ANCHORAGE Jim Warren's crystal ball was cloudy the day his wife spotted a musher driving a truck down a Michigan road, the dogs peeking out from a box in the back.
''She said, 'We need one of those and we can take our dogs with us,''' Warren said.
The only problem was Jim and Jennifer Warren had just one dog. A golden retriever.
A lot has changed in the last decade. Jim Warren says dog mushing has become ''the family obsession.'' He and Jennifer now have about 40 sled dogs.
And at age 59, the Linwood, Mich., man is the oldest rookie among the 87 mushers in the 2004 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts Saturday from downtown Anchorage.
''One of the things these guys tell me is I don't have this retirement thing down,'' Warren said earlier this week, sitting across from his son at a home where they're staying in Wasilla, close to Iditarod race headquarters.
When asked what his friends think, Chris answers for his father: ''They think he's nuts.''
Warren can sympathize with the Iditarod nonbelievers.
''Most people probably have better sense at my age,'' he said.
Jim Warren and his son drove 4,000 miles over nine days hauling 24 sled dogs in a candy-apple red trailer Warren once used for Pro Rally race cars to arrive in Alaska last week.
The road to the Iditarod has been a long but enjoyable one, for both the retired engineer and his family, 46-year-old Jennifer, 18-year-old son Chris and 14-year-old daughter Whitney.
The 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome the longest sled dog race in the world usually takes nine to 12 days. The trip to the starting line takes much longer, and it accelerated when Warren retired three years ago. When he isn't running dogs on trails at the family's Sled Dog Lodge near Lake Superior, he's busy managing the Warren Homestead Christmas Tree Farm.
Chris graduated early from high school so he could accompany his father to Alaska. He said one way or another he was going to be at the 2004 Iditarod. If his father decided not to run, Chris said he was going to find another way to be part of the race.
As it turned out, Chris has been hugely helpful to his father. That goes for Jennifer, too. Chris took over the tree farm business during December so his father could continue training. After his wife finishes her day job as a lawyer, she dons her coveralls and spends the evening in the dog yard.
''She cares for those dogs with a mother's passion,'' Warren said.
Warren is serious about his Iditarod run. He budgeted $25,000 just to run the this year's race and will need more. He's spent approximately $50,000 to buy sled dogs. His fastest dog is a 38-pound female named Utah he bought for $3,500 from three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King of Denali Park.
''She sure is a good leader,'' Warren said. ''If you had 16 dogs like that you'd win the Iditarod.''
The mushing obsession began percolating several years ago when Jennifer was recovering from a broken back suffered in a skiing accident. During that time, Jim and Jennifer shifted their focus from race cars to sled dogs. The family attended a sled dog race in Michigan in 1998. Soon afterward, they arranged to follow the 2000 Iditarod through a tour company. They were hooked. Then, there were a half-dozen trips to Alaska to buy dogs.
''We decided we should buy some real dogs go to Alaska. We never looked back,'' Warren said.
During the 2002 Iditarod, Warren was a dog handler for musher Al Hardman of Ludington, Mich., who also is entered in the 2004 race. Iditarod wannabes frequently offer to help handle dogs for mushers to learn about the race. During the plane ride home, Warren had a thought that stuck: ''I'm not getting any younger. Now's the time.''
Warren began serious training last September. His days began at 5:30 a.m. and finished after dark, filled with dog chores feeding, clipping toenails, poop pickup and training runs of four to five miles.
As the Iditarod drew nearer, his days got even longer. Eighteen-hour days were normal. He did overnight camping runs with the dogs to get them used to trail conditions. He would rest for a few hours in a sleeping bag on the ground and then hop back on the sled.
Warren trained five days a week and did dog chores the other two.
''The dogs get a little rest, but you don't,'' he said.
His dogs have put in about 1,700 training miles for the Iditarod.
When asked if he's up to the Iditarod at age 59, Chris answers for his father: ''He's tougher than he even thinks.''
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