Brule musher eyes junior Iditarod

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Talia Martens, 16, is propelling her family's dog sledding tradition to a new level. The Brule teen, who has been surrounded by the sport since birth, plans to compete in the 2018 Junior Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska.

"She's got the spirit," said her mother, Janet Martens. "I just want to have fun, but she wants to compete. She's having fun doing it."

The family's 150-acre farm is home to horses, chickens, llamas and 18 sled dogs. Most of the dogs are Talia's responsibility.

"She spends hours with them every week," Martens said. "Individual training is really important."

In addition to taking them out on the trail, the teen trains her team of Alaskan huskies in obedience and agility — both at home and on the road — getting to know their individual personalities.

Talia and her team spend a week every month in Cook, Minn., training with mentor and Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champion, Jamie Nelson. The dogs have even joined Talia at Northwestern High School, running alongside during cross-country practice.

In return they pull as one, taking the teen on adventures.

"I love getting lost on purpose and trying to find my way home with my dogs, just the adventure and thrill of it," Talia said.

No matter what the conditions, they're up for the challenge.

"The first time I ran the Ely WolfTrack Classic, I was kind of nervous because everyone was like, 'Oh, the hills are so steep and sharp' and they were, and it was icy that day, but it was so much fun whipping around those corners, drifting, scared that I was going to flip over and lose my team," Talia said. "I just love the thrill of that. And it's just awesome, the best run I had. My dogs enjoyed it too."

The Brule teen has been competing in sled dog races since age 8 — the Bayfield Apostle Island race in Wisconsin and Minnesota races including the WolfTrack Classic, Mid-Minnesota 150 and last year's Junior Beargrease.

"It was a very challenging for me, physically and mentally, mainly mentally because I've never raced overnight before," Talia said. "I finished at 1 o'clock in the morning. It was hard to stay awake but I made different ways to keep myself awake."

Now, the young musher is preparing for her biggest challenge yet. The 150-mile Junior Iditarod is more than twice the distance of her previous races. Her family — father Tim, brother Morgan, 10, and mom — are firmly in her corner.

"She's a good kid," Martens said. "She's very responsible and determined, super determined."

A junior at Northwestern, Talia has already taken steps to facilitate the trip.

"My school is working with me to get time off of school and I did some online classes for school over summer so I got some of this coming year done with," she said. "I'm not doing any sports this fall or winter because of this. I want to focus on training."

Now, Talia is inviting the community to join the team. The family recently launched a fundraising campaign. They hope to raise $15,000 to bring Talia, her father and 12 dogs to and from Wasilla, Alaska, in February to compete.

"I think there's a bit of vulnerability to this experience because we're kind of depending on other people to join the team, to be part of our experience," Martens said.

Martens introduced the sport to the family. She learned how to mush sled dogs while working as a public health nurse in Bethel, Alaska. Despite the cost — $500 a month for dog food alone — it's been a family tradition for years.

"It's outdoors. It's away from electronics. It's exercise, promoting fitness, promoting nutrition," Martens said. It's also forced Talia to focus on the dogs she's caring for, instead of herself.

"And for a teenager that's pushing them outside of their normal comfort zone," Martens said.

Some of her friends think she's crazy, Talia said, but mushing is something she was raised with.

"It's kind of a wild thing to do, but you know some people spend that much on sporting gear, travelling for basketball or whatever," Martens said. "I think it'll be worthwhile in the long run — look good on her resume."

Mission Covenant Church in Poplar hosts an all-you-care-to-eat waffle brunch fundraiser for Talia's team 8:30-11:30 a.m. Sept. 23 at 5161 S. County Road P. The cost for the brunch is $8 for adults, $5 for children ages 5 and under, and includes waffles, sausages, toppings and beverages.

The event will also include a silent auction, sponsorship opportunities, gourmet doggie waffles and a chance to meet lead dog Keisha.

The Alaskan husky was a crowd-pleaser during a fundraiser kick-off event Tuesday at Fitger's in Duluth, offering dog kisses to visitors and standing quietly to be petted.

Visit Talia's Team on Facebook or www.taliasteam.com for more information.