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Beargrease sled dog race cuts its distance

John Beargrease marathon racer Colleen Wallin descends a hill on the trail between Poplar Lake and Grand Portage during this year's race. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

DULUTH—In an effort to attract more mushers and infuse new energy into their event, organizers of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon have agreed to shorten the iconic winter race that skirts the North Shore and evokes a historic mail route.

The race's board of directors voted unanimously this week to make the 2019 race between 290-300 miles — down from this year's 373.

Details of the new course and the likelihood of making Beargrease a 12-dog race instead of 14 dogs per team are still to be decided, organizers said.

The impetus for the change was the post-race mushers meeting following the 2018 race, which saw six finishers among only 10 entrants in the marathon race. Mushers recommended to the board that it make the race more attractive to participants by making it shorter.

"The goal is to get more teams to sign up and more teams to the finish," said board member Frank Moe. "(Mushers) want to see the race grow and the numbers have been pretty stagnant for quite a few years now."

Initial reactions from two of the race's all-time best, four-time champion Nathan Schroeder and three-time champion Ryan Anderson, were favorable.

"I think it will make for a better race altogether," said Anderson, who recalled having to be put on a waiting list to get into Beargrease during the race's boom times several years ago. Anderson favored more racers entering the marathon event versus seeing the same lot of 10-12 elite racers every year. He posited that the race could start in the Twin Ports area and ultimately finish at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino — one of the race's top sponsors.

Schroeder said he'd once been a purist about keeping the race near its historic 400 miles. But his own trials and tribulations with preparing dogs led him to come around on making Beargrease shorter.

"It's a wise decision," Schroeder said. "I was against it for years and years. But it's a good thing for Beargrease. Anything over 300 miles is a lot of extra work and nowadays a lot of mushers have smaller kennels. It's hard for them to prepare."

The move comes at a time when the popularity of the event's mid-distance race is swelling. There were 36 mushers and dog teams in the mid-distance race last year, Moe said, and 56 mushers all told, including those entered in Junior Beargrease. He called it a hugely successful campaign. The hope is that some of the mid-distance teams will decide to make the leap into the marathon.

"If some mid-distance mushers migrate to the marathon, that's great," Moe said, adding that the mid-distance race won't suffer for any defections. "That race is so strong that if a few did leave and run the marathon, it'd be no trouble at all."

Beargrease will run its 35th anniversary race in 2019. It's possible that with the shortening of the course it will no longer be the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states. The Race to the Sky in Montana is billed as a 300-mile race.

But Jason Rice, a past president of the Beargrease board, didn't believe that having the longest race was the point anymore.

"I look at it as keeping the race current — getting the people who are running 130 to 150 miles and getting them interested in a full marathon by dropping the miles," Rice said.

Rice was part of the group that saved the 2014 race after organizers, weary from years of low snow totals and waning sponsor participation, decided to cancel the race. Rice and a new board kept the race going. He left the board after the 2018 race in order to join ranks with the mushers. Rice will test himself on the new Beargrease marathon course in 2019, when he is expected to lead a team belonging to the kennel of defending Beargrease champion Ryan Redington.

Sources for this story described the difference between 300 and 400 miles as significant. Cutting roughly 100 miles eliminates an intimidating barrier for dogs and mushers, they said.

"400 miles — that's a lot of extra training," Schroeder said. "That's the point where dogs kind of mentally go downhill, and the musher, too. To train the dogs to mentally stay stable is a lot of extra work. Plus, it's a lot harder on you."

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