The 37th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is less than two months away, and last week the race announced 18 entrants. It’s a number that still could swell to the maximum 20.

Not long ago, in 2018, the race featured a paltry 10 entrants. It caused organizers to rethink the race, changing the historic out-and-back to a shortened, one-way trek of nearly 300 miles from Duluth to Grand Portage.

Race officials announced in September there would be no spectators in 2021. So when Beargrease starts Jan. 26, things will look drastically different no festive opportunity to meet the mushers prior to the start, or chance to create a human chute at the start of the race.

“It’s nice to have all of the fans lining the start of the race,” said Erin Schouweiler, the defending mid-distance champion from Irma, Wisconsin. “They’re kind of a safety net. It’s going to take a lot of snow fence.”

Still, mushers are appreciative of the fact that a race is happening at all. Other races, such as the UP 200 in Marquette, Michigan, and Maine’s Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race, have been canceled for 2021.

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“I’m just really proud of our board and how we’re forging forward, doing our homework and being able to plan and execute a race,” Two Harbors musher Colleen Wallin said. “It’s going to be different, and for some reason I think it will be more intense.”

Colleen Wallin of Two Harbors pumps a fist for the crowd as she starts the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon last January. The 2021 race will be a stark contrast to this scene, as it will feature no fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (File / News Tribune)
Colleen Wallin of Two Harbors pumps a fist for the crowd as she starts the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon last January. The 2021 race will be a stark contrast to this scene, as it will feature no fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (File / News Tribune)

A musher and their dogs out on the rolling North Shore course can always be something of a solitary pursuit. And Wallin’s sense is that she’ll be more concentrated than ever given a quieter race, minus fanfare.

But organizers aren't done planning yet. They’re still trying to raise purse money, and doing so with a variety of new endeavors. Some dedicated sponsors couldn’t pull it off this year, so organizers are looking for smaller help in abundance by offering 40 $250 sled banners, and increased attention on mile-marker memberships.

“We’re getting there, but we still have money to raise,” Carmen Schempp, Beargrease president, said. “Our mushers work very hard and dogs work hard and one of the reasons they do this is for prize winnings. That’s where we’re still needing to channel some energy — to make sure we have a good prize purse for our mushers.”

The race costs an estimated $300 per mile to run. To that end, a Beargrease pop-up store closes at the end of Monday, and features T-shirts and gear created by Duluth Screen Printing Co., and Noto Designs, of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

“It’s a great way for the average Joe to support our race,” Schempp said.

Schempp hopes fans will turn to online outlets to track the race. WDIO-TV in Duluth is planning expanded coverage, Schempp said, and the race will once again be part of Qrill Paws and receive race coverage through that racing series and its media.

"There will be a lot of coverage, a lot of streaming," she said. "WDIO is planning on following the race closely and working collaboratively with Q Paws, too."

As usual, the race will be plump with stories. Entrants include social media powerhouse Blair Braverman, of Mountain, Wisconsin, and defending champion Ryan Redington, of Wasilla, Alaska, who tends to blitz the course.

Wallin will be racing her 16th marathon — this time alongside her son, race rookie Ero Wallin.

“He’s running our first team and I’m running a puppy team,” she said. “My heart will be with him. He’s fired up about it.”

Wallin made the point that she’s sick of the coronavirus, but that the virus isn’t sick of people.

“Even during a pandemic, we’re able to carry on and be in a race,” she said. “I will be thankful when I’m going through the starting chute, even if there are no people watching.”

For Schouweiler and the other mid-distance participants in the Beargrease 120, a finish at the Trestle Inn in Finland, Minnesota, might not be the same, Schempp said.

“We just have to really kind of strip back and go old school,” Schempp said. “We might not have the luxury of warm buildings to hang out in and have a burger and a beer. Maybe this year it’s a turkey sandwich and bottle of water in the car.”

Organizers say they’re going to follow whatever rules happen to be in place come race time. They’re employing a strict credential system for volunteers and race officials to keep a tight grip on who’s within orbit of the race.

Any kind of race is fine with Schouweiler.

“There’s just so much work and so many small everyday things 12 months out of the year that go into two months of racing,” she said. “It’s hard not to get excited to get to go showcase your team.”