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You, Me and 53 Dogs

Liz Raines was three years into her first on-camera job as a political reporter at KTVA, the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, when a chance to cover the Iditarod, the nearly 1,000-mile dog sled race, landed in her lap in March 2018.

Winning the coveted assignment was “a shocker,” she said. “I never got to do fun stuff,” said Ms. Raines, 30. “I would have to go to these long legislative sessions that would run overtime.” When a colleague texted her the news, she thought she had been chosen because her bosses felt sorry for her.

Instead, her name had been pulled from a hat — a random pick that would set her on a course to a fairy-tale ending that would involve living with 53 dogs.

Matthew Failor, 38, a professional dog sledder was about to give a speech when he approached Ms. Raines at a pre-race Mushers Banquet in the Dena’ina Convention Center. “Liz was working with one of the veteran reporters who had been covering the race for a while,” he said. “She was beautiful, with this bright smile.”

ImageTheir wedding was held at the couple’s Willow home, which is also the site of 17th-Dog Kennel, and where Mr. Failor, a champion dog sledder, trains for the Iditarod.
Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

After he spoke and chose his racing bib number out of a mukluk boot, an Iditarod tradition, he returned to his table. “My mom and dad and all my sponsors were there. I told them I had just met the prettiest girl in the room.”

For Mr. Failor, then a veteran of six Iditarods, the banquet was business as usual. Ms. Raines had to find her footing and let go of some preconceived notions about mushers. “I kind of thought they were full of themselves,” she said. “I knew of some who wouldn’t talk to reporters.” She thought Mr. Failor might be one of them. “But then he introduced himself and our eyes met, and there was a spark,” she said. “For a few minutes, I forgot my co-worker was standing next to me.”

They didn’t see each other again until the ceremonial start of the race a few days later. Ms. Raines was scouting for interview subjects when she heard a familiar voice. “I saw her from across the road, where I was getting my dogs ready,” Mr. Failor said. “I shouted at her, ‘When am I going to see you on the trail?’ She said, ‘How about right now? Do you want to do an interview?’”

He did. Ms. Raines’s heart leapt. The short interview they filmed never aired, but Mr. Failor was only pretending to be interested in publicity. He thought of Ms. Raines throughout the 10 days, five hours and 53 minutes it took him to complete the 2018 race. (Among the 67 mushers, he came in 13th). Two days later, when his cellphone was back in service, he found her on Facebook and asked her for coffee.

Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times
Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

For Ms. Raines, then living in an apartment in Anchorage, the social media message came as a relief. “I told my mom, ‘He doesn’t have my number. How is he going to reach me?’” she said. “She said he’d find me through the station. I decided, ‘I’ll give it two weeks. If he doesn’t call me, I’ll move on emotionally.’”

After years of fits and starts on the local dating scene, Ms. Raines had gotten used to tempering her expectations. “If you’re a woman in Alaska, you always hear that ‘the odds are good but the goods are odd,’” Ms. Raines said. “I was a little cynical because of that saying.”

Mr. Failor, she said, is too Midwestern to be odd. He grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, with his parents, Cheryl and Timothy Failor, and four siblings. He started journeying to Alaska every summer in 2006 while getting a bachelor’s degree in fine arts photography at Ohio State University. Grooming and cleaning up after dogs for Gold Rush Dog Sled Tours in Juneau was a way to earn tuition money. Initially, the dogs held more appeal than the Alaskan lifestyle. “I grew up with yellow labs we would train to hunt for waterfowl,” he said. “I’ve always loved dogs.”

He didn’t fully appreciate the Alaskan culture until two years after graduating, in 2010, he made a permanent move to Big Lake to try professional mushing. “At first it was really hard — the cold, dark nights,” he said. “I didn’t have many friends up here.”

Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times
Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

Working with his mentor, the four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, was an incentive to stay. So were the people he met during his first Iditarod in 2012. “The whole idea of the race is to preserve the culture of dog mushing here,” he said. Along the rugged course, “you pass through about a dozen native communities. Part of the allure is these little native children who want to come out and meet the dogs and ask you for your autograph. It’s like you’re Michael Jordan walking down their street.”

Ms. Raines’s introduction to Alaskan culture came earlier. She was born in Tokyo and moved to Anchorage when she was 7 with her parents, Jane and Lloyd Raines, and three siblings; Mr. Raines, who retired from the Air Force, had been stationed in Anchorage. After graduating from La Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca in Spain with a journalism degree in 2014 and briefly working in Belgium, she didn’t expect to return to Alaska. Then the KTVA job came along, and with it a renewed appreciation for Alaska.

“You work hard for what you have here, and you value it more for that,” she said. “We know lots of people who built their own houses and drilled their own wells. We have to chop our own wood for our heat source. If you want to learn to be self-sufficient, you can put that into practice here.”

Dogs do not have to be part of the equation. But when Mr. Failor asked Ms. Raines for coffee in late March, he wanted to be up front about his devotion. “I thought, if she’s really going to understand who I am, I better bring some of my teammates with me,” he said. He loaded three dogs into the cab of his truck and drove to Anchorage from his home in Willow, about 90 minutes away.

Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

Ms. Raines was taken aback. “Before I met Matthew, I liked dogs, but I didn’t think I wanted to own one,” she said. “When I told my friends he brought three dogs to our first date, they laughed. I was like, ‘Is that weird? Is he going to be disappointed that I’m not a crazy dog person?’”

Her midlevel enthusiasm was good enough for Mr. Failor. By the end of the date, he was so certain he wanted to be her boyfriend that he broached a subject more suited to serious couples. “I told her I was going back to Juneau for the summer tourism season like I always do, and I asked her how she felt about long-distance relationships,” he said. Juneau is 850 miles from Anchorage.

“My friends thought I was crazy for even entertaining the idea,” Ms. Raines said. But that summer, what seemed a giant leap of faith paid off. “Doing long-distance solidified our relationship,” she said. Mr. Failor, living in a tent on a glacier, had to use a cellphone booster and stand in a certain position to get a single bar of signal so he could call her. But every night, he managed.

“I didn’t really grasp that, wow, this guy’s making a huge effort for me, until onetime the connection dropped,” she said. “He called me right back and said, ‘Sorry, I had to switch feet.’”

“When the booster wasn’t working, I would take the company snow machine over to the next glacier just to get a signal,” he said.

Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times
Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

As their devotion grew, so did a professional dilemma for Ms. Raines. “My career is one in which people move on to different markets every few years,” she said. “I told Matthew, I don’t think I’ll be sticking around Alaska.” She wanted to put her Spanish language skills to use in a bigger market like New York. But dog-mushing opportunities are few and far between in Manhattan.

Eventually, “Liz made the huge step of saying she would commit to staying here for a year or two,” Mr. Failor said. In September 2018, staying put seemed even more doable when she was named KTVA’s morning co-anchor.

In 2019, before Ms. Raines moved to the property in Willow Mr. Failor shares with his 53 dogs — some retired and some in training — they started shopping for diamond engagement rings.

“We very quickly found one in the shape of a snowflake,” Mr. Failor said. Ms. Raines thought he would propose over the holidays. When he didn’t, she predicted he was holding out for the 2020 Iditarod. Wrong again. On Jan. 19, Mr. Failor completed the Kuskokwim 300, a race he won in 2019 with the fastest-ever time, beating Mr. Buser’s previous record. That morning, he tucked the snowflake ring in his breast pocket.

“When we won that race before, she was at the finish line cheering us on,” he said. “I wanted to do it there because she was a big part of that win.”

Mr. Failor carried the ring for the 300-mile race; 50 miles before the finish line, he moved it from his breast pocket to the right pocket of his coat, where he usually keeps his hand warmers, to make it more accessible. He neglected to zip that pocket.

“It could have fallen out anywhere,” said Mr. Failor, who wound up finishing second in a tight race. But, when he reached for the ring after crossing the finish line, it was there.

So was Ms. Raines, who was so surprised when he knelt down and asked her to marry him she couldn’t speak. “I was crying and everybody wanted to see the ring and it was 20 below and I had lost my glove,” she said. “I couldn’t get the words out, but when I did I said, ‘Yes yes yes yes yes!’”

On July 18, at their Willow home, which is also the site of 17th-Dog Kennel, and where Mr. Failor trains for the Iditarod, they hosted an outdoor wedding for 85 guests who were largely unaffected by the coronavirus. The pandemic actually compelled them to keep their original wedding date. Mr. Failor’s parents had traveled to Alaska for the 2020 Iditarod in March and stayed, living with them at 17th-Dog since to avoid returning to higher-risk Ohio.

Ms. Raines wore a sleeveless white lace mermaid-style gown in a day with temperatures in the 60s. She walked down a white-carpeted aisle with her parents to an altar decorated with fireweed and roses. Mr. Failor, in a royal blue suit, awaited her with Mr. Buser, who was appointed a marriage commissioner by the State of Alaska for the event. DeeDee Jonrowe, a retired Iditarod racer and close friend, took part in the ceremony.

Just after, though there was no snow on the ground, Ms. Raines climbed into a caribou fur-lined sled with a team of six dogs leading; Mr. Failor stood behind her in his musher’s position. Before the sled, decorated with summer flowers, rounded the corner to where guests were mingling, Ms. Raines raised her bouquet in the air as the dogs rushed them to their finish line.

When July 18, 2020

Where 17th-Dog Kennel, Willow, Alaska

Tying the Knot During the ceremony, Ms. Raines and Mr. Failor each held a length of rope. After they tied the two together, Mr. Failor used the lovers’ knot to lead his team on the dog sled.

That’s a Good Dog In addition to a matron of honor, three bridesmaids and five groomsmen, Ms. Raines was attended by her “dog of honor,” Cool Cat. Mr. Failor was attended by his “best dog,” Shaun White.

News Flash A dessert table at the reception held cupcakes decorated with the words, “Breaking News: Liz and Matthew are married.”

Passing the Reins Daniella Rivera was one of Ms. Raines’ bridesmaids and among the KTVA colleagues who had hoped to be chosen to cover the 2018 Iditarod. “I’m so glad it worked out the way it did,” Ms. Rivera said. Even better, “I’ve gotten to cover it the last two years, now that Liz has a conflict of interest.”

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