First-time Iditarod musher sets sights on Nome's finish line

Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Judy Merritt is about to realize a dream.

After a long wait, the 41-year-old Moose Pass woman is finally setting out on her first Iditarod Trail.

"I don't know if it's really hit me yet," Merritt said. "The food drops, checks, paperwork, that's all hit, but I still have to tell my husband to pinch me. Is this really happening?"

Merritt had hoped to run the trail last year. Canceled qualifying races and an accident that shattered her knee kept her out of the race, though.

This year, however, things are turning around. The food is on the trail, the forms are signed, and Saturday morning she and her team of dogs will leave Anchorage to travel the 1,100 miles to Nome in the 29th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Merritt first picked up an interest in mushing 12 years ago from her brother-in-law. When she and her family moved from Denver to Moose Pass in 1993, she began raising dogs.

"Little did I know all huskies don't run," Merritt joked. "It's been a long, hard haul and a lot of learning."

Today, however, her kennel includes 45 dogs. Some, including two yearlings that will run the trail next week, Merritt bred herself. Others, such as lead dog Renoire, have been purchased from experienced breeders and mushers.

Renoire, for example, is a Tim Osmar dog. Scarface, a veteran of Paul Gebhardt's team, will run down Anchorage's 4th Avenue in the opening ceremony, but won't complete the race due to arthritis. Two other team members were purchased from Seward musher Mitch Seavey.

"She's worked hard," Seavey said. "Her goal is probably to make the trip and finish. I hope she does that."

Merritt said she does hope to finish, but she foresees some challenges along the way, including the weather along the coast.

"We haven't trained in that severe wind and temperature," she said. "Several of the young dogs have never experienced anything like that."

She hopes to simply treat this race as a training run learning as she goes.

"I'm trying to stay calm. The goal is not to stand at the start line and drink Pepto Bismol," Merritt laughed. "My goal is to just get to Nome with a happy, healthy dog team. The dogs are priority No. 1." "And," she added, "hopefully I won't be banged up too bad either."

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