MINNEAPOLIS — Thirty mushers and 300 dogs will hit the trail Sunday in a rebooted John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon with new, fan-friendly features that organizers hope will help the Minnesota tradition recapture some of its former glory.
The 30th running of the Beargrease, which once rivaled Alaska's famed Iditarod for prestige and prize money, boasts technology upgrades and more prize money. The starting line also was moved from an inland site north of the city to a more convenient site in Duluth, where organizers hope thousands of fans will gather for Sunday's start.
People who don't want to brave temperatures that are expected to be around zero degrees can watch the start live via streaming video. Also this year the sleds will carry GPS devices so fans can track the teams on the 374-mile course up the North Shore of Lake Superior to Gunflint Lake and back for a finish Wednesday.
Ten teams of 14 dogs will start the full marathon, while 20 teams with eight dogs each opted for the 125-mile mid-distance race, which finishes Monday in Tofte.
The Beargrease is being staged this year by a new management team, taking over for a volunteer crew that had run out of money, ideas and energy. In fact, the volunteers announced last October they were scrapping the 2014 race, spurring the new team to step in and quickly cancel the cancellation. The boosters also lured back a major sponsor, Black Bear Casino Resort, which put up a $35,000 purse.
"Our first mission was to just make sure the race didn't go away," said Jason Rice, the race's president. "We've done more than that — a lot more than that."
Rice and other organizers are particularly excited about the GPS tracking system. He said they can't guarantee the system will run perfectly, but it should make it easier to follow the action via computers and mobile devices as the teams head into the backwoods.
New events tied to the race this year include Saturday's "Cub Run," a 2-mile race for kids and two of their sled dogs. Connecting more people with the race and keeping their attention is key to growing an audience for the race in the coming years, he said.
"The more engaged and involved the public feels with the race, the more sponsors look at this as a viable event to support," Rice said. "Good sponsor support cascades into a good viable race that hopefully doesn't have to struggle into the future."
Three defending champions are set to race again Sunday, including 2013 winner Nathan Schroeder, who will use the Beargrease as a warm-up for the Iditarod. He said he's excited about the changes, including the fatter purse, which includes an $8,000 prize for the marathon winner.
"They've made it bigger than it's been in quite some time," Schroeder said. "More events, more money, more everything."
Schroeder's grandmother and other relatives plan to watch the start online. But Rice said the crowd at the starting line will include several descendants of John Beargrease, an Ojibwe Indian from Beaver Bay who delivered mail along the North Shore from 1879 to 1899 by dogsled in winter and on foot and by boat in summer.
"We were not willing to let a tradition and honoring our heritage just go away," Rice said.