NYT > Sports
BIG LAKE, Alaska – When 14-year-old Morgan Martens stepped off his sled at the Junior Iditarod finish line after 16 hours 40 minutes 20 seconds of mushing, his grin was barely visible beneath his warm layers.
Aside from his winning time, he had accomplished a feat few 14-year-olds tried: leading a team of 10 sled dogs in a two-day race of nearly 150 miles through the Alaskan wilderness.
The Junior Iditarod, Alaska’s longest race for those under the age of 18, gives young mushers the chance to show off their unusual skills. You need to know how to steer a sled, use survival gear, defy freezing winds, and avoid hypothermia.
You need to know how to navigate the course and what to do if you get caught in a snowdrift or if the trail disappears. You also need to know their dogs well: which ones prefer fish over beef? Do your feet need ankle boots or is the weather too warm?
Ten mushers, ages 14 to 17, took up the challenge on a Saturday morning, a week before this year’s Iditarod, an 852-mile race that is currently taking place.
The junior mushers started at Knik Lake, an hour’s drive north of Anchorage, and snaked 75 miles to a remote lodge, where they camped out overnight in single-digit wind chill. After a mandatory 10 hour layover, they covered approximately 65 miles to the finish line at Big Lake.
Anna Coke, a 17 year old musher, has been playing for years.
She said she was inspired to watch the Iditarod as a child. “When I was 10, I said, ‘I’ll pray every night to be a musher,” she said.
Two years later she became friends with Jessica Klejka, an experienced musician from Iditarod, and has been training with her ever since. Coke makes daily trips from her house in nearby Wasilla to Klejka’s kennel in Knik and practically lives there in February. She spends all of her free time looking after the dogs and doing training runs.
She has led Klejka’s dogs in junior races for the past three years.
“Nothing in the world can beat being alone with your dogs and your team,” said Coke. “It brings you a lot of peace. And they urge you to become a better person through it. They rely on you and you rely on them. It’s a really nice picture of teamwork, perseverance and hard work. “
Many junior mushers train for years to make it to race day, and friends and family come out to support them on the start line before embarking on their two-day journey. “There’s a lot of work behind the scenes,” said Coke. “As a student, it’s a very, very big time commitment to muscle everyone in junior.”
For some attendees, the event marked the first time they had spent a night outside their parents.
Most of the junior race participants were practically born into the sport. Ava Moore Smyth, 14, from Willow, is a third generation musher: both parents ran the Iditarod, her grandfather ran the first Iditarod, and her grandmother was one of the first female mushers to finish the race.
Ellen Redington, 14, from Knik, is a fourth generation musher. Her great-grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., was known as the founding father of the Iditarod, and their parents met at Junior Iditarod in 1991.
Martens, this year’s winner, was the only non-Alaskan entrant. But the sport runs in his family. His mother, Janet Martens, competes in 20- to 40-mile races near the family’s farm in Brule, Wisconsin.
Morgan Martens also has the support of his classmates at home. “The headmaster sent an email to have my entire school watch,” he said.
The Junior Iditarod has been in operation since 1978, just five years after the first Iditarod. The race is supported by sponsors who help to award the prizes: the winner receives a new dog sled, a beaver fur hat and musher gloves. There is also a $ 6,000 scholarship available.
Before the start of the two-day trip, each musher was loaded with emergency equipment and each dog was examined by a veterinarian. While adults are on the track, including a racing marshal on a snowmobile, the young athletes also have satellite trackers for their safety.
The GPS tracker was a measure of security for Janet Martens. Even though her older child Talia rode the Junior Iditarod in 2018, she was still concerned about what Morgan would experience overnight.
“Is he going to get hypothermic walking all day, you know, 75 miles? Will he be sweaty and cold? “She said,” is he going to eat the food I sent with him or is he going to eat all of the candy? “
Their fears were allayed when Morgan Martens crossed the finish line. “I think he took a step into a more adult perspective to think about what he had to do and what responsibilities he had,” she said. “There are 10 dogs who depend on him and he took it very seriously. As far as that goes, he has learned many adult skills that most adults do not. “
All of the mushers were definitely done, some of them lasted over 20 hours on the trail. They faced icy winds, snowdrifts, vanished paths, and the occasional moose.
“It teaches you confidence and the ability to take things you couldn’t foresee and figure out, not just for yourself, but you have a team of dogs,” said Julia Redington, a junior Iditarod board member and Ellen Redington’s mother.
“They’re all competitive, but it’s also about the journey and exactly what they’re learning.”