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In Bethel, Alaska, on the edge of the frozen Kuskokwim River, Eagle Scout Matthew Failor stood poised to face off against 20 of the best mushers in the world. The then-28-year-old Ohio native had witnessed the sport of sled-dog racing from the sidelines, working for several years as a dog handler for four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser and Matt Hayashida, who’s also a top Iditarod competitor. But Failor had yet to toe the start line of an official long-distance race.
It was Buser, owner of Alaska’s Happy Trails Kennel, who encouraged the newcomer to try his own hand at racing. And so Failor — shepherding 12 of Happy Trails’ young B-Team dogs — took his place in the starting chute of the Kuskokwim 300 in January 2011. The rookie had a plan, hatched with the help of his champion mentors: Six of the eight females on the team were in heat, which could be used to an advantage when the dogs were harnessed in front of four male runners.
At least Failor thought this would be an advantage. “They were my secret weapon,” he laughs. “They were going to make the boys run a little faster.” One hundred feet out of the gate, the team of dogs transformed into an unruly mass of chaos. “Everyone was pointing and laughing,” he says. Failor untangled the dogs and still managed to finish the 300-mile race in 43 hours, 40 minutes and 22 seconds, earning him ninth place and a $3,400 prize. Race officials named him 2011’s Rookie of the Year.
The laughter of those onlookers didn’t deter Failor. In fact, that drove him to work even harder and strike out on his own as a competitive musher in the grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a near-1,000-mile journey pitting man and dogs against temperatures that dip far below zero. The course navigates from Anchorage, in central Alaska, to Nome, on the coast of the Bering Sea, crossing brutal mountain ranges — within view of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America — in addition to frozen rivers and fire-scorched tundra.
In 2014, Failor finished 15th and earned $20,000 in his first Iditarod with his own team, after completing the race with teams owned by other kennels in 2012 and ’13. He had a tough race in 2015 and finished 41st, and he is now set to race again in March 2016.
The musher’s confidence doesn’t just come from learning experiences like the one in Bethel, but also from his years in Scouting.
STANDING AMONG the dogs in his 17th-Dog kennel, based in Willow, Alaska, Failor is more than 3,000 miles from his childhood home in Mansfield, Ohio. It’s there that he attended weekly Scout meetings alongside his Scoutmaster dad and kept his backpack ready for weekend trips with his troop. Failor’s dad, Tim, says Scouting “showed Matt that you can love to be outside, and he truly does. The Iditarod is like the ultimate camping trip.”
Being in the outdoors was a natural part of growing up for Failor and his siblings, including three Eagle Scout brothers and a sister. “My troop would have a cooking competition. We’d build shelters out of sticks. We learned how to properly handle a firearm and even knife-handling skills,” he says.
And now, as an Iditarod competitor, Failor is faced with rapid-fire decisions on the trail that could cost him his dogs’ lives — or his own. Broken camp stove? Moose attack? What about creative fixes to repair a sled? Scouting prepared him for moments like these, he says, and more. “I’ve seen all of [these challenges] in different forms before, years ago in Scouting, and now it’s coming out while I’m racing.”
EAGLE SCOUT OR NOT, Failor admits that it took a while for his family to warm up to the idea of his racing sled dogs in the remote, frozen tundra of Alaska for days on end. “It’s far from what they know as a normal job,” the Ohio State University grad says.
So how did Failor wind up in Alaska? He’s got an easy answer: “I knew I wanted to work in the outdoors,” and Alaska seemed like a good place to start. As a 23-year-old college student, Failor picked up a summer gig working as a dog handler in Juneau for Gold Rush Sled Dog Tours, managed that year by Hayashida. The job came with plenty of perks, like scooping poop, grooming coats and preparing meals for 30-plus hungry mouths. That’s not to mention his accommodations: an A-frame tent.
Failor was hooked.
And his interest in sled-dog racing only grew when Hayashida asked him to serve as a dog handler during his preparation for and completion of the 2008 Iditarod. “He flew me all the way to Nome to see him cross the finish line,” Failor says. “It was a larger-than-life experience. They had spent nine to 10 days out on the trail, and it was hard for me to imagine what they’d been through. It made me curious and want to experience it for myself.”
It wasn’t until Failor crossed the finish line himself in 2012 that he realized mushing was his idea of a dream career.
His family was there to witness his achievement in Nome. “I finished 47th [out of 52 who completed the journey], but my family made me feel like I’d won the race. I immediately wanted to do it again,” he says. Since then, he’s completed three more Iditarod races, started his own kennel and worked year-round to train his team.
For this Eagle Scout, the rugged challenges of the Iditarod ignite a drive for pushing his team’s limits. And he says he’s only getting started. “I love the competition. But it’s more than that to me,” he says. “Traveling with the dogs; being out in the wild; getting my hands dirty … these are the things that draw me to this race and keep me coming back.”
FIVE FACTS ABOUT THE IDITAROD
1. While many think the race was started to commemorate the 1925 diphtheria serum run to Nome (made famous by the story of Balto), the race was actually created in 1973 to help keep the tradition of sled-dog travel alive after the popularity of snowmobile use spread across Alaska.
2. The race alternates between a northern and southern route because of the economic boost provided to small villages (used as official race checkpoints) along the way.
3. Although the distances of both the northern and southern routes fall short of 1,000 miles, the “official” race distance is considered 1,049 miles — symbolic of Alaska, the 49th state.
4. The southern route (raced every odd year) has 25 checkpoints, where teams check in with race officials, rest, and restock food and gear. Volunteer veterinarians examine every dog.
5. In 2014, Dallas Seavey recorded the fastest time of 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes. While he didn’t break his own record, Seavey took first in the 2015 race.