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Northland musher answers Iditarod call again

Musher Nathan Schroeder waves to the crowd at the start of the 2016 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Jan. 31. Schroeder will begin his third Idtarod Trail Sled Dog Race this weekend. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
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Matches? Check.

Lighters? Check.

Extra matches and extra lighters? Check, check.

Friday was a day of checking and double-checking for Nathan Schroeder as the Warba resident prepared to embark on his third straight Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

"I have them, but I want to make sure I have extras," Schroeder said. "It's not like Beargrease where I can just go grab something out of my truck at a checkpoint."

Speaking to the News Tribune from Anchorage, Alaska, Schroeder said he was a bundle of nerves and excitement as he prepared to begin the 975-mile race to Nome with Saturday's ceremonial start.

Race organizers have been bringing in extra snow aboard train cars from Fairbanks to make up for the lack of snow on the first section of the course — the result of unseasonable conditions being experienced during this Alaskan winter.

"There's snow farther up the trail," Schroeder said. "The stuff they're bringing in will be good for the ceremonial start. But if we ever get a rainstorm here it'll all be gone."

Schroeder, a four-time champion of the Northland's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, will start third overall — and wear No. 4 — among 85 total entrants. Schroeder was more than pleased with the early draw.

"I'm glad I'm not team No. 85 and having to wait three hours from the first team until I depart," he said. "That'd be a lot of waiting for me."

The one-time Iditarod rookie of the year has finished the grueling race in each of the past two years, in 19th and 24th place consecutively. To date, he's earned almost $25,000 in prize money for his Iditarod efforts. This time, he's set a goal of finishing in nine days, five hours — which would be a roughly 13-hour improvement on his rookie finish in 2014 on the northern route. (The race toggles annually between a northern and southern route.)

"But a good windstorm or snowstorm will knock anybody off their game plan," Schroeder said.

Two-time defending champion Dallas Seavey, of Willow, Alaska, will start 16th in pursuit of his fourth overall Iditarod championship. Speaking to the race's website earlier this week, Seavey talked about how the first four or five days of the race are a reality check for most teams, with the contenders emerging after that. Schroeder said he hoped the experience gained in his first two Iditarods will help him close the gap on the 29-year-old Seavey, who last finished the northern course in a blistering eight days, 13 hours.

"I don't think anybody has a mistake-free race — not even Dallas Seavey," said Schroeder, 38. "He'll mess up somewhere, but he messes up 10 times less than most."

As usual, Schroeder has been joined in Alaska by his father, Vern Schroeder.

"He's in charge of everything so I can just focus on the dogs," Nathan Schroeder said.

Schroeder had to keep one of his longtime leaders, Bandit, home because of persistent hip problems the 6-year-old dog has experienced. Still, there are plenty of Beargrease and Iditarod veterans on his 16-dog team, he said.

As the race neared and supplies were checked and double-checked, Schroeder turned his thoughts to sleep.

"That will be my focus for today and tomorrow after the ceremonial start, is good sleep," he said. "There won't be much after that."

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