On How a Race Ends Early, and why that’s ok: Our first Beargrease Marathon
‘Do you want to know what I think?’ Maria asked, knowing that my answer could be no.
‘I think you’ve been standing here for 45 minutes and have not tried to leave yet.’
It was just after midnight on January 29th, my birthday and cresting into the 36th hour of the Beargrease. We were roughly halfway through the race, but had just started getting into the toughest, and most wild, sections of trail. We were in the country I was so desperately ready to see, the windy lakes, the vistas north across the border, the spruce-fir forest that always makes me feel at home. It was so cold. It was raw and rugged and beautiful.
But, it was the end of our race.
To retell the story is to resist the bone-aching narrative aligning to one unhelpful place, one tinted view shed. It cracks open the world, releasing the good: the wild love of these dogs, the aliveness of bitter cold and crystalline snow, the caught breath of crossing new mountains and lakes, and the company of other dog teams. It gives us the grace of recalling the multifaceted and glorious prismatic world of what traveling with a dog team is and should be: the wild places of winter, remeasuring time and space with the rhythm of paws and the squeak of snow under the runners, and the rare opportunity to be among mushers and volunteers who are all here for the same reasons, in celebration.
‘I’m crying,’ I said to Ward Wallin, as he met the team coming into the start chute. ‘What does that mean?’
‘That means you’re going to have a good time,’ he said and clapped me on the back.
The unknown of a new race is a fog for me, clouding the knowledge that when you get down to it, it’s just another run on new trail. The logistics of the Beargrease particularly befuddled me, the unknown of what was provided where and what I had to bring with me, the hyped-up low temperatures to come where the entire race would be run in subzero temps. I rented a trailer, and then un-rented a trailer. I dug out ancient wind coats to protect the boy’s bits. I boxed and then unboxed so many items. I rush-ordered an entire box of handwarmers. I cut and pasted and color-coded so many spreadsheets, forcing my chaotic mind into tidy lists and boxes. I kept bringing the truck to the shop for one last repair. I wandered through Wal-Mart at 8 p.m. even though I really didn’t need to be there. I would try to type work emails but my hands were shaking too much. While there were and are so many mushers I could have asked questions of, I honestly didn’t know what questions to ask.
I’ve heard the term ‘rookie bulge’ referring to the size of packed sleds at the start line, but I think rookie bulge should also apply to the gear crowding a rookie’s truck, crammed into their checkpoint bags. Amidst the chaos of preparing to leave, the short runs we ran were an exhale, a reminder of what we were preparing to do, of where we were preparing to go: new places. Thanks to Brianna, the truck was packed in record time, the dogs were fed and loaded, and Elissa Gramling and I hit the road at 5 p.m., anticipating 7 hours of driving that night to get just past Ottawa, Ontario.
Getting on the road to the Midwest was also not the true relief it usually is, as we departed in an ice storm, the normal 6 hour trip to Ottawa taking 9 hours. Elissa took the brunt of this tough driving, and she indeed took the brunt of the tough driving the next night as we hit a whiteout in the UP. It took 24 hours of driving to make a trip that is usually only 18, although we were graced with clear weather and one discounted tank of gas around the Algonquin in Ontario. The words safety and relief do not fully capture the feeling of taking the final turn into Lloyd Gilbertson’s driveway in Chatham, to see Al Borak clearing a parking spot at 11:30 at night in a subzero snowstorm. After a rest and a layover, where the dogs stretched their legs, Al went through a checklist of what we needed and found us only lacking black runner plastic, Lloyd over-fed us, I visited with the yearling Triplets who are training with Al, and I had my first sauna…all too quickly it was time to get to Duluth.
There are just so many places to be the day before a race. Vet checks. Musher registration. Driver’s meetings. Opening ceremonies and banquets. Wanting to greet old friends enthusiastically but also needing to stay focused on paperwork and drinking water. Constantly dropping my hat and jacket, as it was so cold outside and so warm inside. Only an hour or two inbetween the next thing. It gets easier with experience, but this was my first time at this race so the eyes were opened and the confusion stunning.
Vet checks were easy, each dog allowing the touch and movement of the vets, even weird little Hilde and shy Oriana. The vet team was the same that I’ve seen at the UP200, familiar faces. The vet team commented on the good conditioning, and said they had the best set of feet of the teams they had checked so far. Those are probably the two best compliments any musher can receive. Knowing the dogs are prepared is good to have confirmed. Maria also arrived at vet checks, making the handler team complete.
And the driver’s meeting….well…I’m still not sure what I learned from it. The best advice came from my fellow mushers, about what turns to take and what turns to not take. The best information came from questions that handlers and mushers asked, even though the answers were sometimes ‘I don’t know.’
But yet, amidst this routine of pre-race schedule, the Beargrease carries a weight uniquely its own, as unlike every other race I’ve run, it is tied directly to an origin story, a culture of traveling by dog team. Other races are a celebration of winter, a dog race among mushers, a crazy idea cooked up by crazy people. The story of John Beargrease, and the role he played that we were inducted in to when we took the oath as mail carriers, sunk in. We were dog teams traveling along the shores of Lake Superior, but we also carried mail bags, and postal service employees staffed so many important spots at the race start. For the first time, when I put on a race bib, there was a larger story I became a part of, a story larger than the race itself and the trail we would take. Throughout this race, throughout this trip, I came face to face with cultural strangeness. I relied on Elissa as a translator of the culture of northern Minnesota, where roads are ‘trails’ and the names of places ring with an unknown tongue: Devil’s Track, Gunflint, Wolftrack, Sawbill.
The start line of the Beargrease, at Billy’s Bar in Duluth (owned and managed by someone who truly is called Billy, I found out), was like all other start lines. The indecipherable voice of an announcer, tents with food and merchandise, mushers walking around and mushers hiding in their trucks. It was cold, but the sun brought some warmth. We were parked right next to the porta-potty, which perhaps made this the best start line ever. Spectators wandered through the dog lot, children putting their faces into my sled bag as I packed it. I apologized for not being in the head space to educate people on the sport, as I only wanted to focus on preparing for my first time in this race. With a short list of required gear (no axe??) the required bag check was simple.
And then, it was time to go.
We neared the start chute, Martin going out right before us. Maria looked ahead, and then came back and said ‘there are people lining the road.’
Before the start, we had walked to the start line to look at the chute, to build that mental picture. After leaving the chute, the teams would track down a line of snow on the left hand side of a paved road, before heading down the side and then across and into the trail itself. As we train on snowmobile trails, the dogs are trained to run on the right, and I have seen them take the right hand side on plowed roads during races, despite the fact that the snow is packed on the left. Seeing that track of snow, without snow fencing, forecasted a vision of us peeling off runner plastic as we ran down pavement. Of all the worries, at least that would not be the case.
Leaving the start line and entering the trail, the first 20 miles were riddled with photographers, spectators, and surprises around corners. One photographer was laying in the middle of the trail, his OHRV parked blocking one side and music playing, this sent Vega and Victor diving into the snowbank. We were passed by the speedier Mid-Distance teams, as we were the last bib out from the marathon: Martha, Lynne, Rita, Ryan, Joanna. A few of the teams caught us and then couldn’t shake us.
It took 20 miles for the dogs to settle into a rhythm. Vega had a moment about halfway through, backing off her tug and changing her gait. This was Vega’s first race, period, and as a young dog I wanted her to succeed. I stopped the team, gave them ice snacks, and felt Vega all over, finding nothing. A few barks from Loki and Fanzine, and we were on our way again, and at that moment they all clicked back into place. As the first leg was only 35 miles, instead of the 60-70 mile first leg of Can Am and the UP, I probably kept them a little too slow, and it took a little over 3.5 hours for that leg. We didn’t see anyone else until we reached the first checkpoint of Two Harbors.
The Beargrease, like the UP200, is a handler-assisted race, the checkpoints an array of idling trucks and propane-heated trailers. The dogs rest in straw around the trucks, coming off the gang line entirely. Elissa and Maria had gotten me a sandwich, and all the dogs rested and ate, and I rested as well although I accidentally used Elissa’s sandwich as a pillow. Over two hours later, we were back on the trail, heading into the night and the next checkpoint at Finland.
The leg from Two Harbors to Finland was straightforward, and indeed literally straight. And flat. I kept their speed slow, again, and stopped to snack often. We were passed by Martin, Blake, and Ryan, who had all taken longer rest at Two Harbors. It was cold and the dogs ran well.
Finland’s checkpoint was snowy, windy, and cold. I had neglected to give the instructions to Elissa and Maria to prepare meat water for me to carry to Sawbill, and figuring that out was the challenge of that checkpoint. Elissa and Maria had already figured out a new genius way to camp the dogs, stringing the lines between my truck and Maria’s to create a cozy area where we could see all the dogs at once, and no one could hide under the truck (ahem, Victor and Hilde). The snow fell. The wind blew. I ate chili and listened to so many mushers tell me ‘this is where you’ll hit those hills.’
The Sawtooth Mountains arrived just under 100 miles into the Beargrease trail. Those warnings from other mushers were words of caution, words of awe, words of support and words of mind games. I listened through the lens that I listen to everything through, once on a race trail: head nodding, but holding onto the steely sense of ability that the dog team taught me, over the years and during this year in particular. We’ve climbed a lot of hills.
That run at night, through a blinding snowstorm, was my favorite run of the entire race. We rested longer at Finland, mostly because I wanted other teams to start breaking trail through the snow that fell and drifted, and because a little bit more rest early in the race is never a bad thing. It was dark. It was cold. It was windy. Snow had fallen onto and into everything, melting into gloves and hats and dog jackets. I was ready to get going.
During that leg, we climbed through country that I couldn’t see, but that I knew was stunning. Sidehilling around a ridge, we hit snowdrifts, wind rocketing up and out of some wide vista below. Only the wheel dogs were visible, the remaining 10 dogs lost in whiteout and headlamp glare. I turned to the right and actually said aloud ‘come on, let me see what’s out there.’ The dogs kept going, Ariel and Aurora plugging away like the professionals they were. We were passed by most teams, Martin pausing as he passed, as I had some technical difficulties with my headlamp that I quickly resolved, even as he said ‘all ok?’. Sawbill arrived in a burst of light and the smell of a woodstove, arriving earlier than I had expected because I had misjudged the length of the leg.
The snow, the wind, the cold, the landscape, the company of other mushers and the capability of the dogs I call my teammates—that is the spirit of the race we ran. That is what is called to mind, every time I look back on that race.
Sawbill is a wilderness checkpoint, the only checkpoint where there are no handlers. It is a compact space physically, the dog teams nestled in chutes among the trees, hot food and water available in an arctic oven tent only minutes away. Of all the checkpoints I’ve been in, this one was absolutely perfect: dogs rest well in private areas, everything is close by, and it’s not your typical giant plowed-out parking lot but a forest of small spruce-fir trees and nary a truck in sight. This was the only checkpoint where I actually got to talk to other mushers, as we were camped together instead of polarized by our dog trucks and handler teams. Parked next to Martin, we compared notes on our teams. Erin popped up right before the vet checks. I devoured biscuits and gravy while talking to Frekings. Peter McClelland volunteered the word ‘crepescular’, as that description of the early night and early morning excitement and movement of wild things. Ryan Redington apologized for the mild tangle that ensued when his team had passed me, and I joked that I felt bad for him that he had to get up off his seat to fix it. I saw and spoke with every musher. It was wonderful.
When the vet team checked the heart rate and body condition of the dogs, we laughed as Fanzine had gained weight, the vets barely able to find her hip bones. Something in Fanzine’s genetics came alive in that snow and cold, that entire race she was happy as a clam. Aurora, Ariel, Loki, Hilde, and Oriana had all maintained their weight well, the Mackey Boyz had lost a little but their appetites were suddenly rebounding, and little Victor had lost a lot and had stopped eating, curled into a tight little ball off to the side. It was time to drop the little guy, and I left him with Mary Manning who had scratched and would transport him back to Maria and Elissa.
We departed among the other teams, teams leaving when I was preparing the team and teams still preparing to leave behind us. Jason Rice left just behind us, and we leapfrogged climbing that first big hill. Every time we stopped, Fanzine warbled her woo-woos and I laughed at her junk-in-the-trunk bounce. She brings so much comic relief and positive energy to races. We began to climb hills, and my thought was ‘is that it?’.
But the sneakiness of the Beargrease hills are not the uphill, not the endless hill climb that you see approaching for miles as in Can Am, but the downhill. For years, and this year, I have listened to and been told by so many mushers things like this: the hills are uphill and downhills fast, there are no flats, so the dogs can’t get into a rhythm. And all of that makes sense…..now. I had to drive it to see it, and those downhills pop up fast, the leaders already descending when the rest of the team is going uphill. It was a kind of driving that I wasn’t motor-memory prepared for, my body didn’t have the natural sense of how to manage a team in that terrain.
About 15 miles in, after we got back on the trail after accidentally taking the turn to the Mid-Distance Finish (an error that was a combination of rookie judgement and incomplete trail marking), Fanzine backed off and flailed. Her shoulder twitched under my hands, and she went into the bag.
The entire team slowed down, the sled already a little too heavy with gear I carried from Sawbill, and the bulk of Fanzine is no joke. Fanzine’s role in the team is the front end support, running right behind the leaders. I struggled a bit finding someone who brings that same degree of excitement and confidence, and Loki ended up in point, leaving Oriana in wheel on her own. Slow.
Erin and Frank had talked about the next leg: 20 miles of hills, 10 miles of so so, and then 20 miles of flat. I had forgotten to change the batteries for my GPS in Finland, so I was left with my watch and sense of the dogs pace. We slowly descended and hit some moderate terrain that in my New England understanding of place felt flat. We passed some beautiful lakes, winding along their edges.
But then we hit the true flat. 20 miles along a powerline. Those 20 miles were the hardest of the entire race, as every turn we took the dogs and I clearly hoped would be a turn into something different, only to find ourselves realigned with the powerline. Flat and straight is my weakness, is my least favorite kind of trail. I got more than a few looks over the shoulder from everyone during this section, and I would have given the same look if I had someone to look back at. It grew dark. We stopped to snack a lot. I kept readjusting the expectation of when we’d reach Trail Center, the next checkpoint.
I also had some churning thoughts. I’ve bagged dogs in races before, but how the team reacts to the dog being bagged is a good indication of whether they can bounce back from it. Bagging Ariel for the entire second leg of the UP200 in 2016 had little to no effect on their pace, same with bagging Ia in the last leg of the UP200 in 2017. However, bagging Hyside and Wembley in the 2018 UP200 was a different story, mostly because the dog team was already under the weather and not firing on full power. Watching the team in those last miles coming into Trail Center, it felt like they weren’t firing on all cylinders.
And sure enough, when we got to the checkpoint and de-bootied, Ariel and Gem had wrist injuries. I had been watching Hawkeye, and his right shoulder was tight. The dogs were tired, but they all ate. We wrapped Ariel and Gem’s wrists and hoped for the best. I dropped Fanzine.
The rule for making decisions in races is that you have to eat and sleep and drink water before you make the decision to end a race. Maria watched the dogs while Elissa brought me inside to get food. Martin had scratched, his dog team sick and I had seen the evidence along the trail. Teams were already readying to leave when I was readying to go to bed. Halfway points of races are turning points.
The parking lot was mostly empty when I woke up, dark and cold and 11:30 at night. Damon Ramaker, the last rookie left in the race, was preparing his team to leave. Ariel’s wrist had not healed, nor had Gem’s. Hawkeye seemed ok, but it’s a risk taking the biggest dog in the team only to bag him on a long leg. There were 7 dogs left, then, and only one of them was a leader, Aurora.
Objectively it made sense. The front end dogs suffered the most from my poor driving on the hills. Without a front end, it’d be a tough 150 miles to the finish, also on some of the toughest miles still to come.
I can pull apart now the threads of emotion that helped make that decision to end the race. There was the bright and obvious emotion that I knew we didn’t have to finish. My eyes are always on the finish line, but the first finish line of the Beargrease I wanted to be as positive as possible, not with a team dwindled to 7 dogs at mile 150. I had finished Can Am’s like that before, and the challenge is a good one but the memories linger within the team and within the musher.
There is a wrestling that is common to mushers in tough races. Where is that razor’s edge between bringing a team through challenge, their heads intact and ready for the next section of trail, and bowing out early to preserve those heads….when indeed the more a team finishes a race the more they expect it? Having raced and finished six 200+ races in the past four years, that question posed itself to me in an interesting and surprising way this time around. It wasn’t the unprepared dwindling of my first Can Am 250 scratch, over five years ago, where there was a struggle to keep them moving. It also wasn’t the molasses-slowed movements of last year’s UP200 that we were able to finish through. It was an objectively good decision. It was an easy decision in many ways, the head knowing it was a good call. It is the heart, which is always looking ahead to the next trail section while also looking behind to all the work put in so far, that always takes awhile to catch up.
There was the subtext emotion as to why I had signed up for the race, and why I race in general. Some mushers sign up for Beargrease as a required qualifier for a 1,000 mile race. Other mushers, Martin for example, sign up to get their dog team through 1,000 miles of racing in preparation for a 1,000 mile race. I had signed up for the pure interest in a new race, a new challenge, and feeling like I had the dog team (and human team) to do it. I, also, had signed up to prepare the team for Can Am. But yet, I wondered and worried about what a scratch might do to the team. It’d been a long time since we’d scratched from a race.
Most scratches are accompanied by the statement ‘done in the best interest of the dogs.’ What that looks like is unique to each team. There is no common thread, there is no scratch that is the same as others. As Erin said to me after the race, ‘your scratch is your scratch.’
I signed up for the race because of a unique and powerful spirit I felt at work in the team this year. It was that spirit that got us to Trail Center, along those slow miles on the powerline grade. That spirit of togetherness and trust was potentially at risk, had we pushed ahead, Aurora paired with a reluctant youngster like Inferno or Rocky.
So, standing in that parking lot, as I said all of these things, voiced how we could go forward and voiced how we could end, I desperately needed confirmation from my handlers and friends, who had been caring for the same dog team.
‘Do you want to know what I think?’ Maria asked, knowing that my answer could have been no.
‘I think you’ve been standing here for 45 minutes and have not tried to leave yet.’
The words are hard to say, but I said them.
‘Let’s end the race here.’
It was an informal ending, nothing to sign just the handing over of the bib, the mail bag and the tracker. I got rimadyl from the vets for the injured dogs. We loaded everyone and broke down the gear, Maria and Elissa cleaning up straw and myself taking the sled apart. We drove down the road to Camp Menogyn, where there was a place to sleep thanks to the hospitality of Matt and Erin. Elissa drove the truck and tried to cheer me up, but until I faced the emotions in solitude, I couldn’t actually talk.
Maria put me to bed, put her hand on my side as I cried. I cried to release the confusion, I cried to mourn the end of the race after all that work, and I cried for the dogs even though I knew they were all fine. Adrenaline shook my body, the cells and molecules that had been steeled against the cold releasing; I woke up too hot about two hours later. Erin and Matt’s two house dogs were in the room with me, sighing and moving as dogs do and offering canine comfort even though they weren’t my dogs. I hugged them when I woke up too early and they tolerated it.
Throughout the morning, I got more and more ok. The dogs were all happy and ate snacks and drank water. We took care of the humans and showered and ate. Maria kept us on track. My brain relaxed. We visited Maria’s home. By the time we got to and checked into the casino, I was ok and happy to celebrate the finish line with my friends and fellow mushers.
The swift arrival of that acceptance, I am still trying to understand what it means. The gut feeling from knowing these dogs, and proud of what they accomplished.
Oriana Fallaci, that wisp of a thing, had a relentlessly positive attitude and leaned into those hills with her bird-boned frame. Along with the other Canadian huskies, she gained weight as the race went on. Watching her zip forward after a stop, trying desperately to haul the heavy Fanzine-laden sled entirely on her own brought tears to my eyes. Oriana is a three year old and shines when things get hard.
Loki was a steady constant and a pacecar, as when Loki is trotting we are going the right pace. Loki is still new to the team but like his Canadian relatives ate everything and maintained his weight. Loki’s steadiness was welcomed when he needed to rise to the front end after Fanzine went into the bag.
Rocky and Inferno were a tail-wagging floppy-eared well-matched pair, the entire race. Their attitudes grew more positive the longer the race got, and they became huge snack monsters. Rocky was one of the most enthusiastic dogs when we prepared to leave Sawbill.
Hawkeye was my tall security blanket in the middle of the team. Hawkeye has the most miles of any dog on the team right now, as well as the most lifetime miles with me. This was Hawk’s sixth 250+ race with me, his easy lope and smooth pace steady and the faces he makes when it’s wake-up-and-go time are priceless.
This was Vega’s first race. Vega is an emotional dog, and like many of the dogs on the team is only three years old. I watched Vega figure out what a race was during this race, with her emotional reaction to the first leg. Vega has always been a weird eater before this race, but ever since has eaten and drunk every bowl put in front of her. Vega wants to be a race dog, and Vega wants to be part of a team.
‘Is Hilde ever happy?’ Maria asked me at some point, and the answer is ‘sometimes.’ Hilde is a crabby cranky dog, but she is tough and this was her fifth 250 mile race. Her experience is invaluable, and she is able to run in the front end of the team as long as she doesn’t pass her crabbiness forward to the lead dogs. In this race she was a constant, like Hawkeye, doing her job and modeling behavior for young Victor next to her.
This, also, was Victor Hugo’s first race. At only two years old, Victor has grown a lot and shows amazing potential. Going into this race, Victor’s emotional state required constant monitoring. Victor is a shy dog and can be overwhelmed and stressed, and the style of the checkpoints where strangers were handling him and Maria and Elissa would bed him down, and the confusion of the trucks and the idling engines….it all just added up over time. I’m so proud of Victor for making it to Sawbill.
I can’t believe how well Gem did in the race as well. Gem is another three year old, a flop eared fun loving hound. At checkpoints she preferred to sit sentry, and eventually would lay down and rest. When faced with challenge, Gem can struggle and she certainly did struggle in this race, but she maintained a positive attitude and kept chowing down on food. Gem ran the entire race in point.
Fanzine was the comic relief the entire race. ‘Fat Fanzine!’ I would exclaim to myself and chuckle, watching her jellyroll butt wiggle its way uphills as she chatted to the dogs ahead of her. At Sawbill I had to protect everyone else’s food from Fanzine as she would go hunting after finishing hers. Something always happens to Fanzine when we get subzero temps, her metabolism goes wild and she comes alive. When feeding dogs on the shore of Lake Superior after the race, during the polar vortex and surrounded by blowing wind that chased away two bowls never to be found again, and had me strategically layering and zipping up everything….Fanzine was sitting upright, facing into the wind, and actually smiling. The rev to the engine in so many ways, Fanzine particularly dislikes being passed and screams bloody murder when passed by anything, including snowmobiles.
The serious sisters of Aurora and Ariel excelled in this race, giving me confidence as they are so confident. Both of them are race-professionals, committed to the trail ahead. They anchor themselves to straw, and they eat everything. It was the confidence of these two that inspired signing up for the race in the first place, and they met every challenge with that same confidence: the blowing snow and wind of that first night, the hills of the second day, the crowds of the start line, and the long slow slog of those flats. They were in perfect sync, and one photographer caught a moment when every muscle right down to their tongues was in unison. We couldn’t have done what we did without those two.
For all of these reasons, I am so proud of these dogs. The gut feeling still stays the same: I am glad we ended our race early.
The thank you to the humans who made this experience possible are long. Thank you to Chuck Johnston for, as always, managing the home base and happily (I hope) serving as a ‘mushing widow’ while I train the team during the winter and leave for so many races. Thank you to Brianna for superb dog care and being that key helping hand preparing the truck to leave. Thank you to Christine Richardson for being a coach and being there for me in dark times, all year and always. Thank you to Lloyd and Al for hosting us during a much-needed layover. Thank you to my fellow mushers on the trail, especially to my friend Erin for being there in her solid and honestly Erin way leading up to and during the race. Thank you to the sponsors and supporters who made this possible, especially to the Eddy Family and Cooper Hill Axe Works. Thank you to my co-worker Bethany Olmstead for saying at a critical moment, as we discussed a project at work, ‘this can wait until after the Beargrease.’
Thank you to the handling team of Maria and Elissa, for late night driving in snowstorms, for solving problems so I wouldn’t have to, and for caring for me and the dogs. This race is harder on handlers than on the musher, and these two tough amazing women were the two to do it. It is humbling to have my peers and friends give their time to support this team in this race. Thank you, Maria and Elissa.
I can’t wait to see the rest of this trail. Next time!
‘When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…To be alive is to be vulnerable.’—Madeleine L’Engle