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Newcomer Braverman laments premature end to her Beargrease race

Feb 01, 2018 06:44AM ● Published by Editor

Musher Blair Braverman slaps hands with a fan shortly after starting the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

By Brady Slater of The Duluth News Tribune on January 31, 2018 

Author and musher Blair Braverman learned this week that even in a subzero winter race such as the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the coldest obstacle of all can be time.

Braverman was scratched from the race late Tuesday after falling too far off the pace.

"Last night at around midnight I was basically told to withdraw," Braverman said on Wednesday.

Mushers not within 12 hours of the leader are deemed "noncompetitive," according to Beargrease rules.

By the time winner Ryan Redington crossed the finish line outside Duluth at 5 a.m. Wednesday, Braverman was already out of the race. She submitted to the rule at the Sawbill Trail checkpoint outside Tofte.

In enforcing the rule, race officials told Braverman they could no longer expect volunteers to stay on the course. People such as volunteer veterinarians and emergency medical technicians would have needed to stay until Thursday, race director Jason Rice said, but were unable to do it.

"The good of many has to outweigh the good of the one," Rice told the News Tribune, adding: "We want everyone — in our hearts, we're pulling for every musher to finish. But the number of days off of vacation that people have taken are already pre-programmed. If we can't keep an area staffed, then we can't keep it staffed."

Braverman previously finished the Beargrease mid-distance race in 2016 — the same year her critically acclaimed outdoor adventure memoir, "Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube," hit bookshelves nationally. The book and subsequent popularity of a Twitter account she uses to document her kennel of sled dogs in Mountain, Wis., has made Braverman one of the most visible personalities in the sport.

Braverman made it about three-quarters of the way through the 373-mile race. She would have needed at least a full day Wednesday in order to race home through two final checkpoints while also resting herself and her team of dogs effectively en route.

"The most important thing for me is that when they took me into Sawbill, they were so warm and basically were like, 'Yeah, you're out of time,' " Braverman said. "They'd been warning me about that since Grand Portage (the halfway point), which really messes with your head."

Only six of 10 marathon starters finished the race. Braverman said race officials told her they would write her a letter of recommendation to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. She intends to participate in that iconic race across Alaska in 2019, and needs three major prep races such as Beargrease on her resume in order to qualify.

"My dogs looked amazing and I was going good," she said. "We didn't have to stop."

The 35 miles heading into Sawbill on Tuesday dealt Braverman her most serious setback when blazing trail through accumulating snow slowed down the team by half or more.

"That was a long haul," she said. "We were in a whiteout. But that's part of the sport."

She added that it was "amazing to go through the Sawtooth Mountains" with her dogs, and called the total experience "a joy."

"Everyone was so good-hearted," she said. But the competitor in Braverman also wondered aloud if the race risked curbing the development of rookies and young mushers by pitting them against world-class professionals such as Redington.

"He's a good friend of mine," she said, "but he's out there breaking records."

To illustrate the demanding standard that foiled Braverman in this year's Beargrease, consider Redington finished the race with 32 hours, 20 minutes of trail time. To get to Sawbill, Braverman used about 30½ hours of trail time, according to race statistics — and from there would have needed to travel another 103 miles.

"It's an ultramarathon," she said. "You're not competing with other people so much as yourself when you're learning."

Lisa Kaczke of the News Tribune staff contributed to this report.

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