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Teams hit the trail for 35th Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon

John Beargrease marathon racer Jennifer Freking waves to the crowd shortly after leaving the starting chute Sunday. Freking was the first racer on the trail. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 6
John Beargrease middistance racer Rita Wehseler’s team runs early in the race Sunday. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 6
John Beargrease mid-distance racer Kevin Mathis tops a slight rise early in the race Sunday. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service3 / 6
Obi-Wan Kenobi enjoys a pet before the start of the John Beargrease on Sunday. On the trail his name is shortened to “Obi” or “Angry Obi” for his displeasure with other dogs wanting to stop to poop. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service4 / 6
A handler feeds a dog before the start of the John Beargrease Sunday. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service5 / 6
John Beargrease 40 racer Alice White. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service6 / 6

DULUTH -- No matter where the spectators were from as they gathered Sunday, Jan. 27, for the start of this year’s John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the comments were so very Minnesotan.

“It’s not that bad out.”

The temperature at Billy’s Bar in Rice Lake at 10 a.m. was 13 degrees below zero.

“Could have been worse!”

But gather they did, hundreds of them, to wish mushers and their sled dogs on their way as the race kicked off on a very cold, very sunny day.

While some spectators mingled with mushers and met sled dogs outside, others enjoyed breakfast, beer and bloody marys inside.

First-timers Mike Dunnmon, Beth Sanders, Mikayla Lahaye and Matt Kaupa, all of Minneapolis, sat around a table in the bar, toasting the moment. None had heard of the race until recently.

“Your hairdresser told you about it,” Dunnmon said, looking at Kaupa, “and we were all like, ‘Let’s go.’”

The cold weather gave them pause.

“It was a consideration, but there’s dogs involved, so …” Lahaye said, smiling.

“I think we know how to dress, too,” Sanders added. “Had we not actually known to layer, this would be miserable.”

The cold didn’t deter Laura Vehe of Duluth from bringing her three children to watch the race start. They came to Billy’s Bar with her brother, Andrew Latenser of Duluth.

“The only reason we wouldn’t come is if it was canceled,” said Vehe, who estimated this was the family’s sixth Beargrease start. The kids have grown up with the tradition, she said.

“(We love) the excitement in the air,” Vehe said as the family finished their breakfast. “The start — I love the start, listening to how excited the dogs are, the barking.”

Vehe asked her kids what was their favorite part of the morning.

Jaynie, 5, and Waylon, 7, got right to the point: “The dogs,” they said.

On Sunday morning, the Vehe family was rooting for musher Ryan Redington. One of the kids’

preschool teachers is a handler for Redington’s sled dog team.

‘Excited and ready’

Redington himself was calm, collected and ready to race as he greeted friends and visitors on Sunday morning with his wife, Erin, nearby. He won last year’s Beargrease marathon and finished second in 2017.

“We look forward to this race all year,” he said. “I’m excited and ready to get on the trail.”

Redington, who lives in Alaska but trains in northwestern Wisconsin, is the grandson of Joe Redington Sr., founder of Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He finished 14th in that race in 2017 and started the race in 2018 but was forced to drop out because of health and safety concerns.

The Beargrease marathon route takes mushers inland through St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties before finishing at Grand Portage. The Beargrease 120-mile race takes teams along the same route but ends in Lutsen, while the Beargrease 40 ends in Two Harbors. Five junior mushers also are running the Beargrease 120.

This year’s marathon race is about 100 miles shorter than previous years and, unlike every past year, it won't come back to the start. Race organizers decided a shorter, one-way race could help breathe new life into Minnesota's most famous dogsled event, especially by attracting more entrants.

Next to Redington’s trailer, Jennifer Freking of Finland was busy putting booties on paws as spectators pet her dogs. Freking and her husband, Blake, both are taking part in the marathon this year; last year Jennifer did the 120 race. The couple’s two daughters, Elena, 8, and Nicole, 6, are older now, which means more time for the Frekings to train to run the full marathon.

“We’re really excited to be out on the same trail again together,” Jennifer Freking said as Elena talked with a visitor. “It’s a little different; we’re both kind of feeling it — when one of us runs, the other one is support crew. Obviously, I’m a pretty big asset when I’m in (Blake’s) pit crew and vice versa. Our handlers are awesome, but (we) can usually do the best job of checking the dogs and making sure the food is warm for the musher and stuff.”

From Georgia to Minnesota

Clear across the parking lot from the Frekings, Alice White was getting her dogs ready for the Beargrease 40. The truck attached to her trailer had Georgia license plates.

Does she train her dogs in Georgia?

“Not anymore, but I used to,” said White, who now lives in Ely. White ran her dogs on dry land before moving to Minnesota about 10 years ago. She used to handle, and then run, dogs for the Frekings.

“One winter there turned into two winters turned into being there full-time for a couple of years,” she said. “I was following them racing in the Iditarod and then I saw they were looking for a handler, so I emailed them, and the rest is history.”

Ready to race

As noon approached, spectators lined the raceway outside Billy’s Bar as mushers and their teams headed toward the starting line. The dogs howled as the American and Canadian national anthems were sung.

At noon sharp, a symbolic first musher — John Beargrease himself, the Anishinabe mail carrier who delivered up and down the North Shore by dogsled in the late 1800s — was sent on his way. At 12:02, Jennifer Freking followed. At 12:04, Ryan Redington. At 12:06, Blake Freking. Every two minutes, another musher until all 12 marathoners were on their way. The Beargrease 120 mushers followed, and then the Beargrease 40, headed for their first checkpoint along Lake County Highway 2 north of Two Harbors.

This year’s Beargrease marathon is the 35th; it was first run in 1980. The race was canceled some years because of a lack of snow.

This year's purse totals $30,000, with $5,400 to the marathon winner and $3,600 for the 120 winner, said Monica Hendrickson, Beargrease spokesperson.