IDITAROD BUG'S GOT A GRIP ON RUNYAN
By Lew Freedman
Daily News Sports Editor
CLIFF, N.M.--He won 'em all, and then he got out.
Joe Runyan won the Yukon Quest in 1985, the Alpirod in 1988 and the
Iditarod in 1989 -- the triple crown of dog mushing. If he was not
the best musher in the world at the time, he was 1A to Susan Butcher.
And then he wondered if he really wanted to race huskies for the rest
of his life.
''I could be 65 years old and running the Iditarod or do something
else,'' Runyan said.
He chose something else.
Which explains in part how Runyan and his family come to be living
on an old dairy farm at the end of a dusty road 30 miles outside Silver
City. Not that it was a straight line from Nenana, Alaska, and the
sale of his dogs in 1993 to this corner of the American Southwest.
You might say the lanky Runyan, who might well seem at home in boots
and a Stetson, has the appropriate long-drink-of-water appearance,
and he half-jokingly says he is working his way up to cowboy status.
But from the moment he surrendered his huskies and went searching
for something else, Runyan, 51, has explored all types of off-beat,
''I'm an expert on new entrepreneurial ideas,'' Runyan said. ''I checked
out a lot of crazy ideas.''
Runyan, his wife, Sherri, and their four children -- Zac, 23; Seneca,
21; Zetdi, 13; and Zabeth, 11 -- lived in Alaska for a year after
he gave up mushing, but they have covered some territory since. Running
a fish farm in Mexico sounded good but didn't feel right. They raised
tilapia, a white meated perch, at Lake Guerero, south of Brownsville,
''The fish in the bible are probably tilapia,'' Runyan said. ''It
didn't feel like home, and it was real tough getting the fish across
Then Sherri managed an alligator farm in Alamosa, Colo. Keeping the
gators in check was something completely different.
''You've got to hit those big bulls over the head with a shovel,''
About 21/2 years ago the Runyans landed in Magdalena, N.M., and about
a year ago they bought this 150-acre spread in the rolling hills outside
the mining community of Silver City, where Geronimo, Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid and Billy The Kid once roamed.
On a recent day the sky was a clear, cloudless blue and the land appeared
bleached, the grass tall but yellow, the dirt dry and reddish. It
hadn't rained since August. The homestead is a work in progress. The
Runyans built a pink abode house, but there are older buildings nearby
and pens to hold the growing menagerie of beasts replacing sled dogs.
Among Runyan's business involvements are working on a project to develop
nutritional supplements for older dogs (you never really leave your
roots behind) and helping to plan a re-enactment ride of the cavalry's
pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916 from Columbus, N.M., to Parral, Mexico,
a 300-mile journey by mule and horseback.
One thing that sets the location apart from the Alaska Interior is
weather. Though they live at 4,800 feet and visitors from Silver City
must cross the Continental Divide at more than 6,300 feet to reach
the house, it was 55 degrees on a January afternoon. The same day
in Nenana it was about minus 40.
''There's always things you miss,'' said Sherri, though being chilled
to the core isn't one of them. A surprising number of Alaskans visit.
''They're not coming to see us,'' she joked. ''They're coming to get
Joe Runyan hunted moose and bear in Alaska. Here he hunts quail and
mountain lion, a new adventure.
''I like tracking them,'' Runyan said. ''It's pretty rough country.''
Instead of sled dogs, he trains hunting dogs and bird dogs. He has
a cage full of homing pigeons too, and family members ride two mules
and a horse. The Runyans live close to the Gila River in a wilderness
area that contains what he says is the largest diversity of nesting
birds in North America.
It is a distinctly different environment from the Iditarod Trail,
but for all of his gallivanting, Runyan can't make a clean break from
the race that made him famous in the 49th state. He has returned to
the Iditarod as a television commentator. He has returned to post
Internet reports from the trail. And he has returned to aid Kotzebue
musher John Baker.
''I still stay in touch with it,'' said Runyan, who hopes to be in
Alaska come March for another Iditarod. ''I'd like to get more involved
in officiating races.''
The other Runyans seem to have adjusted to new forms of transportation.
In Alaska, they might have harnessed the dogs for a ride through the
woods. In New Mexico, Sherri, Seneca, and Zetdi saddled up the mules
and horse for a ride through the cottonwood trees.
''Perfect ending to the story,'' Seneca said. ''They ride off into
And they did.
This column is the opinion of Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
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