Shorter Beargrease marathon will be one-way race

Iditarod-qualifying dogsled race will start near Duluth, end at Grand Portage.
The 2019 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon will start at noon Sunday, Jan. 27 at Billy's Bar just north of Duluth and end, probably sometime Tuesday, Jan. 29, at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino. The race is now one-way and about 100 miles shorter than previous years. File photo / Forum News Service

DULUTH — The 2019 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon will start Sunday, Jan. 27, just outside Duluth and wind its way to Grand Portage, about 100 miles shorter than previous years and, unlike every past year, it won’t be coming back to the start.

Race organizers decided a shorter, one-way race could help breathe new life into Minnesota's most famous dog sled event, especially by attracting more entrants.

Last year only 10 teams entered the 400-mile race, and only six finished — about half the number of early years of the race. This year, 12 teams are entered in the marathon and most are expected to finish the shorter, roughly 300-mile course.

This will be the 35th Beargrease marathon first run in 1980. The race was canceled some years due to lack of snow.

This year’s purse totals $30,000, with $5,400 to the marathon winner and $3,600 for the 120-mile mid-distance race winner, said Monica Hendrickson, spokesperson for beargrease.

The Beargrease marathon had been the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states. That distinction now falls to a Montana marathon with the Beargrease shortened. The 300-mile Beargrease, however, is still long enough to serve as a qualifying race for Alaska's Iditarod.

The Beargrease marathon will start at noon Jan. 27 at Billy’s Bar just outside Duluth on Jean Duluth Road. The 120-mile race and 40-mile race will start at the same place after the marathon racers leave.

The 40-mile race ends at Lake County Highway 2 just north of Two Harbors. The 120-mile race ends at the Lutsen ski hill. The marathon will end at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, probably sometime Tuesday afternoon.

The race will take much the same route as usual to start, from Duluth to the Sawbill Trail on the North Shore State Trail, then veer north to Trail Center on The Gunflint Trail, head back south to Devils Track Lake near Grand Marais and then continue east to Mineral Point and then on to the finish line at Grand Portage.

Beargrease race officials first announced the shorter race last summer and decided since to make it a one-way race. A shorter, two-way race would have had to skip several North Shore communities that have historically been part of the beargrease tradition, Hendrickson said.

“The shorter race was really requested by the mushers,’’ Hendrickson said. “It’s getting harder for a lot of them to train for a 400 mile-plus race. A lot of them don't have snow as much, or as early, and training on wheels just isn’t the same. So this was really driven by what the mushers wanted.”

Veteran musher and Beargrease regular Frank Moe of Hovland said the shorter race is less of a crush on dogs, handlers and mushers.

“To me it's a big difference training a team to run 300 miles versus almost 400,’’ said Moe, who also serves on the Beargrease board. “One less night out on the trail will make it easier, especially for my main handler, my wife Sherri.”

In addition to the dozen teams in the marathon, there are 24 teams entered in the 120-mile mid-distance race, including four junior mushers under age 18. There are 21 teams entered in the 40-mile rec race and there were 21 teams entered in the Mini-Musher race last weekend, all under age 15.

Moe said the heavy snowfalls of early January in Lake and Cook counties have mostly settled and trails that were nearly impassable for a while are now “starting to set up” well for mushing. Frigid temperatures forecast for for the marathon are actually welcome to keep the trail fast and keep the hard working dogs cool. From now on the biggest impact that weather might have is a significant snowfall just before the race.

“When we get a lot of snow right before or during the race, then it can really slow things down. The more soft snow on the trail, the slower everyone goes,’’ Moe said, adding that most mushers try to train for varied conditions.

“In the end, more snow (before the race) is better than not enough. When it snows heavy up here we take the dogs right out into it because we don't want the first time they see deep snow to be during the race. In the end all mushers have to run on the same trail,’’ Moe said. “With so many years lately where (lack of) snow has been an issue, you won't hear many mushers complaining about too much snow.”