WASILLA, Alaska - For 44-year-old Mike Murphy of Newberry, Mich., getting to the starting line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was harder than the thought of getting to the finish line.
The prospect of challenging more than 1,100 miles of rugged Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter, which he and his 16 dogs are in the process of doing, was less daunting than was tackling the details of the beginning.
A broad, burly man with long blond hair and a bushy mustache, it is not surprising to learn that Murphy, with his weight-lifter build, was a former college and semi-pro linebacker and high school football coach. Because of his athletic career, he says he is used to pressure and competition.
"But I still was awed by the attention (mushers got) in Anchorage," he was saying the other day. Indeed, Iditarod mushers are giants up here, like stars of the NFL or NBA in the lower 48.
When Murphy walked into a gun shop in Anchorage to buy cartridges for his .44 magnum Smith & Wesson revolver (defense against possible moose attacks), the proprietor learned that Murphy was a musher from "Outside" (anywhere but Alaska). "He said, 'The bullets are on the house.'"
It took Murphy and a dog-handler, Carl Fuller of Manistee, Mich., six days of driving on the AlCan Highway to bring his Ford 4x4, equipped with a double stack of boxes rather than a pickup bed, to Anchorage from Newberry, a small town in eastern upper Michigan. "We pretty much drove straight through. I had to get here in time for the blood tests and electrocardiograms on the dogs." (Dog health and well-being is second to nothing in importance in the race).
"Beginning" is a good word, too, for Murphy is a rookie to the Iditarod, if not to mushing. He is at the bottom of the pecking order, has next to no chance of winning.
"Get to Nome," summed up his thoughts minutes before a team of handlers released his dogs at the official starting line here Sunday. Indeed, just finishing the Iditarod is an achievement, and one Murphy expects to accomplish. It gets people's attention.
Completing the race will give Murphy a certain status, and it may help attract a major sponsor - an achievement in itself and a major headache eased.
"If I had to buy all the equipment, it would be real close to $40,000." Not that he is ungrateful for the many backers in his initial efforts.
"The biggest sponsors were kids," said Murphy's wife Cathy, who flew up to meet him for pre-race preparations.
Murphy made a habit of accepting invitations to schools to talk about mushing and sled dogs, and he typically would take a dog or two with him as an icebreaker. It was a ploy, he said, that always worked. He has traveled as far south as Brighton with his school program.
In turn, as word of his Iditarod quest spread among the schools, so did fund-raising efforts to support him. Elementary school children in several communities, including the tiny Upper Peninsula village of Gros Cap, donated to the Murphy cause.
"They held bake sales, candy sales, movie nights," the musher said.
Murphy is carrying in his sled-bag the Cameron Elementary School (Gladstone, Mich.) mascot - Beanie Baby Nanook. It is sealed in plastic for safe-keeping. An Eagle Scout himself, he also is carrying a wilderness scouting merit badge for a young Eagle, among other mementos from supporters and friends.
Another major backer was Doug McNeil, a sled-maker from Listowell, Ont. He built and donated two sleds to Mike's cause. "They're 39 pounds each, including the 11-pound brake," said Cathy.
Currently a wilderness guide and rustic-furniture maker in upper Michigan, Murphy became interested in mushing and the Iditarod in 1987. He and Cathy kennel 40 dogs at home, all Alaskan huskies, a mixed breed not recognized by the American Kennel Club but which invariably wins races.
They brought 19 dogs to Alaska, and Murphy started Sunday with 16 of them, a full race complement. As part of the necessary equipment they had to assemble nearly 1,300 booties to protect each dog's feet from ice and abrasions. "What's 16 (dogs) times four (feet) times 20 (checkpoints)?" asked Cathy in figuring out just how many booties were needed.
"This is wild," Murphy said. "I'm having a good time, We want to get to Nome with as many dogs as we can. ("Dropped" dogs are well cared-for).
"It's like getting married. You plan it all year and you want it to be a good time."
Which philosophy fits well with his confident attitude about the trail. A veteran of a number of 200- to 300-mile races, Murphy tried to put the Iditarod into a mentally manageable perspective: "It's just three, 300-mile races (closer to four, actually) stacked together."
As far as negotiating the wilderness of dense spruce and birch forest, twisting rivers, high mountain passes, tundra, and seacoast ice, Murphy is not fazed.
"You're never lost if you don't care where you're going." He quickly explained that he is more interested in getting there than getting there first - at least this time around.
West Virginia musher quite a fan of Murphy
One of Murphy's most avid fans, Mark Corley, a Moundsville, W.Va., coal miner, was on hand to help handle Murphy's team at the starting line.
Corley also rode on Murphy's sled for 11 miles Saturday as an Idita-Rider during the race's ceremonial start in Anchorage.
"I'm the only musher in West Virginia," Corley said. "I've been wanting to go (as an Idita-Rider) since '96 when I got started." He met Murphy last year while on a vacation dinner cruise at Mackinaw, Mich.
So the coal miner put in a bid on Murphy for the ride-along fund-raiser. "He's the one," Corley said of his mushing hero.
Added Murphy about Corley: "He cried when he had to get off the sled."
Last year's 6th-place winner leading pack
RAINY PASS, Alaska - Mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race headed into the Alaska Range yesterday, with Paul Gebhardt leading the 80 teams into the Rainy Pass checkpoint.
Gebhardt, who finished sixth last year, arrived at the remote Rainy Pass Lodge at 11:01 a.m. Alaska time (3:01 p.m. Toledo time) with the 16 dogs he started the race with a day earlier.
Temperatures in the 30s forced mushers to slow their pace to keep from overheating their dogs.
"In the afternoon, if the sun's out, it's going to be really bad," Gebhardt said.
"You've got to be careful."
For two hours, Gebhardt, from Kasilof, had the stunning alpine views to himself, but then others started arriving. Three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park was second into the checkpoint at 12:57 p.m., followed by Mitch Seavey of Seward at 1:16 p.m.
Defending champion Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., was fourth at 2:06 p.m., about a half-hour ahead of five-time winner Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, and Ramy Brooks of Healy.
Another 13 mushers were climbing the 30 miles of trail from the Finger Lakes checkpoint to Rainy Pass.
A record 81 teams took to the trail Sunday from Wasilla to officially begin the 1,150-mile race to Nome.
The teams, which include 29 rookies, are competing for a share of a $525,000 purse, the largest ever. The winner gets $60,000 and a new pickup truck. Prize money will be paid to the first 30 finishers.