KALTAG -- Pushing his "little-kid sled" through the woods of Knik, musher Wade Marrs used to pretend he was racing the Iditarod, imagining himself stopping at checkpoints enroute to Nome.
Fast forward to today, where the 24-year-old musher's dream has become reality. Marrs is racing his fifth Iditarod and passing through those dreamed-of checkpoints in an enviable position.
Marrs was the 11th musher out of Kaltag on Sunday morning, and he'd been hopping in and out of the top 10 over the last several days. With his short-run, short-rest strategy, Marrs appeared to be setting up his team of 11 remaining dogs for a strong run over the last 300 miles of the race.
"This will be my first time not coming from behind and doing good at the end," Marrs said as he packed his sled to leave a chilly Kaltag. "That's OK with me."
Marrs appears to be a rising star. He went from 32nd in 2013 to 16th the next year and appears poised to crack the top 10 this time.
He gives full credit to his team of small, fast dogs, mostly females between the ages of 3 and 8. His core group has been developing over the last few years.
"He's been saying all year that he was going to do real good this year," said fellow musher Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, who trained with Marrs in the Knik area. "And he's doing really good. I'm really happy for Wade. I hope for him I don't catch him."
Marrs' dog team is one he has a deep connection to. He first started mushing as a child in Knik, living just up the road from Joe Redington Sr., considered the father of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. At the time, the area was considered one of Alaska's major dog mushing communities and home to one of the race's first checkpoints at Knik Lake.
While mushing was all around him, Marrs was most inspired by his uncle, mid-distance musher Crist Marrs. From an early age, Marrs helped with his uncle's team. He said there are pictures of him as a youngster helping to line up his uncle's leaders even though the dogs were taller.
Crist Marrs died in a car accident in 2000 at age 28, leaving his 23 dogs to his sister, Eileen, Wade Marrs' mother.
Marrs said he relished training and caring for the dogs. The first year he had them, his mom rode in the sled with him, showing him the Knik-area trails.
Now Marrs has his own kennel, Stump Jumpin' Kennel, with dogs and bloodlines from his uncle, the Redingtons and veteran Iditarod racer Sonny Lindner, who is sitting out this year's race to Nome. It's a small operation, Marrs said, with he and his girlfriend, Sophie DeBruin, doing most of the training and other kennel work.
Despite his Knik connections, Marrs moved to Caswell, an area just north of Willow and the new heart of Southcentral dog mushing, last year. He said he's now neighbors with two-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey. He joked in Kaltag that in light of the current standings, he should pay better attention to Seavey. He says his team would have benefited from a few more training miles this season, maybe something he could pick up by watching how the veteran racer trains.
"Maybe I'll be on my couch with binoculars and watch him," Marrs joked. "When he hooks up, I'll be right behind him."