A Brule teen capped off 2020 by racing over the snow of the Moquah Pine Barrens with a team of 13 sled dogs to train for the Jr. Iditarod.
Morgan Martens, 14, has been around sled dogs all his life. The first race he remembers running was the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race at age 6. He’s participated in the Bayfield County race six times and added the Beargrease 40 last year.
The best part of the sport, he said, are his canine teammates.
“Just being with the dogs,” Martens said. “Knowing all of them, knowing their personalities.”
Martens plans to run the Beargrease 120 later this month and the 150-mile Jr. Iditarod in February. It's a big step up from his previous races, he said, but it’s not unknown territory for the family. Martens’ older sister, Talia, ran the Jr. Iditarod in 2018.
Martens has been training four to five days a week while attending virtual classes through Northwestern Middle School. He’ll run his own dogs in the Beargrease, but will not be driving his team up to Alaska for the Jr. Iditarod like his sister did. Instead, he’ll be using a team owned by Ryan Redington, last year’s John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champion.
“It’s been really easy with Morgan. He has all the basics,” said Redington, who lives in Skagway, Alaska. “He knows everything. I’m just giving him hints here and there for the Jr., but he’s a consummate young musher.”
On Thursday, Dec. 31, the teen and Redington took their teams out for a 41-mile run, gave them a two-and-a half-hour break, then ran them another 41 miles.
The back-to-back runs simulate conditions on the trail and help train the dogs to relax in between legs of a race.
“If they don’t rest, they’ll get tired on the run and the next time you do it, they’ll know to rest,” Martens said.
Martens has been getting to know Redington's dogs, including lead dogs Bolt and Ghost; Quigley, who runs behind the lead dog; and a pack of Minions — siblings who were named after characters in the “Despicable Me” movies. The friendliest is Sven.
“He knows all my dogs' names very well. He picked up on that very fast,” Redington said.
The teen is also taking careful note of Redington’s advice. The Alaska musher won the Jr. Iditarod twice.
“Running a good race is keeping the dogs at a good pace and not too fast, too early. Being patient,” Redington said.
The Jr. Iditarod stretches just over 150 miles, so there’s a lot of race on the way back. Being patient and pacing the dogs allows them to finish strong.
Mushers have to be at least 14 to compete in the Jr. Iditarod. Martens could have put the race off for a few years. Why now?
“Why not?” the Brule teen said. “Ryan was here. It was kind of perfect.”
Redington has been bringing his dogs to northwest Wisconsin to train for the last eight years.
“I love this area for good lake effect snow, and I really love the Beargrease and participating in that,” he said.
The family has known him for a number of years, and he said he was happy to lend the teen a team and train beside him.
"When I ran Jr. Iditarod, I had mushers help me — experienced Iditarod racers like John Baker and Charlie Boulding. They gave me dogs to run," Redington said. "I like giving back like those guys that helped me."
Martens and his sister, who attends college at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, have set a goal to get 1,000 trail miles in before competing in the Beargrease, which takes place Sunday, Jan. 31. Visit the Talia's Team Facebook page to follow their progress.