Skip to main content

Boreal Community Media

John Beargrease Marathon shorter this year, starts Sunday, ends in Cook County

Jan 25, 2019 07:16AM ● By Editor
John Beargrease mid-distance racer Erin Becker crosses Poplar Lake shortly after dawn during the 2018 race. Duluth News Tribune file

By John Myers from the Lake County News Chronicle - January 25, 2019

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 should 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 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 Sunday at Billy's Bar just outside Duluth on Jean Duluth Road. The 120-mile mid-distance 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, Jan. 29.

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 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. That was the only way to keep all of the North Shore communities involved in the race, Hendrickson said. A shorter, two-way race would have had to skip several communities.

"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 musher's wanted."

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

"To me it's a big difference training a team to run 300 miles verses 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, all under age 15.

"We're seeing a lot more kids get into the sport, and taking it pretty seriously, with a lot of good mentoring going on,'' Hendrickson said. "And we are still seeing more and more women getting into mushing."

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."

If you go

• Parking at UMD, free shuttle: Is at a premium at the race start at Billy's Bar on Jean Duluth Road north of Duluth. Plan on walking a distance if you drive to the start. The best option is to park at UMD Lot W, along Junction Avenue just off College Street, and take a free shuttle bus to Billy's. The buses will start running at 8 a.m. and run about every 20 minutes to 4 p.m.

• Do not bring your dog to any Beargrease event: No pets are allowed.

• Best viewing: Arrive early at the race start to get the best viewing spots. Before the race there are opportunities to talk with mushers and see their dogs and equipment. Road crossings along the North Shore State Trail also are great viewing opportunities, as are the checkpoints.

• Etiquette around the dogs and the mushers: Be respectful of their space and their time. Ask permission before touching any dogs any time you encounter them — before, during or after the race. Ask the musher before taking photos of them or their dogs.

• Volunteers still needed: Especially road crossing volunteers. Go to and click on volunteers.

• Follow the race live: Each musher will wear a GPS tracking device and you can follow their progress live at or

To read the original article and see related reporting, follow this link to the Lake County News-Chronicle.

Upcoming Events Near You
Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here