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Meet the Ohio native who just finished his 13th Iditarod

A team of dogs pull a sled down the start of the Iditarod trail. Onlookers crowd both sides of the snow-covered path.
Courtesy of Matthew Failor
Matthew Failor and his dog team start the Iditarod trail in Willow, Alaska.

An Ohio native finished a roughly 1,000 mile sled dog race across Alaska last week for the 13th time.

Matthew Failor, originally of Mansfield, completed this year’s Iditarod in 10 days, two hours and 35 minutes.

“It's a thousand miles of everything from the mountains to rivers, beautiful sunsets and the northern lights,” he said. “It’s quite the journey.”

He joined the Ohio Newsroom to talk about the experience.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

On the trail itself

“At the beginning of the race, I think it was about 20 degrees [with] a lot of snow. The trail was really punchy and slow. And then we crossed through the Alaska mountain range and there was like eight feet of snow — I mean, you're in a hallway of snow. Once you get on the other side of the range, there's a place called the Farewell Burn, where there was a natural forest fire that took out the area. That makes it very windy, and all the snow is blown away. So now you're running the dogs and your sled — your winter sled — on about 35 miles of dirt and rocks. Then you get to the coast. It's slippery, polished ice, open water crossings. You name it, we pretty much went through it.”

A man in a heavy blue winter coat with a fur hood poses for a selfie with a dog. The animal has snow and ice around its nose.
Matthew Failor
Matthew Failor poses for a selfie on the Iditarod trail with his dogs, Mach Ten and Sonic. Sonic is stealing the limelight.

On the biggest challenges

“Every musher deals with their own set of challenges. For me, sleep deprivation is a huge concern. Most of us get six, seven, eight hours of sleep at night. But in this race, you might just get one or two hours, and then you have to get up and go again. So fighting sleep deprivation is something that your body has to deal with. And then, the extreme cold. I got a little bit of frostbite on my fingertips this year. And I think I crashed my sled. I might have broken my knuckle this year. I have to go to the doctor, but it's still swollen.”

On how a Mansfield native discovered sled dog racing

“It happened just by accident. Actually, one of my good friends, who I went to high school with in Mansfield, got a job working in Alaska before me as a dog handler. And he came back from his summer job, and we met up while we were in college, and he told me all about his experience and he said, ‘I really think you'd like that.’ So I got a summer job working at a tour company with dog sleds back in like 2006, and pretty much have worked with dogs ever since.

An orange sun sets as dogs pull a sled on the snow-covered Iditarod trail.
Matthew Failor
The sun sets outside Golovin Bay, as Matthew Failor and his dog team travel along the Bering Sea.

From there, I met some Iditarod mushers — they were my coworkers and managers. And, one thing led to another. And once I graduated from Ohio State, it just snowballed. I got a chance to get in a race, and then I got qualified, and then after I finished my first Iditarod, I wanted to do it again. So I started acquiring some dogs and slowly built a kennel. And this has been 20 years in the making now.”

On what keeps him coming back

“We're now at a point where we breed and raise our own dogs. They're born in the house, and when they're old enough, they can go outside and we take them on walks. When they're around eight months old, we can put them in a harness for the first time and teach them how to run down the trail. It's a lot like a coach, playing with their players. You know, why does a coach want to coach basketball? It's because they love the game. They love coaching. They love seeing kids get better and learn. And it's the same thing. We love seeing the dogs grow. We love seeing them do what they love to do, which is to run and pull. I can't do it forever, but if I can afford it and I have good help and I have healthy dogs, then I'll continue to do it.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.