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Beargrease director reflects on race that almost wasn't

As the temperature rose this afternoon during the wait to see Nathan Schroeder come in as the 2014 John Beargrease Sled Dog Race Marathon champion, so did the spirit of race director Jason Rice.

Nathan Schroeder
Musher Nathan Schroeder waves as he and his team cross the finish line to win the 2014 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon near Duluth on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

As the temperature rose this afternoon during the wait to see Nathan Schroeder come in as the 2014 John Beargrease Sled Dog Race Marathon champion, so did the spirit of race director Jason Rice.

"Here we are standing at the finish line after no one thought this race was going to happen," he said.

October was far in the rearview mirror, when the former board of directors canceled the race due to a lack of money. Rice and a host of others didn't allow that to happen and took the race over, guaranteeing it would be run come January.

"We went from saving it to sling-shotting it into the future," he said.

Media coverage and online viewing of race progress was beyond organizers' dreams, he said. Along with the usual media coverage from Duluth, radio stations from across the country asked Rice for interviews. National media covered the race, including CBS Radio and Sports Illustrated.

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Rice said up to 2,500 people attended the race start Sunday at Duluth East High School. The crowd at the finish was three times the size of those in the recent past, he said. And the frigid weather during the race, which closed schools and canceled events statewide, left people at home tracking the race progress.

It was a fluke of timing, Rice said.

"There wasn't much else going on," he said. "And people see us out here in the cold holding an athletic event, taking lemons and making some good lemonade."

"The world just decided to watch and pay attention," he said.

Rice said organizers are working harder in bringing some professional direction to the race. They will work on ideas for improvements and, key to it all, write things down. He said too much critical information in running the race simply was passed down by word of mouth.

"There are too many secrets to success simply in people's heads," he said. "We're going to take a business approach to this."

Just before Schroeder turned the last corner toward the finish line, Rice addressed fans whom had packed Billy's Bar and now were lined up at the finish.

"We want to thank our volunteers," he said. "You keep this spirit going."

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He encouraged others excited for the finish to get involved in next year's race.

"Sign up today," he said.

Notes

  • The first people to congratulate marathon-winner Schroeder at the finish line were Mike Keyport and Marcia Eiynck, relatives of John Beargrease, the legendary sled-dog mail carrier of the North Shore and race's namesake. Rice said bringing the Beargrease family to the finish was important; race organizers tried to make sure the family was involved.

    "That's appropriate," Rice said of relatives meeting the winner. "We needed to re-establish the link to the family."

    Keyport and Eiynck said they were thrilled to play a part in the 30th Beargrease race, especially after October's decision to cancel the race before new organizers took it over.

    "When I heard the race had been canceled, I had a tear in my eye," Keyport said. He's a great-grandson of John Beargrease.

    But he said he had hope that new people would step up and was impressed with how the race was run this year.

    "It's bigger this year than it has been in a lot of years," he said.

    "I had a tremendous guilt when I heard it was off," Eiynck, a great-great-granddaughter of Beargrease, said. She said her family takes pride in John's spirit being carried on. She gave the customary eulogy for Beargrease during the race at his grave in Beaver Bay. She also collected trail mail postmarked in the historic village.

  • Rice said he found out interesting information about the terrain of the race trail from students at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Duluth. He said there are more than 700 "significant" elevation changes the dogs and mushers encounter along the 374-mile race course. Marathon teams experience more than 33,000 feet of elevation change from Duluth to the Canadian border and back.

    "To put it in perspective," Rice said, "the teams of the Beargrease would have to run up and down the highest point of Duluth's Spirit Mountain ski hill 50 times to match that amount of elevation change."

  • Rice said the GPS tracking of the racers has been a hit with those following the race from afar. "The GPS is making a big difference for everyone this year as fans and race staff are able to monitor the race progress like never before," Rice said. "The Beargrease website had 9,682 different computers log onto Beargrease.com on Sunday and 11,830 on Monday."

    Rice said the Beargrease took a chance on spending money on the system but it paid off with up to 10,000 unique visitors.

    Marathon musher Colleen Wallin lost her tracker as she left the Sawbill checkpoint Tuesday. Race workers found it and got her back on track at the Finland checkpoint to the south. She was in third place as of midday today.

  • Jason Rice
    Jason Rice is director of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. (2008 file / News Tribune)

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