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 am 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 everyone stays cool and enjoys their time on the trail,” Letzring said.
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.
“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.
The race starts at Billy’s bar, 3502 W. Tischer Road, Duluth, at 10 am Sunday. Billy’s will be open at 7 am The “Meet the Mushers” event will begin at 8 am
Shuttles will begin running at 7 am 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 pm 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 am
Highway 2 Checkpoint First in: 1 p.m. Sunday Last out: 6:15 p.m. Sunday
Finnish First in: 6 p.m. Sunday Last out: 2:18 am Monday
Sawbill (Mandatory 4-hour layover plus differential)
First in: 3 am Monday Last out: 11:12 am 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 amTuesday
Mineral Center (Mandatory 4-hour layover)
First in: 6:30 am Tuesday Last out: 3:30 p.m. Tuesday
Grand Portage—Finish First in: 5:24 p.m. Tuesday Last in: 10 p.m. Tuesday