A love of Jack London, the great outdoors and a dog team inspired this family to chase a big dream.
Todd Capistrant, D.O.’97, grew up enthralled by American author Jack London’s stories of men and animals against the environment and survival amid hardships. Growing up in St. Paul, MN, he embraced winter. Still, that doesn’t fully explain why he and his wife, Anne, in 1996 responded to a classified ad posted by a Wisconsin teacher with a sled dog team for sale.
“We picked up the team not knowing anything about dog teams, but we were living on a little farm so had the space,” he says.
Which also was unusual, in that both Todd and Anne were city kids. In addition, Anne grew up in Madison, WI, terrified of dogs. So perhaps it’s their love of science and the outdoors that explains it. The couple met at the Itasca Biological Station in northern Minnesota where Todd was finishing an undergraduate degree in biology and Anne was doing research for her Ph.D. in ecology. When he moved to Des Moines to attend DMU, their aging black Labrador, Kizzy, stayed with Anne, then teaching biology at Dana College in Nebraska.
“He began following her around and did wonders to erase Anne’s fear of dogs,” Todd says.
Apparently so. Not only did they later establish a “hobby farm” with pigs, poultry, rabbits and a huge garden in northern Minnesota, they founded and began expanding a kennel, Hoof ‘N’ Woof Sled Dogs. They traveled to Alaska several times to train their dogs. They eventually bought some Alaskan huskies from top mushers – the human component of a sled dog team – who’d competed in the Iditarod, the most famous of all sled dog races.
“We figured if we were going to get into this, we might as well buy good dogs. It’s kind of like trying to breed an NFL football team,” Todd says. “Running the Iditarod was a dream. Owning a dog team and running them was an achievable part of that dream.”
The couple attended seminars to learn all they could. Todd’s medical background and insights on how human marathoners eat and train helped. “The maintenance of the dogs’ health is so important to the team but also to the sport of sled dog racing,” he says. “You can’t just buy a bag of dog food off the shelf, feed it to a dog and expect it to run 100 miles.”
In February 2002, Todd and the Hoof ‘N’ Woof dogs made their debut in the Norman Vaughan Serum Run, a dog mushing expedition that commemorates the mushers who delivered life-saving diphtheria serum to Nome, AK, in 1925. Later that winter he raced in the Denali 300, placing sixth.
The couple returned to Alaska in 2003, when Todd raced in the Copper Basin 300, the Knik 200 and the stuff of legend, the Iditarod. To help raise money for his participation, the Capistrants produced t-shirts with the phrase “Embracing Dreams” on the front.
“We often visited middle schools with that message,” Todd says.
The historic Iditarod covers more than 1,150 miles of Alaska’s roughest, most beautiful terrain, from jagged mountain ranges and frozen rivers to dense forest and desolate tundra.
“You’re immediately in a special group of people if you qualify for the race. Fewer than 700 people have finished it. More people have reached the top of Mount Everest,” he says. “The time, energy and effort it takes to get there, plus the bond you have to have with your team, are major. You go through some pretty alarming terrain and extreme emotional highs and lows. You go through one stretch and everything’s perfect, then you wake up the next day and your best dog is hurt and you’re feeling at the bottom.”
He knows what he’s talking about. The year 2003 brought a “horrible season” for dog-sledding, Todd says, with more rain than snow. His dogs became sick, forcing the team to scratch. Still, by then the Capistrants felt connected to the dog-racing world. He ran the Iditarod in 2004 and Anne completed it in 2008; each finished, coincidentally, in 66th place.
“It’s a huge, amazing experience,” Todd says. “It took us years to build to that level, then once you’re in it, it’s surreal, running out of downtown Anchorage with all these people screaming and yelling at you.”
It was during that trip that the Capistrants decided to go whole-dog: They moved Hoof ‘N’ Woof and their two daughters, Rose and Grace, to Healy, AK. These days, with their kennel of 30 dogs, they run two or three teams per day, starting with three miles and then building up to 100 miles in a season.
“It’s an all-encompassing life. You’ve got 30 dogs clamoring to go out for a run,” Todd says. “You can’t just take one dog on a walk.”
The couple does much more. Twice a day, Anne milks their 11 goats, turning the results into cheese. She cures bacon from their hogs and home-schools the girls, now ages 9 and 11. The couple makes wine and beer as well as honey from the bees they keep.
And then there are Todd’s other jobs, as director and board member of Tanana Valley Clinic, 90 miles away in Fairbanks, and regional dean for Pacific Northwestern University. In 2010, he became the second physician in the U.S. to become certified to
teach seminars on the fascial distortion model (FDM), an anatomically based perspective for envisioning and treating orthopedic injuries and other medical conditions. He’s presented on it at DMU, around the United States and this summer at the FDM World Congress in Austria.
“FDM has become a huge part of my medical career,” says Todd, a recent recipient of the Northwest Osteopathic Medical Foundation’s Rising Star Award. “It’s a really powerful tool we’re trying to get into the hands of more people.”
Doing so is a challenge with his practice and the family’s “all-encompassing life” of canine mania. Todd is proud their daughters have “really embraced it.” The girls likely are inspired by their parents’ example.
“Getting that first team of dogs was all about following our dreams. What other people thought really didn’t matter to us,” Todd says. “I didn’t want to reach a point in my life only to look back and wish I had done the Iditarod or purchased that first dog team…By setting goals and reaching for them, we have been able to be very successful and blessed here in our lives.”