Iditarod musher traded figure skates for dog sled, kibble plates

Special to the Daily NewsFebruary 24, 2014 

When Michelle Phillips made the drastic change from figure skating to dog mushing it pretty much meant that her days of shopping for sequins were over. She had become a Carhartt gal, someone whose reliance on blades shifted from doing figure eights on them to slicing up dog food with them.

There is no figure skating-mushing biathlon, and the sports are about as different as the Yukon Territory, where Phillips lives, and the humid, sticky air of India, where she once traveled during a period when her goal was to save the world rather than explore it from the back of a sled.

As Phillips prepares for her fifth Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, beginning March 1, and what might be her last 1,000-mile trek across Alaska for a while, she is focused on improving upon her disappointing 24th-place finish of 2013.

It's not always easy to determine if Phillips is down since she almost impossibly maintains a cheerful and perky exterior that matches the enthusiasm of Flo, the ever-present Progressive Insurance woman. No matter how fatigued she is or how bummed she may be about how a race is going, at checkpoints on the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest, where Phillips began her long-distance racing career, she is Miss Congeniality.

Under all of those layers of heavy clothing, though, there is a whole lot going on. At 45, Phillips has traveled a long and winding path. For one thing she has transformed from an ice princess indoors on a rink to an icicle at 40 below zero outdoors on the trail.

Figure skating?

"I was a completely different person then," said Phillips, who skated in the Yukon and often in Vancouver. "I was wrapped up in outfits. Figure skating was really hard. I couldn't handle the pressure. I was probably washed up when I was 16."

FINDING HOME

The switch from figure skating to mushing was gradual. In between, Phillips took a life timeout trying to find herself by traveling around the world to such places as Thailand, Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, Chile and India. She worked in mining camps. She traveled light and did volunteer work to help those in need. Nowhere did she find more poverty and need than Calcutta.

"It opened my eyes to the world and to who you were," she said. "I was looking for a new place to live."

Yet after she put all of those miles on her passport, Phillips returned to the Yukon. Compared to the hardships of so many millions of people in places where Phillips temporarily alighted when the globe stopped spinning, she concluded that the Yukon Territory was the right place to be. She had shed her restlessness and the strains of "O Canada" never sounded so good.

"I realized the Yukon was a pretty magical place for me," Phillips said.

Sixteen years ago Phillips met her partner, Ed Hopkins. They and son Keegan live in Tagish, a place that is a dot on barely settled land about 18 miles east of Carcross, where they operate Tagish Lake Kennels. The couple trains dogs and runs a tour business.

Phillips has entered the long races -- the Quest and Iditarod -- since 2004. Hopkins, a Quest and middle-distance veteran, was once a handler for four-time Iditarod champ Susan Butcher.

A feared competitor

Phillips' rookie Quest was definitely an adventure. She hadn't gone far before she thought, "Oh my god, I'm gonna die." Miles later on Eagle Summit, Phillips crashed into veteran Frank Turner's sled, minus the musher who had lost his team.

"I wiped out and got my foot stuck between the sleds," she said. "I had to crawl out. I had dislocated my shoulder. It still doesn't work as well as it used to."

Yet for all of the misgivings and the mishaps, Phillips finished eighth. That is testimony to what many can't read behind her smile and beneath a thick head of brown hair. An innate, hardcore competitiveness runs through Phillips family genes, from her parents to her brothers. They would as soon chop off one of their fingers as let you win at Monopoly.

Musher Kelley Griffin of Wasilla, a friend of Phillips' for more than a decade, said "Their family is brutal -- competitive. She looks all sweet and innocent, then she flips a switch. One time she got Sebastian Schnuelle in her sights (in the Quest) and her eyes turned red like a pit bull."

Griffin, a five-time Iditarod racer and Quest veteran, happily gloats over once getting the best of Phillips.

"I got her one time because she was sleeping," Griffin said. "She set her clock for Alaska time in the Yukon. She was fast asleep and that's all I needed."

Running the iditarod

Phillips switched from the Quest to the Iditarod in 2010 and her best finish of 16th came in 2012.

"The Iditarod is the top long distance race in the world," Phillips said of why she had to make the move. "I wanted to see what it was all about. I wanted to see the trail. There's more things going on in the Iditarod, the wind, the coast."

Schnuelle, another musher, who lived in the Yukon before moving to Alaska, followed the race on a snowmachine as a blogger- photographer last year, but couldn't pinpoint why Phillips faltered in the late going. He said he bumped into her later in the spring and talked about it, but she couldn't fathom it either.

"She's competitive and she really wants to do well," Schnuelle said.

Griffin admits that while it may not be a deep, dark secret, a new acquaintance may not find out about Phillips' figure skating past immediately. Schnuelle, taking note of how Phillips does the dress-up thing at Quest and Iditarod banquets, said he can envision a time when she was more obsessed by outfits, saying when Phillips dresses up, "You see a whole different side of her."

That's the idea, since Phillips is involved in a sport where wardrobe selection normally means choosing between Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean.

"We're the Distance Divas," Griffin said of Phillips, Jodi Bailey and herself. "We're known for getting dressed up." The gowns and other accoutrements on display are generally purchased at Goodwill or Value Village. "If we can, we keep the outfit under $20, including the shoes."

A perfect finish

While Phillips has always earned top-30 money, she said she may take a break from the Iditarod after 2014 unless she earns a better payday because it is so expensive to enter and contend.

Yet she loves being with her dogs, enveloped in the cocoon of silence of the backcountry, amid the mountains and fresh snow covering the land.

"I remember once thinking, 'It's sunny. I have my dogs, I have my dog food,' " Phillips said. "It's beautiful country. It was one of those epiphanies."

Maybe it was because the snow sparkled in the just-so light like those long-retired sequins.

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