Beargrease Marathon update: Warm weather makes life hard for dogs, mushers
Eleven of 24 mushers remained in the race Tuesday afternoon.
ALONG THE NORTH SHORE — Thirteen mushers scratched by Tuesday afternoon in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, leaving a field of 11 still running the race.
Last year's champion, Erin Letzring, of Moquah, Wisconsin, and four-time champion Nathan Schroeder, of Goodland, Minnesota, were among the mushers who scratched overnight Monday or Tuesday. Joining them were Katherine Langlais, of Glenwood, New Brunswick; Kevin Mathis, of Monona, Iowa; Laura Neese, of McMillan, Michigan; Jesse Terry, of Sioux Lookout, Ontario; Nick Vigilante, of Ely; Andy Heerschap, of Nolalu, Ontario; Alice White, of Ely; and two-time champion Blake Freking, of Finland, Minnesota. Three other mushers — Ryan Redington, of Knik, Alaska; John Fisher, of Cook; and Mary Manning, of Hovland — had scratched earlier in the race.
According to Beargrease spokesperson Monica Hendrickson, numerous mushers scratched due to warmer-than-expected weather. Temperatures reached 31 degrees along the shore. The warmer temperatures make for soft snow, which is harder on a dog's joints. She described the snow like running through "mashed potatoes," causing dogs to run slower and burn out quicker.
"The mushers are making really good decisions for their dogs," Hendrickson said. "What I've heard from some mushers is that it's not worth an injury to their dogs."
She added the amount of dropouts is unusual compared to previous years — although she guessed COVID-19 restrictions and limitations on training for the past year are partially the blame.
Alex Angelos, a trail boss and judge for the race, also said warm temperatures were wearing down dogs, which typically prefer much cooler temperatures while the hard trail surface were causing sore joints in the dogs.
"It's kind of weird to have this many scratches," Angelos said.
The warm weather took its toll on two-time Beargrease champion Blake Freking's Siberian huskies. That caused him to drop out at the Skyport checkpoint.
He's run 17 Beargrease marathons and this was his first scratch.
"I don't have a lot of experience (with scratching)," Freking told the News Tribune at the Mineral Center checkpoint.
His wife, Jennifer, was still in the race.
Redington, whose dog team was reduced to six, scratched at the Trail Center checkpoint earlier Monday night, according to GPS tracking updates at beargrease.com/race-info/#gpstrackingmods .
At the Mineral Center checkpoint, Redington told the News Tribune that it was "a really bum decision" to scratch, but it was "the best decision for the dogs ... we got a lot of races ahead of us."
The dogs were getting sore shoulders when he pulled out of the race, Redington said. But by Tuesday morning, they were back to being energetic and looked to be OK, he said.
Redington left Trail Center and returned to the trail shortly after 5 p.m. About 10 minutes after leaving the Trail Center checkpoint, Redington arrived back at the checkpoint and withdrew from the race.
"I was down to six dogs — the minimum — and I had one that didn't need to go the whole way," Redington said.
Redington placed second in the 2021 race, finishing just 7 seconds behind Letzring. He said he'll race the Beargrease again next year.
In the lead Tuesday afternoon was Ryan Anderson, of Cushing, Wisconsin, who was 10 miles ahead of Wade Marrs, of Knik, Alaska; Colleen Wallin, of Two Harbors; Ero Wallin, of Two Harbors; and Sarah Keefer, of Burnsville, Minnesota.
Anderson and Marrs reached the Mineral Center checkpoint neck-in-neck for first place. Colleen was less than a minute ahead of her son, Ero, when they pulled into Mineral Center at 11:15 and 11:16 a.m. Tuesday. Keefer was about 10 minutes behind them. The Mineral Center checkpoint is the last before the finish line.
The 300-mile marathon started at Billy's bar in Duluth at 10 a.m. Sunday. Mushers are expected to arrive Tuesday evening at the finish at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino.
This story was updated multiple times, most recently at 3:50 p.m. Feb. 1, with new photos. It was first published at 12:21 p.m. Jan. 31.