FAIRBANKS — It’s been a long time coming. Mushers always are searching for the next big challenge. Oftentimes, their motivation is to find a new trail to run or a different mountain to climb, something that will push them and their dog teams to the limit.
Matt Hall has found his next challenge. After earning one championship and two top-four finishes in the past three Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Races, Hall, of Two Rivers, is set to make his Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race debut this weekend.
Hall will be wearing bib No. 15 when the 67 teams leave Anchorage at 11 a.m. today for the 11-mile Ceremonial Start.
The 26-year-old said he’ll start the 1,000-mile race to Nome with 13 of the 14 dogs he used during his second-place finish in this year’s Yukon Quest, which started in Fairbanks and ended in Whitehorse, Yukon. He’ll also be joined by Ruby, one of the dogs on his team that won the Quest in 2017.
“It’s basically the whole (Quest) team, which is awesome,” said Hall, who owns and operates Smokin’ Ace Kennels in Two Rivers. “One of the three new dogs, Ruby, was actually on the team that won the Quest last year. She stayed behind with the young’uns when we ran the Quest this year.”
Hall’s team will be the 14th to begin the 1,000-mile race at 2 p.m. Sunday in Willow, about 70 miles north of Anchorage. Bib No. 1 is reserved for honorary musher Joseph (Joee) Redington Jr., the oldest son of Joe Redington Sr., the “father of the Iditarod.” Joee Redington died in August 2017 at age 74.
Although Hall previously has thought about running the Iditarod, certain circumstances kept him from the race.
In 2014, he captured the Quest’s Rookie of the Year award after finishing in third place. His strong performance made him feel obligated to return in 2015.
But his second Quest didn’t go as planned. Hall’s team scratched, and that left a sour taste in his mouth.
“That made me feel like, ‘Well, I’ve got to go back again,’” Hall said.
He finished fourth in 2016 before winning the 2017 Quest. After taking home first place, Hall, originally from Eagle, felt like it was finally time to give the Iditarod a shot.
“After last year, winning the race and seeing the team we had in front of us, with that team I couldn’t not do the Iditarod,” he said.
Now he is set to be one of 16 rookies in this year’s field. Among the other rookies is Shaynee Traska, who owns and operates Howling Ridge Kennel in Two Rivers.
Even though Hall has faced extreme weather conditions and harsh terrain during his four Quest finishes, there are certain aspects of the Iditarod trail that have him a little anxious.
“The biggest concern would be the coast,” he said. “Blizzards and whatnot don’t worry me, but this team I’ve got is a new generation of dogs that have been raised outside Eagle, where I did train on the Yukon River a lot, and I did train on American Summit. Even though that isn’t the coast, these dogs don’t have that experience.”
Throughout this year’s training, Hall wondered how he’d be feeling as he approached his second 1,000-mile race of the year.
But after finishing this year’s Quest in 10 days, 2 hours and 24 minutes, the Quest veteran said he and his team are well rested and ready for a new challenge.
“I felt really, really good coming off the Quest,” he said. “I’m going into the Iditarod with a really positive attitude. Throughout the season, I was like, ‘Man, what am I doing? I’m going to be feeling awful come Iditarod time.’ But the dogs feel good and we’re rested up.”
Although he admitted his kennel long thought about competing in both races every year at some point down the road, Hall noted the packing, preparing and training needed for both races has been a bit draining.
Still, he didn’t dismiss the idea of turning the two 1,000-mile races into an annual tradition.
“We’ll see how it goes after the Iditarod,” he said.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMSportsGuy.