FORT KENT, Maine — When Lara Renner was 5 years old she found a stuffed husky dog toy in her family’s basement.
She hooked it up to a cardboard box and made believe she was mushing across the living room floor.
Seven years later, she has traded in the box for a real sled and dogs and on Saturday will compete in the Can-Am Crown 30-mile sled dog race.
Now 12 years old, Renner is the youngest competitor among the three races that make up the annual Can-Am Crown.
In addition to the 30-mile event, there are 60- and 250-mile races all starting on Main Street in Fort Kent at 8 a.m. Saturday.
“We really thought she’d eventually grow out of wanting to actually run dogs,” Lara’s father and fellow musher Steve Renner said Friday at Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge.
The two had just completed a mandatory veterinarian check of the team and were taking a few moments to chat with veteran musher Spencer Thew who, at 73, is the oldest competitor this year.
“I think it is wonderful you can have people of all ages compete as equals regardless of age,” Thew said. “I have a lot of respect for Lara’s commitment.”
The younger Renner has been racing for two years around New Hampshire and so far the Can-Am 30 will be her longest race.
But her sights are set much further.
“I want to do the Iditarod,” she said.
In 1993 — nine years before Renner was born — Thew completed the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod that runs from Fairbanks to Nome, Alaska, finishing 51st out of 69 teams.
On Friday, after finishing up with his own team’s veterinary check, Thew was more than happy to pass along some Iditarod words of wisdom to Renner.
“Complete commitment and focus,” Thew said. “When you are training get up thinking ‘Nome,’ go to bed thinking ‘Nome’ and in between think how you are going to get there.”
Once he decided to race the Iditarod, Thew said he spent the next two years training in every condition and terrain possible.
It worked. He is among an elite few who have finished that race with all 16 dogs with which they started.
“When we came in to the finish, the mayor of Nome told me I had the best-looking team he had ever seen,” Thew said. “The dogs looked so good, I wanted to tell the officials I was going to turn around and mush back to Fairbanks.”
Commitment and focus are two things his daughter has in abundance, Steve Renner said.
“She’s out there every day with the dogs,” he said. “Feeding them, brushing them and working with them.”
Thew said he began mushing about 30 years ago as a way to spend more time outside and away from his desk job as a civil engineer.
A fun hobby with two dogs soon blossomed to a life’s passion, and today he owns and operates Call of the Wild Kennels offering sled dog rides and adventures.
There are 28 Siberian huskies in his kennel, down from an all-time high of 60 dogs when he was training for the Iditarod.
Lara Renner’s plush toy dogs gave way to the real thing two years ago, the same year she received her first dog sled — a shining new state-of-the-art carbon fiber racing sled — on Christmas morning.
“There was not enough snow to run any dogs that morning,” she said. “But my sister and I would take that sled to the top of a hill and then ride it back down.”
After his daughter leaves the start line in Fort Kent on Saturday, Steve Renner said he will spend the time until she crosses the finish “biting my nails.”
Both father and daughter then plan to compete together Sunday in the first Can-Am skijor races, which is when skiers are hooked up to one or two dogs.
Thew had plenty of trail tales to share with Lara Renner on Friday, including the time in Alaska two moose charged his team and he was forced to turn around and beat a hasty retreat.
“But that was not [the most scared] I’ve ever been,” he said. “While I was up in Alaska running the dogs one night we saw fresh grizzly bear tracks on the trail. That was scary.”
Even though she’s been at it a fraction of the time Thew has, Renner has some pretty good stories of her own.
“I ran into a cow at my last race,” she said.
According to Renner, her dogs were running the trail along an electric fence when the lead dogs suddenly veered off under the fence.
“I had to crawl under the fence after [the dogs] and there were these two black Angus cows,”she said. “Then all the dogs wanted to go to the cows.”
About 10 minutes later a race volunteer came along and helped Renner get her team away from the cows and moving down the trail.
The dogs “kept wanting to go back to those cows,” she said. “It took them about 2 miles to really get racing again.”
Meeting and overcoming obstacles like that is a big part of mushing, Thew said, adding with a laugh, Renner’s cow experience was “good practice for moose.”
“You really learn who you are out there,” he said. “It’s life-changing.”
Before parting ways, Thew invited Renner to come train with him anytime and gave her a scanned image of his Iditarod finisher’s belt buckle.
“Put that up on your wall or bulletin board,” he said. “Make it your goal.”
Looking back on his career, which has included two Can-Am Crown 250 finishes, Thew said he does not see himself stopping anytime soon.
“Would I run the 250 again?” he said. “Yeah, I kind of think I have to.”
As for Renner, her journey behind a team of dogs is just beginning and she can’t wait to see where it will take her.
“I’m living my dream right now,” she said. “For as long as I can remember, this has been my dream.”