First-day jitters: Nerves, excitement as Beargrease gets underway

NORTH OF TWO HARBORS, Minn.-The dogs' yips filled the air as they strained against their harnesses, trying to pull sleds parked in place. The start of a run was near and they knew it.In single file behind the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon's s...
Blair Braverman slaps hands with a fan shortly after starting the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Sunday. This is the first time Braverman is running the marathon; she has run the mid-distance race. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

NORTH OF TWO HARBORS, Minn.-The dogs' yips filled the air as they strained against their harnesses, trying to pull sleds parked in place. The start of a run was near and they knew it.

In single file behind the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon's starting line, the excitement of dozens of dog teams was on display as they waited for their turn to enter the starting chute.

The moment Alaska's Ryan Redington left the starting line on Sunday morning, Jan. 28, Nathan Schroeder's dog team quickly moved in to take their turn at the start. The Warba musher hugged his kids and pet his lead dogs. The crowd began its 10-second countdown and the musher turned to pat his son on the shoulder. Now free to run, the dogs pulled Schroeder and the sled behind them and they began their 373-mile, three-day trek over the hills of the North Shore.

After months of preparing and training, it felt good to be at the start of Beargrease, Schroeder said before the race on Sunday.

"This is exam day and I guess on Wednesday, we'll see what we got on our test," the four-time Beargrease marathon champion said.

For the mushers, the hours before the race begins are a mix of excitement and anxiety, along with a desire to get on the trail with their dogs - all while trying to keep the dogs calm.

"Just trying to get everyone up to the line is really chaotic and there's volunteers and there's spectators. There's a lot that can go wrong. But once you're in the chute and you have your snow hook down and they're counting down, we're all just ready to go at that point. We just want to be out there," said Grand Marais, Minn., musher Matt Schmidt, who is racing in his second Beargrease marathon this year.

Martha Schouweiler, a musher from Irma, Wis., vying for her fourth consecutive Beargrease mid-distance title this year, said her heart will get "jazzed up" once she starts to hook the dogs to the sled and begins making her way to the starting chute.

"Once we leave the chute, everything will be OK. It'll probably take a few minutes; it'll take a little bit. But I try to mentally put myself in as much of a calm as I can be because I think the dogs will feel it," she said.

Schroeder said questions run through his mind before the race: "Do I have this? Do I have that? Did I do enough training with the dogs? Did I do too much training with the dogs? Are the dogs fit enough, are they fat enough, are they too skinny, just on and on and on. Is my truck going to break down? Is my trailer going to get a flat?"

The anxiety builds up and "everything seems to be in your way because you just want to go," he said. But once he leaves that starting chute, the worries dissipate, he said.

Ryan Anderson, a three-time Beargrease marathon champion, noted that while some mushers deal with nerves ahead of the race, he feels more anxious to get on the trail than anything else. Once he's on the trail, it feels like he's running his team like he does every day at home.

Anderson said he keeps an eye on his dogs as he moves his team from the pit area to the starting chute.

"Hopefully no volunteers step on dogs or the dogs don't slip or a bootie comes off. Just trying to keep the dogs as calm as possible so they're not breaking stuff. They get so excited that they can break the towline if they're hammering too hard. The last thing you want is a dog that's been healthy all year to get hurt this last 100 feet before you get to the chute, or your equipment to break," Anderson said.

Schouweiler joked that her dog team was probably more ready for Beargrease than she was. Her team was "fired up" and ready to get on the trail, she said.

"All of the mushers out here, we're working at it 365 days a year and then we get to come and show them off here. It's pretty fun," she said.

Schouweiler said that in the hours before she starts the race, she wonders about the trail quality and weather conditions and thinks through what she needs to do to get her team to the starting line.

"You also think about how refreshing it's going to be when you just get to go. You just want to be there. Leading up to it is a little bit ..." she said, finishing the thought with a sigh.

Schouweiler said she had good expectations for this year's race.

"I think that if we don't, we're in trouble," she said with a laugh. "But anything could happen real fast - that's dog mushing."

Rather than focusing on whether she'll take home another Beargrease mid-distance title, she said she'll be trying to keep her team's speed down on the first leg to ensure that the dogs have the energy for the rest of the race.

"This first leg, they've been rested and they're really amped up. I'll be working hard to manage the team and that's something that has taken me a while to learn," she said.

She noted that there are a few mushers who are nervous about racing in their first Beargrease this year and she advised them to keep their speed down at first, which is a mistake that she made during her rookie Beargrease, because it's hard to do.

Running in his first Beargrease mid-distance race this year, Travis Vanderwoof of Shell Lake, Wis., said that while he's been preparing for a year, really, he's been preparing for it for his entire life. He said he was excited and nervous at the same time on Sunday.

"It's been quite a long dream to come up and do it. I've been working pretty hard to make it happen," he said.

He grew up racing sled dogs in sprint races and then he decided to get back into it two years ago. This is the first winter he and his wife have had a full kennel that they can use for racing. He remembered the responsibility that he learned as a child helping out his dad in the kennel and he wants to teach his children the lessons he learned around sled dogs.

The stories he's heard about the toughness of the Beargrease's hills was foremost in his mind before the race on Sunday. He's been getting advice from his father, who competed in the Beargrease in 1990 and 1991.

"The biggest thing, I just hope I've got enough miles on the dogs so they can do it," he said.

Ultimately, he just wants to have fun and use the Beargrease as a training run for his team.

"I'm just excited to get out 10, 12 miles and I think everything will settle down and we'll get into a routine. The dogs are amped up to go," he said.

Schmidt said he was excited to compete in his second Beargrease marathon because he's looking forward to improving on the mistakes he made last year.

"I think I'm a little more calm than last year, just knowing what to expect more. My wife ran it two years before that so I've been watching her do it and together, we've come up with different strategies. It should be good," he said.