FORT KENT, Maine — Many people don’t know how much goes into sled dog racing. It is a lifestyle, a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week commitment where each dog becomes a child and you laud their achievements and mourn their missteps as if they were a son or daughter.
That is why it was so difficult for Larry Murphy of Fort Kent, who was taking part in the 250-mile trek in the 20th Can Am Crown International Sled Dog Races for the tenth and final time. Murphy, who was a teaching principal in Fort Kent and Eagle Lake, recently retired, and his dogs are retiring with him.
“It is definitely a bittersweet day,” he said on Saturday, prior to the start of the race. “These dogs have done so much for me. When I was packing up for this, it was hard to keep all of my emotions in check.”
The 60-year-old has been a musher since he was 48. A married father of three children, when his first grandchild was born, he ran one of the races with helium balloons on his sled declaring “It’s a boy!”
He now has four grandchildren that he wants to spend more time with, along with his wife, Irene, and other family members. Sled dog racing is not only time-consuming, he said on Saturday, its expensive.
“I’m retired, and I spend $700 a month on dog food,” said Murphy. “And life has really been on hold for 12 years, because being a sled dog owner is like owning a farm. Its hard to leave. You really can’t go anywhere because you have to find someone to take care of the dogs, and if you do find someone, you can’t leave for very long. Now we will have more time to travel, hike and bike and do other things. I am looking forward to it.”
But there is also a part of his heart that is being tugged toward the dogs.
“These dogs have done so much for me,” he said.
That includes helping save his life.
During his first Can Am, Murphy said that he began suffering from hypothermia and was starting to lose consciousness as race officials came to his aid.
“Every time I started to pass out, one of my dogs just went crazy,” he said. “He kept banging my sled, barking and raising a ruckus. He just wanted to keep me with him.”
Murphy said that he put in 1,400 miles of training for the 250-mile trek, which he said was a respectable number.
“Some of these mushers will have put in 2,000 miles or more,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do this race with much less than 1,400 miles.”
Although he said plans for retirement are firm, he also said that he has learned to “never say never.”
“If my grandchildren decide to take this up, I will help them as much as I can,” he said on Saturday. “I could also do a fun race with my dogs here and there.”
When he started to consider all of the lessons he has learned from sled dog racing and picked the most powerful ones, Murphy got choked up.
“I’ve learned that these dogs are incredible beings,” he said. “They taught me a lot; how to persevere [and] how to endure.”
“I cherish the time [spent with them,]” he said. “They have taught me a lot about myself — how to be a better person, a stronger, more courageous person at times, and to never give up.”