Schroeder’s Beargrease strategy goes to the dogs

John Gilbert

Jennifer Freking gave her dogs matching overcoats that “reflect the sun” she said. Photo Credit: John Gilbert
Jennifer Freking gave her dogs matching overcoats that “reflect the sun” she said. Photo Credit: John Gilbert

Nathan Schroeder probably didn’t play much quarterback in his youth, and he may be only mildly interested in Sunday’s Super Bowl. But that’s because Schroeder is pretty well consumed with his own version of the Super Bowl, both this week’s John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, and the upcoming Alaska Ititarod.
 No, we don’t have any Super Bowls in Duluth, Minnesota, but we don’t need ’em. We can watch Carolina tangle with Denver on a big, wide-screen television set Sunday, and see how the brash young superstar Cam Newton does in trying to lead the Carolina Panthers past ageless – but aging – Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
That’s really all the preview necessary for the big game. All of the rest of the stuff you’ve been reading is the force-fed hype and PR flak from the NFL, which underscores its arrogance by taking a full two weeks off from the time they let the AFC and NFC divisions play to champions to determine the Super Bowl adversaries.
We also have our hockey, which we wouldn’t trade for any Super Bowl anyway, even if the UMD men’s and women’s teams are caught up in midseason battles trying to get above the .500 mark to become relevant contenders in their leagues. The men return to AMSOIL Arena this week to face Colorado College Friday and Saturday nights. This week, of course, even UMD must share top billing in hockey with the Hockey Day Minnesota Saturday doubleheader at Bayfront Festival Park’s fantastic outdoor rink.
This week, we also have the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Outdoor statewide televised high school hockey? Sled Dog marathon racing? Match that, NFL!
The Beargrease is named after the legendary mail-deliverer way up the North Shore more than a century ago, when dog sleds were the only viable way of traveling fair distances in reasonable time in winter. It’s an annual event and it goes from Duluth, up the groomed trails parallel to Hwy. 61 up to Grand Portage, which is well past Grand Marais, and then back to Duluth, where it was scheduled to end Wednesday at Billy’s, on the Jean Duluth Road just north of Duluth. This year, an anticipated shortfall of snow caused race officials to start the 380-mile event just north of Two Harbors. And this year’s event marks a major shift in the strategy that has made Nathan Schroeder a champion.
“Up until now, I’ve always been driven by my own ego, and I put myself ahead of the dogs,” said Schroeder, in during a prerace interview. “But I’m changing strategy and putting the dogs first. I’m going to let them go at their own pace for the first 350 miles, and then, if we’re in the running to win it, we’ll push during the last 30 miles.
“Last year, we overdid it. I pushed from the start, and we were looking fantastic.  But by the time we got to Finland on our way back, a couple of my leaders faltered. My lead dog, Bandit, had won it for me twice, but I had to send him home, and we lost 23 minutes on that last leg.
“Then we went up to the Iditarod. It was my second try, and I had been rookie of the year my first time. But last year, we over-trained and Bandit had a sore leg 300 miles in, and I had to replace a couple of dogs and we finished 17th.”
We don’t know the winner as this is written, but Schroeder ran a steady pace through the first three days, and closed in to overtake defending champion Ryan Anderson for the lead.
Schroeder is from Warba, a small town about 15 miles north of Grand Rapids.  He has owned dogs since he was 12, and had developed an understandable style of training and preparation. Preparing a stable of sled dogs is quite similar to a football team, he said.
“I have about 35 dogs now,” Schroeder said. “It’s kind of like having an A-Squad, a B-Squad, and a Junior Varsity. I usually run some of the younger dogs with the older ones just to see which ones can do what, and I do that in practice right up to about January 1st. Then I usually cut the younger dogs to take advantage of the maturity of the older dogs.
“Bandit is 6 years old, and he’s the smartest dog I’ve ever had. When we go out for a practice run, I have to pay close attention, because when we come to an intersection, he wants to turn the direction that will lead us the shortest way back home. He’s above and beyond the normal dogs. He goes hard and makes our team better.”
Schroeder says Bandit probably will be his lead dog for another two or three years. And maybe more, if his new plan works as he hopes it will. “I’m going to rest ’em more early, and then hope they’ll be stronger at the end. If we aren’t in contention to win, I’m not going to overdo it.”

Standing on the back of the sled, a musher can interact with his dog team and anticipate how they’re doing and how hard to push. He carries with him enough layers of clothing, which makes it convenient that he has enlisted the support of Duluth Trading Company, which has provided him with all the necessary underwear, outer wear, socks, mid-layers, snowpants, long gloves and parkas.
“I’m carrying clothes for everything from 50 above to 20 below, because you never know how the weather can change on the trail,” he said.
With his own built-in farm system, Schroeder can see his own super power coming, and he thinks it might be next winter. “Next year, I think I’m going to have a ‘Dream Team’ with the younger dogs maturing, and the older ones that can still go,” he said. “I’m quite certain that nobody else will be able to keep up with us.”
The Iditarod is in the future, on February 22, but going into the shorter, swifter Beargrease, Nathan Schroeder wasn’t thinking anything that far ahead. That would be like putting the cart before the horse – or at least the sled before the dogs.

Defending Beargrease champion Ryan Anderson led from the start and through the first two days of the event, which concluded Wednesday. Photo Credit: John Gilbert
Defending Beargrease champion Ryan Anderson led from the start and through the first two days of the event, which concluded Wednesday. Photo Credit: John Gilbert