Urbanite answers call of wild and becomes top dog sled racer

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Even as a child growing up in Cambridge, Mass., Susan Butcher knew she really belonged somewhere else. ``I loved animals and the outdoors,'' she recalls. ``I felt very confined by city life. In first grade I wrote things like, `I hate the city.' By fourth grade it was stuff like, `I hate the city because society is ruining the earth for animals, and people who live in the country are happier.'''

The little girl who was to become the world's most famous dog sled racer also realized early on that she had a very special affinity for the canine species.

``I had my first dog when I was four,'' she says. ``When he was 6 and I was 10, Cambridge put in a leash law. I was told I had to give him up. I said I would train him, but everybody said it wouldn't work. I was just a kid, he was too old to learn new tricks, all that stuff. But I took him to obedience school and taught him to be on a leash. It was perfect. Just perfect.''

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But this was just the beginning. More and more as she grew up, Susan felt an inexplicable call to a different life.

``I saw a race in Laconia, N.H.,'' she remembers, ``and I said to myself, `That's what I'm going to do.''' By age 16, she was living with a grandmother in Maine, where she got her first husky pup. At 18 she went to Colorado and moved in with a woman who ran a kennel with 50 siberian huskies. But even that wasn't enough.

``I had to get in a truck to get to trails,'' she recalls. ``I said to myself, `I know there's a place where there are thousands of miles of trails.'' So at the age of 20, she moved to Alaska.

In the 13 years since then, Butcher has become one of her adopted states's most celebrated citizens - and lately her fame has spread well beyond its borders. Last year after becoming the first woman and only the second person to win the Iditarod Trail race twice in a row she was named Professional Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation and met with President Reagan at the White House.

Now it is time again for the world-famous 1,150-mile trek through the Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage to Nome. And as Butcher and her team await tomorrow's start, she has a chance to become a full-fledged legend - the first musher of either sex to win the gruelling race three years in a row.

``I know it's going to be tough,'' she said in a recent telephone interview from Alaska. ``Everybody is going to be gunning for me, wanting to knock me off my throne. That's the way competition is supposed to be. I look forward to it. I have one of the best teams in my experience. But there are a lot of good mushers out there. If we knew the outcome now, we wouldn't have to run the race.''

Butcher has come a long way since her arrival in Alaska back in the mid-'70s. She started out with a job at a musk ox farm, but as soon as she could she went on her own. ``I was up there to mush dogs, not to make money,'' she says.

And true to her early childhood preferences, she has continued to stay as far away from city life as possible.

``The first five years I lived 'way out in the bush, away from any roads, with my nearest neighbor 50 miles away,'' she says. ``It was a culture shock just to go into Fairbanks.''

Her current home is also quite isolated - a tiny wilderness community called Eureka, where she and her husband, David Monson, operate a kennel with about 150 dogs.

``We have three neighbors within a seven-mile radius,'' she says. ``We're all mushers. In the winter, the mode of transportation is dog sled. The mail comes in 25 miles away [a little town of 100 or so residents called Manley]. That's only a two-hour mush. I can use that as a training run. The post office has a hitching post - just like in the old West, only for dogs instead of horses. It's a way of life in our neighborhood, and in a lot of Alaska.''

It's a hard life - 12 to 16 hours a day, with no letup. But Susan loves it, and the feeling she has for her dogs comes through whenever she talks about them.

``We're very close to our dogs,'' she said in Boston during one of her infrequent trips away from home recently. ``We're with them all day. That's all we do. It's all anybody up there does. I know all the dogs of my neighbors, and they know mine. It's the main topic of conversation.''

Asked how many dogs she knows, she replied:

``Maybe 1,000 around the state. I have my best friends and my `relatives.' I also sell a lot of dogs. I find old friends all around the state, and when I see them it's a high. I've also been beaten by my friends. But you have to be proud of that too.''

The love she has for her dogs makes it particularly difficult when she has to select a team.

``It's really heartbreaking to have to cut any of them,'' she says. ``They know what's going on; they understand a lot. They're bred for racing, they have the desire to run and pull, and they don't like being left out. One of my best leaders wouldn't pay any attention to me after I left him at home once. He was furious. The handlers said he howled the whole time I was gone, and I had to take him out on a 50-mile run before he'd act normal.''

Susan and David compete in numerous races each year - partly, she says, so that all of her ``friends'' can get a chance to run in at least one - but of course the Iditarod is the climax. Known as ``the last great race,'' it forces mushers and dogs to brave the Alaska Mountain Range, the frozen Bering Sea, snowstorms, temperature fluctuations from 50 below zero to 40 above, winds up to 100 miles per hour, and wild animals that can be dangerous.

Butcher found out about the latter in terrifying fashion in 1985.

Having started racing in the Iditarod in 1978, she was by then one of the best mushers around - a perennial Top 10 finisher, runnerup in 1982 and 1984, and one of the favorites. She was leading in the early stages when a huge moose inexplicably charged her team, killing two dogs and injuring 13. Another musher who had a gun finally killed the animal, but Butcher was out of the race. Then in a last ironic twist, Libby Riddles, became the first woman winner.

``It's hard to be beaten any way, but it's really tough to be beaten by a moose instead of a person,'' Butcher says. ``The fact that it was another woman didn't matter - just that I didn't win. I still knew I was the best - I just had to prove it ...''

This she did, winning the 1986 race in a record 11 days, 15 hours, then shortening that to 11 days, 2 hours last year.

Preparing for the race, Butcher says, is strictly an all-year-long proposition.

``I go 70 miles a day, take out five to 10 teams a day. I start with short runs, then build them up to 25 miles and more. We train very much like marathon runners.

``In a sense, mushers are like coaches. We pick the players, teach them the best way to do it, and train them physically.''

The training pays off in a race like the Iditarod, which will tax even the most physically fit canines and humans.

``The regular routine is four hours on, four hours off,'' she says. ``During running time, I stop every hour or so, check their feet, let 'em roll around. On rest stops I bed the dogs down, but while they're sleeping I make a fire, melt snow, cook food, and take care of the sled.

``I kept a record last year, and during the entire 11 days I had 22 hours of sleep. That's the hardest thing on the musher - working hard, freezing temperatures, and no sleep. You have to be focused and very single-minded, and not even think about quitting. You can't be thinking, `I could be sitting in a nice warm bathtub.' If you do that, you're lost.''

Now that women have won three years in a row, Butcher is frequently asked if she feels they have an advantage.

``Women do have an extra layer of body fat, and some people feel that is really good for maintaining warmth during the race,'' she says. ``Otherwise, they haven't found much. We're equally good in stamina and training animals. And you don't have to be physically strongest or fastest. It's an equal competition.''

As for the future, she doesn't see much change on her own horizon.

``I get to town every couple of months, and down to the lower 48 a couple of times a year - and every time I do, I'm thankful I live where I do,'' she says. ``I hope to grow old in Alaska. You hear story after story about the great old-timers. I plan to be a great old-timer too!''

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