says. “Diamond shares our vision. They could have ignored our post and we would have continued to feed their food because it’s a great food and fit our budget. We are beyond thrilled and thankful to be teaming up with such an awesome company.”

Michigan-bound

When the Breakaway Siberians suit up in hopes of finishing a 90-mile race for the first time, they’ll have a fresh sponsorship in their pocket and never-ending optimism riding shotgun. Koivu and Spezza are the only “original” Breakaways who will make the run, but Fleury, Mandy, and Jared will bark along in spirit. Will they cross the finish line, placing a metaphorical bow on this first six-year chapter of the story? Will they finish higher than usual and avoid that special last-place trophy?

It doesn’t matter. Because Richie Camden and the Breakaway Siberians will carry on no matter what.

“Obviously, I want to see where we stand with the other teams, but I do it more for the happiness of the dogs,” Richie says. “As a pet owner, seeing the dogs so happy and excited…that’s all the motivation I need.”

Koivu, Spezza, Fleury, Mandy, Chara, Roenick, Cookie, Mikko, Backes, Marleau, Kaiya, Bure, Balto and Bebe all howl in agreement.

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