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Community pulls for local musher

Maria Lockwood Talia Martens, 17, of Brule spends time with one of her sled dogs, Keisha, Thursday at the family farm. Martens, her father, uncle and 12 dogs are in the midst of a 3,100-mile trip to Willow, Alaska. She plans to race in the Junior Iditarod in February. Maria Lockwood

A team of athletes from the town of Brule is en route to making a dream come true.

Talia Martens, 17, aims to compete in the Junior Iditarod Feb. 24-25. Before she does, she'll have connected with some big-name mushers and tested her mettle in the wilds of Alaska.

Monday, she hitched up for a 15-mile training run in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, Canada at Streeper Kennels. She met sprint musher Bud Streeper and his father Terry, who paced her on snowmobile. The wind chill was minus 15.

"They have some awesome trails and they are great people who love dogs," Martens said in a Facebook message.

The teen plans to train near Denali National Park with Iditarod veterans Jim Lanier and Gunnar Johnson, bunk with Christine Stitt, who raised four mushers, and tackle three different races — the Northern Lights Race Jan. 27 and Willow Junior Race Feb. 9-10 as well as the 150-mile Junior Iditarod.

"I'm very excited to see how she does," said Johnson, Duluth city attorney. "No matter what, she'll come out of this experience different and a much stronger person."

"She will represent this area well."

Thursday night, signs outside the Brule Cenex and Twin Gables Cafe wished the musher good luck. A mile away, gear was spread out all over the Martens home as they packed for the Friday morning departure.

"We've got a list of things to bring that's about four or five pages long and it's still growing because we're still thinking, well what about if this happens," said Martens' mom, Janet. "First aid kits and fire extinguishers ..."

That's in addition to 1,500 pounds of Redpaw kibble, 500 pounds of ground beef, 600 dog booties, 12 dogs and Martens' new sled, built by Chris Evavold of Douglas County.

"You wanna see it?" the teen asked proudly, stepping into the trailer that will be home to her dogs for the next two months to point out the light, flexible sled.

There are challenges yet to come. Martens is the sole Midwest musher competing in the Junior Iditarod. All but three hail from Alaska.

"I'm impressed by her determination and her bravery to take this on," Johnson said, but there's no guarantee she'll be successful.

The terrain is beautiful but rough, weather can be wild and the competition is intense, he said. Martens is sure to encounter moose and other wild animals. This race kicks it up a notch from her past competitions.

"It's like the difference between a 5K and Grandma's Marathon," Johnson said, it can be something you race, or something you survive.

The teen's determination hasn't wavered, whether that meant completing schoolwork over the summer to prepare for the trip or taking the dogs on runs three or four times a week in the bitter cold.

"I'm always dressed for it so I'm never cold," Martens said. "But it's hard to get myself motivated to get all these clothes on and hook up everybody and run for six hours and then come back."

That drive, and a veritable village of support, has brought her to this point.

Family backing was never in question for the Brule teen, who has been competing in dog sled races since the age of 8. Her father Tim and uncle Mike Savage are in the process of driving the team 3,100 miles to Willow, Alaska.

Martens' mom will fly up to spend the week before the race with her, one of a rotating group of chaperones who will keep the teen company as she trains. One aunt crafted leather cases for the trail axes; another took on the role as photographer; grandma Phoebe helped pack.

Fellow mushers have offered Martens training, friendship and advice. The community's response, however, came as a shock.

People flocked to her first fundraiser, a waffle breakfast at Mission Covenant Church in Poplar. Local businesses and individuals stepped up to lend a hand.

"It's amazing. I should show you this," said Janet Martens, unrolling a canvas taller than herself. "This is a poster I had made for her to put up at the races. These are all the sponsors and people who've helped her."

Talia Martens said she was very grateful for them all.

"I wouldn't be doing this without their support," the teen said.

Johnson intends to track her race progress online in real time via satellite GPS at jriditarod.com. The same technology helped family and friends watch his progress during last year's Iditarod.

At one point, he spent 18 hours on the ice of the Bering Sea when his dogs shut down.

"Lots of people were with me that night," Johnson said.

The Junior Iditarod takes days and tracking it from the comfort of a warm home, Johnson said, is a lot of fun.

The Brule team is already sending back reports from the road, from the price of gas and a map of their progress to pictures of the dogs stretching their legs. Follow their adventure at taliasteam.com or Talia's Team on Facebook.

"I think a lot of people will be pulling for her," Johnson said.

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