There was a time last year Nathan Schroeder thought he might be done mushing. The four-time champion was forced to skip the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, and also ended his four-year run at Iditarod in Alaska.

"I just couldn't, because I hurt too much," Schroeder, 42, said, describing three herniated discs in his back. "I wanted to quit, I'll be honest. But I just enjoy running dogs. I couldn't quite let it go."

Schroeder owns a record-tying four wins at Beargrease, all since 2010. He'll join four other past champions in a 14-musher field for the 36th Beargrease beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday. Festivities start at 9 a.m. at Billy’s bar on the north edge of Duluth at 3502 W. Tischer Road.

"Over the year I've figured out a way I can still run dogs and not flare the discs in my back," Schroeder said. "But I've had to cut back on the lengths of my runs. Then after my chores and getting everything ready for the next day, I'm done. I can't do anything else."

Newly remarried and now settled in Goodland, Minn., Schroeder spoke with the News Tribune about his love for mushing and his expectations for the 2020 Beargrease. He's currently tied with Jamie Nelson for the most Beargrease wins.

"I'm not participating to finish second," Schroeder said. "Second and third place aren't bad, but I signed up to win."

Nathan Schroeder waves to the crowd at the start of the 2016 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Schroeder won the race for his fourth Beargrease championship. (News Tribune file photo)
Nathan Schroeder waves to the crowd at the start of the 2016 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Schroeder won the race for his fourth Beargrease championship. (News Tribune file photo)

A four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finisher, Schroeder won't race there again until he fixes his back once and for all. For now, he's focused on the 16 dogs in his training program and being there for them.

"Can I booty up a dog team as fast as I used to?" he wondered. "All that stuff is going to be a challenge. I'm going to be stiff, I'm pretty sure."

Wife Carmen Schroeder will meet him at the checkpoints, where he welcomes the assistance.

"She takes my socks off for me," he said. "That's a reality. That's a fact. I still hurt, it's just within reason now."

This will mark the first year Schroeder will take part in the shortened 300-mile marathon, a straight shot up the North Shore between Duluth and Grand Portage. One would think the grizzled musher would prefer a shorter distance given his situation. But Schroeder always liked the 400-mile race to the border frontier and back.

"Every time I've won I've needed that extra 100 miles," he said. "That's when I start getting into a rhythm. But, we'll give it a shot."

He praised Beargrease organizers.

"They've done an excellent job of keeping this race going that we all enjoy," he said.

Schroeder even handicapped the race, calling it "stacked" with competitive mushers who could win it. Himself excepted, he called Ryan Anderson and Ryan Redington the favorites. He also said anyone between Colleen Wallin, Martin Massicotte, defending champion Blake Freking and Keith Aili could claim the race. Aili had retired in 2018, but will be running Redington's second team of dogs. Schroeder said retirement for a musher is when he doesn't want to pay for dog food any longer. Given the chance, a musher will still race, he said.

"Keith is more than capable of taking a dog team to the finish line first," Schreoder said. "So, I would say if there's a sleeper, Keith Aili is the sleeper of us all. He knows dogs and he's so good with them."

Employed by Jamar Co., and sponsored by Millwrights Local 1348 in Virginia and the larger North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, Schroeder sounded rejuvenated by his return to Beargrease. If all goes well, he'll dive right into the U.P. 200 on Feb. 12 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

"Having a year off revived me," a wizened Schroeder said, before relating a story about a neighbor he once had on the Iron Range. The man sold firewood, and full logging trucks would drop off piles of wood that the neighbor would split by hand. Stacks of wood lined the man's driveway, up one side and down the other. One day, Schroeder asked the man why he did it.

"He told me, 'I don't feel right if I'm not out here splitting wood,'" Schroeder said. "In my case, I don't feel right unless I'm running dogs."

The 2020 Beargrease field of mushers:

  • Keith Aili, Ray, Minn. ... 2006 Beargrease champion had retired after winning his fifth U.P. 200 in 2018.
  • Ryan Anderson, Cushing, Wis. ... three-time Beargrease champion is back in marathon after stepping down to win the 2019 Beargrease 120 amid a busy personal life.
  • Liza Dietzen, Kaukauna, Wis. ... started mushing in 2009, with goal of building toward Iditarod.
  • John Fisher, Cook ... John and wife Robin have operated the Vermilion Veterinary Clinic since 1985, and for years ran sled dogs on trips to the BWCA.
  • Jaye Foucher, Wentworth, N.H. .... She started mushing at the age of 34 and is living and training in Michigan's Upper Peninsula this season.
  • Blake Freking, Finland, Minn. ... Split 13 years between his first Beargrease win (2006) and last year's victory.
  • Jen Freking, Finland, Minn. ... In her 15th year as a veterinarian at the Ely Veterinarian Clinic; she and husband Blake live off the grid, raising two daughters to go with Siberian Huskies.
  • Martin Massicotte, St-Tite, Quebec, Canada ... A winner of marathon races in Canada, Massicotte's Beargrease is a prelude to his first Iditarod later this year.
  • Kevin Mathis, Monona, Iowa ... A musher for six years, he and his wife have three sons, two of which have already raced sled dogs.
  • Peter McClelland, Isabella, Minn. ... Once enrolled in a winter camping course and got hooked on its sled dogs. His daughter, Morgan, will be racing in the 40-mile race.
  • Laura Neese, McMillan, Mich. ... Beargrease rookie, but an experienced racer who fell in love with mushing while home-schooling in Ohio and doing a project on Iditarod.
  • Ryan Redington, Skagway, Alaska ... 2018 Beargrease champion and a racer with a world of experience. Trying for reversal of 2019 that saw him lead most of race only to be passed after his dogs had had enough.
  • Nathan Schroeder, Goodland, Minn. ... four-time Beargrease champion back after missing 2019 race due to a back injury.
  • Colleen Wallin, Two Harbors ... One-time checkpoint volunteer has been raising and racing dogs for 25 years with a tight-knit, family-oriented outfit.