FAIRBANKS -- Like so many others in the military, Blake Matray has had to put his life on hold to support the war in Afghanistan.
Because of the war, Matray also had to put a dream on hold.
The Two Rivers musher and Alaska Air National Guard pilot withdrew from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this month because of an upcoming deployment to Guam.
''There's thousands of people whose lives have been disrupted as well,'' Matray said.
He's disappointed, but not devastated.
''I knew in the back of my mind this was a possibility. ''When duty calls, I go,'' he said. ''My obligation to the state of Alaska and the nation comes before any personal goals I have of running the Iditarod.''
The 34-year-old, who was born in Illinois, joined the 168th Air Refueling Wing at Eielson Air Force Base as a part-time KC-135R refueling tanker pilot so he could concentrate on preparing for the Iditarod.
Before that, he had spent 10 years in the active duty Air Force, nine as a B-52 bomber pilot. He's now a major in the guard.
''It's very difficult to have a full-time military career and be a long-distance competitor,'' Matray said.
He decided he could find balance between those two facets of his life by serving in the Alaska Air National Guard. ''This is about the only place where I could do both.''
He started mushing back in North Dakota, but finally decided he had to be in the thick of the mushing world.
So in August 2000, he loaded his life into a 24-foot U-Haul truck and dog truck and came north. His father came along to help drive.
''My dad still talks about that trip to anybody who listens,'' Matray said.
Going from the cold winds of Minot Air Force Base to Two Rivers was a fairly easy adjustment for Matray and his Siberian huskies.
''I'm half a mile away from (five-time Iditarod champion) Rick Swenson and Quest winners,'' Matray said in awe.
When he and about 200 others were activated to full-time status in October to help with the growing number of aircraft flying over the Pacific to support the war on terrorism, Matray pressed on with his dog-training and planning.
''You'd hate to stop training and have everything end,'' Matray said.
But that's not what happened.
In mid-December, he received word he would be sent to Guam early in the new year.
His deployment, he decided, will take too much time for him to run the Iditarod.
''The Guard has been supportive, but there's only so much we can do,'' Matray said.
He has 1,300 booties ready, and a host of other supplies. If everything goes well, he'll use them for next year's Iditarod.
And instead of refunding the normal $1,650 of the $1,850 entry fee, Iditarod officials gave Matray a full refund.
''We've never had anybody who had to withdraw from the race because of the military,'' said race director Joanne Potts.
So far, five people have withdrawn from the race. Potts figures 10 more may bow out before the race starts March 2. As of Saturday, 77 mushers were signed up to compete in the 1,150-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, 24 of them rookies.
Word of Matray's deployment spread quickly through the Two Rivers dog community.
''I've had calls from two other families offering to watch the dogs,'' Matray said.
But that honor goes to his next-door neighbors, the Lanigans, and Deb Lanigan's 14-year-old son, Jerod Worrell. Worrell feeds and sometimes runs the dogs when Matray doesn't have the time.
''I wouldn't have been able to do it without them,'' Matray said.
Before Matray moved next door to the Lanigans 17 months ago, their exposure to sled dogs was limited, even though they lived in dog-friendly Two Rivers. Since then, Deb Lanigan has incorporated Matray's Siberians into Worrell's home school curriculum.
Worrell will be a handler for Matray when he runs the Denali 300 in March, Matray's second Alaska race. He took the last-place red lantern in a tough field of 16 teams that finished the Tustumena 200 on the Kenai Peninsula last year.
But Matray had planned for 2002 to be the year for the Iditarod.
He's raised most of his Siberians from puppies and their average age is 5 years old. If he doesn't run the Iditarod soon, his dogs will be too old.
For Matray, the Iditarod is the culmination of his natural progression as a musher.
''It's progressively gotten out of control, like a small snowball that is rolling down a mountain and is now about two-stories tall,'' Matray said. ''Some days I feel like I'm running from it.''
He stared by racing three Siberians back in 1995.
''In Minot, North Dakota, there's a lot of snow and wide open spaces, so it's perfect. When you're at Minot, if you don't enjoy outdoor sports and recreation you're limited to what you can do,'' Matray said.
He doesn't intend to be a perennial Iditarod runner. He'll settle for a finish with his hearty Siberians.
''I'd like to go, just once,'' he said.
After that he'll settle into the normal routine of getting ready in the fall for a winter's worth of leisurely running his dogs.
''Sometimes there's a wonderful rhythm to'' the year, Matray said. ''I enjoy running the dogs for just the sheer joy of it.''
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