Beargrease Primer #4: Strategizing for a Beargrease win

Jan 29, 2018

John Stetson at the start of the 2006 Beargrease mid-distance race. He took first place that year.
Credit ©Kyle Krohn. Used with permission.

A very wise and wily mushing veteran once told me, “there’s a hundred different things that can happen when you’re mushing…and 99 of them are bad!”

Those were the words of John Stetson, the two-time Beargrease mid-distance champ responding to a question I asked as a reporter covering the race in 2001.  But those words would stick with me like glue as I learned the art and science of running sled dogs from Stetson a year later.

Suffice it to say the winning strategy for mushing is to train like heck and pray that those 99 things don’t get access to your dogs, your sled, or your run down the trail.

Train early for success

The road to winning a Beargrease – mid distance OR full marathon – begins the moment the weather cools from “balmy” days toward frigid nights.  Once temperatures in this neck of the woods dip down into the 40s overnight, you’ll probably be able to find a committed musher hooking up dogs to a four-wheeler and heading out on a wee-hours-of-the-morning training run.  With that simple act, the mushing season begins.  Sometimes that magic moment comes in August, sometimes not until September.  But virtually every competitive team will begin with this regimen, and they’ll keep on running dogs with a four-wheeler as the “sled” until the snow flies.  The more miles the better.

Diet always matters.  Experienced dog people control their dogs’ diet year-round.  But it gets special attention when the pulling season starts.  Plenty of protein and the right amount of fat in the diet builds muscle and provides the right energy source to put in all those miles.

Training runs start off slow and short with five-milers in the early going.  There will be plenty of short breaks along the way to make sure the dogs stay hydrated and don’t overheat.

As the canine athletes start to redevelop into the finely-tuned pulling machines they were last winter, training runs get longer and longer and crescendo when the snow finally gets arrives.

“You can really see which dogs are shaping up quickly and which ones might need a little more training,” says Dave Mills of Esko, a Beargrease board member and himself a musher. “It’s also a great time to start testing the younger dogs to see how they look and how eager they are to make the team.”

Transitioning to a sled – the big day!

Waking up to a blanket of snow is a fabulous harbinger of what’s on the horizon for a musher and the sled dogs.

Sleds aren’t usually used for training until there’s a good base of packed snow: it could be as little as four inches or it may be a lucky dumping of a foot or more in early winter.  But there needs to be some sort of cushion on the forest floor to protect the dogs’ feet and keep the sled from careening off the rocks and stumps that dot most Northland trails.

Mushers are trying to build up stamina through many preparatory miles, and when the time is right all training runs will be at least 30 miles (suggested for mid-distance teams) while many of the top teams out there will work closer to 50-mile run lengths.  The idea is simple:  train for what you’re going to want the dogs accustomed to during the race season.

Planning a race season

Mushers will formulate a “race plan” to guide their efforts through the winter and that plan usually takes shape in the fall.  As soon as various races announce details of prize money and the trail to be used the micro-analytics begin around the mushing family’s kitchen table.

A desire to run certain races – “just because I want to try it” – becomes a guidepost.  For some it may mean driving a great distance to race several states away.  It could be the prize money, the type of terrain, to mush with a certain friend or competitor or just because that’s when the musher could fit a race into their busy life.  (Most mushers have a full-time job that they hope will fund all this expensive fun with the dogs.)

When mushers put the Beargrease Marathon on their race schedule for the year it means they need to train for some longer runs in the 50+ mile range coupled with some checkpoint simulations.  They “camp out” after running 50 miles or so, feeding and resting the team and performing health checks (examining feet, shoulders, etc.) just as if they were in the midst of the Beargrease.  After a few hours’ rest the team will get back up and on the trail for another 40 or 50 miles.  Again – all in simulation of what to expect in the race.  The simple strategy is key to the whole run/rest/run/rest routine they’ll face starting this Sunday in Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

“It isn’t rocket science,” says four-time Beargrease champ Nathan Schroeder of Warba, Minnesota.  “You just want the dogs to feel like it’s nothing new or out of the ordinary once the Beargrease starts.”

Winning the Beargrease – a couple of different ways

All the training miles in the world can’t prevent misfortune on the trail, nor can they be an assurance of a top finish in the race.  Ask our ten marathon mushers this year and you’ll probably have ten different strategies for how to win it.  But some basic rules apply to all.

Any Beargrease win comes with educated luck.  Dogs that stay healthy and don’t experience ailments like colds (yes, dogs get colds just like people) or injuries, sleds and gear that hold together.  The particular, magical combination of running and resting that works perfectly for the dogs.  These are the moments that define a winning team.  But how does it play out on the trail?

Strategy #1

The conservative approach

One strategic move many mushers employ is to get the team to go as slow as possible in the early legs of the race.  “You can’t win the Beargrease in the first day,” says Stetson, “but you can lose it!” 

Going too fast too early just saps energy from the dogs and usually, it doesn’t come back.  It’s the reason you’ll see mushers applying their brakes with full force as they leave the starting chute.  Slowing the dogs down is vital since they won’t naturally pace themselves or save energy for later.  So the musher’s job is to know when to ride the brakes and make the team go much slower than the dogs want to and – conversely – know when it’s time to let up off the brakes and let ‘em go.  The warmer the weather, the slower the dog team should be going.

Having set the precedent during all those training miles, the dogs find their rhythm.  They’ve learned a routine and know they’ll be pulling harder but moving slower for quite a few miles before they’re “turned loose” to set their own cadence. 

Winning teams in any long distance sled dog race try to conserve energy and save the real speed for those last few legs of the race heading toward the finish line.  Most competitive teams are building toward a fast trot (essentially speed-walking).   But why?  Why not let them lope (an all-out run or gallop) which gobbles up the miles more quickly?

Loping takes a lot out of the dogs over time and greatly increases the likelihood of wrist and shoulder injuries.  They do get to lope at times, when they show the musher they’re warmed up and ready for it, but it’s a fast pace that needs to be used sparingly and at the right times in the race.

Moreover, the teams that have the fastest trotting speed – which is very comfortable and sustainable for long distances – will be the teams that win or place highly. Any team with a sustainable trotting speed of 10 miles per hour or better can be a contender.  But remember – it took hundreds or even thousands of training miles to develop and improve that trotting speed.  Less disciplined and targeted training, less trotting speed.

With the relentless hills that punctuate the North Shore State Trail, the steady-as-she-goes approach has been time-tested and gets results.

That’s the conservative approach.

Strategy #2

We’ll call this one the “catch me if you can” strategy

In the 2017 Beargrease, we saw a seasoned musher – Ryan Redington – put on a dazzling show in the first two days.  He built up a lead on the trail by running far and fast.  But at the halfway point at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, several dogs were left behind.  Some may have been sore bodies, some may have unable to maintain the same pace as the rest of the team.  A dog team is only as fast as its slowest member, so it’s not uncommon to remove dogs from the team that can only keep up a pace for a certain time or distance.  The team can actually become more “in-sync” and efficient if they’re closely matched in capabilities.

Ultimately, Redington came in 2nd place after dropping down to just six of his original 14 dogs.  What had once been a big lead turned into a good distance behind the more steady and conservative run of Ryan Anderson of Ray, MN. This isn’t at all a knock against Redington.  His was just a different strategy and it has, indeed, worked before.

Redington’s strategy of getting out in front and building some distance ahead of the field can work if the whole dog team is on-board with it and capable of keeping up that pace.  It also tends to agitate the competition as they worry whether they should try harder to chase down that trail leader.  That, too, has happened and usually doesn’t end well.  If your team isn’t used to running 11mph for 200 miles but you’re suddenly asking them to do it – well, the team will likely hit a point of early exhaustion and fold.

This year, Redington says he’s got twice the training miles on the dogs and he’s more confident in their abilities…though he’s not sharing what his strategy may be.

Don’t be too surprised if you hear the name “Ryan Redington” leading the race once again in the early stages.  It means he has trained for the same approach as last year.  But the question still remains:  can he jump out to a huge lead on these other talented teams….and maintain it right to the finish line of the 2018 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon?

Jason Rice says he's been a fan of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon since his childhood.  He “caught the bug” for deeper involvement in the Beargrease back in 1996 as a local news anchor and reporter covering the race. That led to running the Beargrease mid-distance race 3 times using “leased” dog teams. His love of dogs, competition and adventure keeps bringing him back for more! He's the media director and the vice-president of the Beargrease Board of Directors, and he's heard on KUMD with daily trail reports during the race.