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Mushers, dogs — and spectators — return for John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon

The 300-mile race will begin in Duluth on Sunday and end in Grand Portage on Tuesday.

A sled-dog team passes by a crowd of spectators at the start of the race.
Jennifer Freking waves to the crowd shortly after leaving the starting chute at Billy's bar in Duluth for the 2019 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in January.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Organizers and mushers are ready for spectators to return to the 38th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

And so are the dogs.

“The dogs pick up off that energy. You can see it, feel it when they’re getting cheered in when they arrive at checkpoints, and when they leave, there’s people clapping and rooting on the dogs,” said musher Ryan Redington, the 2020 and 2018 race winner and 2021 runner-up. “The dogs really feel that.”

This year’s Beargrease will begin at 10 a.m. Sunday at Billy’s bar in Duluth, where spectators will once again line the trail after being asked to stay away last year due to COVID-19 concerns. The nearly 300-mile race takes teams up the North Shore and ends in Grand Portage.

Organizers are still asking spectators to wear masks, especially in the shuttles and when entering buildings at checkpoints. They’ve also asked spectators to leave plenty of space between them and the volunteers and mushers.

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But Beargrease spokesperson Monica Hendrickson said the crowd that gathers at the start Sunday will be a welcome change from last year.

“That crowd gets pretty wild and the dogs feed off that,” Hendrickson said. “They know it’s race day and they love seeing all the people and everyone kind of feeds off each other's energy.”

'One of the most competitive races that’s ever been'

Last year, musher Erin Letzring won the race, beating Redington — her ex-husband — by just 7 seconds.

The two Alaskans will race again this year, but will face competition from a field of experienced mushers.

020321.N.DNT.BeargreaseC2.jpg
Erin Letzring reaches for her snow hook to hold her team during the 2020 Beargrease as defending marathon champion Ryan Redington’s team crosses the finish line. Letzring won the 302-mile-long race by 7 seconds.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Letzring will look to defend her title, but said her team of dogs is younger than last year, with newbies running beside veteran racers.

“You can only race the dog team you have and work with what you have in front of you — your furry friends there,” Letzring said. “And so there’s no point in being nervous because that’s just going to lead to all sorts of bad things. It’s better just to go in and not worry about any kind of pressure that somebody else might be putting on you there.”

Redington, who pulled two dogs from his team after they were injured in a snowmobile hit-and-run earlier this month, will replace them with dogs from his training partner Sarah Keefer’s team.

Keefer, from Burnsville, Minnesota, will also run the marathon, borrowing two dogs from fellow musher Wade Marrs, of Alaska.

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Marrs is one to watch. Although this is his first Beargrease, he placed fourth at the 2021 Iditarod.

Past winners that are entered to race the marathon include two-time champion Blake Freking, three-time champion Ryan Anderson and four-time champion Nathan Schroeder.

“I think it’s one of the most competitive races that’s ever been, at least since I’ve been running,” Redington said. “Competition is very fierce and it's going to be a really good race.”

Added Letzring: “There’s so many great teams in the field this year … champions as well as a whole bunch of returning veteran mushers that are great and new rookies that should provide a good challenge.”

Beargrease
Blake Freking, left, and Nathan Schroeder shake hands as they pass on a wind-swept Devil Track Lake on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. Freking was arriving at the Devil Track checkpoint; Schroeder had just left.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Warmer weather expected

Temperatures are expected to reach 20 degrees Sunday and the upper 20s Monday and Tuesday. Overnight lows are expected to be in the single digits Sunday into Monday while remaining in the upper teens Monday night into Tuesday morning, Greg Frosig, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Duluth, said.

Letzring said those warmer temps “are going to make it interesting” as dogs like running between 10 degrees below zero and 10 above.

“You just manage the team differently and make sure that you're running smart so that everybody stays cool and enjoys their time on the trail,” Letzring said.

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Hendrickson said the warmer temperatures could mean slower snow and more running during the colder parts of the day. Rules require teams to rest for at least 24 hours along the way.

John Beargrease mid-distance racer Rita Wehseler’s team
John Beargrease mid-distance racer Rita Wehseler’s team runs early in the 2019 race.
Steve Kuchera / file / Duluth News Tribune

“The dogs will be a little bit warmer so you’ll probably see the strategy where they will take their rest during the warmer part of the day rather than in the evening when it’s cooler,” Hendrickson said.

But for Redington, the warmth shouldn’t be a problem.

“I think my dogs are going to excel in it,” he said.

If you go

The race starts at Billy’s bar, 3502 W. Tischer Road, Duluth, at 10 a.m Sunday. Billy’s will be open at 7 a.m. The “Meet the Mushers” event will begin at 8 a.m.

Shuttles will begin running at 7 a.m. from the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Parking Lot W and leave every 15 minutes. The last shuttle will leave from Billy’s at 2:30 p.m. Masks are required on the buses.

Additional information, including estimated arrival and departure times and directions to checkpoints, can be found at beargrease.com/race-info.

Start — Billy’s bar
First out: 10 a.m. Sunday
Last out: 10:52 a.m.

Highway 2 Checkpoint
First in: 1 p.m. Sunday
Last out: 6:15 p.m. Sunday

Finland
First in: 6 p.m. Sunday
Last out: 2:18 a.m. Monday

Sawbill 
(Mandatory 4-hour layover plus differential)

First in: 3 a.m. Monday
Last out: 11:12 a.m. Monday

Trail Center
First in: noon Monday
Last out: 9 p.m. Monday

Skyport
First in: 8:30 p.m. Monday
Last out: 7:30 a.m.Tuesday

Mineral Center
(Mandatory 4-hour layover)

First in: 6:30 a.m. Tuesday
Last out: 3:30 p.m. Tuesday

Grand Portage — Finish
First in: 5:24 p.m. Tuesday
Last in: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Beargrease map 2022 vertical.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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