Hundreds of spectators attended the start of the 36th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Although many were drawn to see an electric race, some attended for tradition.

With temperatures in the 20s on Sunday morning, the grounds outside Billy’s bar in Duluth were full of hundreds of people meeting dogs, mushers, handlers and teammates — all less than an hour away from the start of the races.

After meeting dog handlers and learning about dog care, Kathy Fast and her two granddaughters were standing near the starting line Sunday. She attended the race to start their own “up north” tradition of attending Beargrease.

“There’s not very many places that get to have the opportunity to see these beautiful animals and watch them go,” Fast said.

The Tonn family, from Rochester, Minnesota, were also in attendance. Their 6-year-old was gently petting one of the dogs from mid-distance racer Alex LaPlante’s team. He said enjoyed the dogs because “they’re soft.”

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Seeing the dogs in-person offered Michele and Michael Tonn’s three children an unmatched opportunity to understand how the dogs train and prepare for the race.

“We wanted to give the kids the experience of seeing what a sled dog race is or what it entails,” Michele Tonn said. “From a hands-on experience versus … on TV or in the media.”

Emily Bolia grew up attending the race years ago when it drew smaller crowds, she said. Now, to pass on the tradition, she brought her brother, Thomas, to the race. They were standing by the starting line, eagerly watching the teams line up.

“It’s good. A nice northern sport,” she said. “It’s a community thing.”

When asked what he was most excited for, Thomas only had two words: “the dogs.”

Tradition extends to the race itself

Every marathon begins with a symbolic sendoff of the first musher, John Beargrease, the Anishinaabe mail carrier who delivered up and down the North Shore by dogsled in the late 1800s.

With cheers from the crowd that lined the starting line Sunday, each team was then sent off in two-minute increments after Beargrease’s first run. This year, 14 teams are taking on the marathon race, while last year saw 12 teams compete in historic arctic weather.

The marathon course treks along the North Shore and the elevation varies by a total of 35,000 feet. This is equivalent to the teams climbing Mount Everest three times, according to an announcement before the race.

Marathon mushers run roughly 300 miles from Duluth to Grand Portage; finishers are expected to begin arriving early Wednesday morning. The mid-distance Beargrease 120 runs to Finland's Trestle Inn just south of Schroeder; finishers are expected early Monday. The shortest race, the Beargrease 40, ends north of Two Harbors.

This year's purse totals $25,000 — $5,000 less than last year's totals. The marathon champion will net $4,875 and the mid-distance winner will receive $2,625.

The Beargrease was first run in 1980. The race was canceled some years due to lack of snow.

Preparing for the race

Kaysee Miller and Avery Thiel, teammates of mid-distance musher Ryan Miller of Cook, were answering questions about the dogs and their preparation before the race Sunday.

“The dog sled community is like one of the best communities. Everyone really is here for the dogs, and they love dogs, and they want the best for the dogs. So when you love a creature so much, you just want to know about it,” Kaysee Miller said.

They’ve prepared for the race by running every day, and recently tapered off to ensure the dogs were rested, she said.

Although Ryan Miller was nervous for his first Beargrease race, his teammates said, the dogs were ready to race.

“Our dogs are ready, and we have faith in the dogs,” Thiel said.

Across the parking lot, mid-distance musher Sarah Keefer of Burnsville, Minn., discussed the trail conditions. She was pleased with the warmer temperatures and good base of snow.

Although Keefer has never ran Beargrease before, she helped Ryan Redington of Skagway, Alaska, race the Iditarod a few years back. Redington’s grandfather, Joe Redington, Sr., founded the Alaskan race.

“I've been mushing with him ever since,” she said.

Jake Hway, a member of four-time Beargrease champ Nathan Schroeder’s team, said the marathon lying ahead of the team is “a really tough race.”

“(Some mushers) think that they have what it takes, but it takes dogs that are used to the hills. Because it's not like they’re huge, long hills, but there's a lot of them that close together,” Hway said. “And a team that can switch from first gear to fifth gear … it takes years.”

However, he said their dogs “know what they’re doing” and their musher acts as an equal to the dogs, improving their team bond.

“(The) musher is keeping track of everything dogs need and organizing it so that they can run down the trail safely,” he said.

For Addyson Allsoe, 11, the chance to meet mushers was a glimpse into her future.

After her best friend died, she received a husky as an emotional support animal. And last Christmas, she got a sled, which she’s been using to practice mushing.

“This is a big deal for her to meet all the mushers. Someday, she wants to run the Beargrease,” her mother, Mindy Allsoe, said.

First, Addyson has her sights set on the 14-and-under Cub Run.

Follow the News Tribune for updates on the sled dog teams' progress during the marathon.