Rounding the corner into Camp Dudley at Kiniya early Saturday morning, I saw it: A muscular woman sprinted across the dirt road and hoisted herself up a tall wooden wall with a grunt, a line of mud slicked across her cheek.
Her dog shimmied through a hole at the base of the wall and sat patiently below in the drizzling rain as she steeled herself up for the jump to the ground. With a thud, the pair was off again — scaling another wall, then another.
My folks, enlisted to snap some photos and cheer me on as I tackled the 1.5-mile Spartan-like course myself, turned to me with raised eyebrows. I shot a look back while internally questioning what exactly I’d gotten myself into.
Colchester Police Cpl. Dave Dewey had propositioned the idea weeks earlier. Instead of taking in the 18th annual Green Mountain Iron Dog competition as a spectator, I could see the course up close and personal as a participant.
One hurdle was immediately clear: My parents’ elderly Yorkshire terrier would not take kindly to being roused from her weekend nap, let alone being asked to (literally) jump through hoops.
But Dewey assured me plenty of trained dogs already on site would be willing to run the course twice on race day. With that, we had a deal.
Run by the Vermont Police K9 Association, the event was originally held at the academy in Pittsford, using the training obstacle course already in place and was reserved strictly for police dogs and their handlers.
Dewey agreed to take the helm shortly after its inception, so long as the event could come to Colchester instead. Soon after, a civilian with a fluffy white dog asked whether he could compete.
“Why is it just police dogs?” Dewey remembered asking. “No one could think of a reason.”
On Saturday, about three-quarters of the 150-plus competitors were civilian teams, Dewey said, stout corgis and pugs walking alongside stoic Belgian Malinois and German shepherds. For the second year in a row, participants were divided into “pro” and “open” categories.
“Though it’s based on a real life K9 deployment, it’s certainly grown to be more than that,” Dewey said. “We want people to come and just have fun … create and strengthen the bond with your dog.”
Still, the obstacles at Iron Dog aren’t for the faint of heart. To make the event more realistic, runners aren’t told what the course will look like in advance.
“When we’re on a track, we don’t know where we’re going,” Dewey said of police K9 teams. “We don’t have the luxury of seeing the obstacles ahead of time.”
I’d cheated the system a bit but still was wholly unprepared for the second half of the course by the time I lined up at the start late that afternoon.
Chris Crawford and her Belgian Malinois, Toska, graciously agreed to let me tag along. Still recovering from some health complications, Crawford asked if I’d be OK walking most of the course. I couldn’t reassure her quickly enough.
Toska took the lead on the first few obstacles, dashing through tunnels and balancing on beams with ease. She grew slightly impatient as Crawford and I went up and over the walls, putting her front paws up and straining to see the action.
“Isn’t that the dog who climbed the wall herself?” one course volunteer asked. Crawford’s husband confirmed the assertion back at the finish line.
New York natives, the couple treks several hours to Iron Dog every year, often helping to set up and take down the course, take photos and keep things running smoothly while nursing injuries of their own, more often than not.
The dedication didn’t go unnoticed. This year, Dewey gave the couple his “Never Give Up Award.” formed in honor of a previous competitor who ran Iron Dog while undergoing chemotherapy treatment and died two weeks later.
That camaraderie permeated the event from start to finish. One woman drove hours in a minivan packed with a half-dozen 8-week-old Belgian Malinois puppies that were put up for adoption out of state. Nearly all were spoken for by the end of the day, Dewey confirmed.
The Crawfords’ designation came among a series of other awards, including recognition for the fastest times posted on the main course, a 100-yard dash, “drug search house” and “suspect search house.”
Colchester’s own K9 Tazor took first prize in the last event, apprehending a “suspect” and returning to the point of entry. The popular pup was unable to run in the big event due to a recent surgery.
Nearing the end of our turn on the course, Crawford, Toska and I flipped tires, crawled through shallow lake water and scaled a set of stairs, my shoes filling quickly with mud.
It was Dewey who cheered the loudest as we crossed the finish line with wide grins moments later. A volunteer held out a shiny medal to Crawford. Without pause, she placed it around Toska’s neck.
In an interview Tuesday, Dewey divulged one other detail: The course, marketed as a 1.5-mile loop, was actually 1.75 miles long.
“In real life, you don’t know how far you’re going,” Dewey said. “You just finish.”