Social distancing isn't hard when you're racing a 300-mile trail on Minnesota's North Shore.
But like most events in the past year, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is feeling the effects of COVID-19. No spectators will be allowed to cheer on competitors, and those involved with the race won't mingle like usual due to public health guidelines.
"It's like an NBA game without the fans," said musher Ryan Redington of Wasilla, Alaska, who won last year's Beargrease marathon. "It'll still be the race, but it will have a different feel."
The Duluth-to-Grand Portage contest, which is gearing up for its 37th run starting Sunday, is among the longest sled dog races in the Lower 48 states. It's also a qualifier for Alaska's famed Iditarod, which is why 23-year-old Bailey Vitello and his father planned a trek to Duluth from New Hampshire with 26 dogs in tow.
"It's a dream of ours to run the Iditarod together," Vitello said. "Right now, this seems to be the only qualifier due to the pandemic."
Other mushers from across the country are preparing to make their Beargrease debuts for similar reasons. After contests like Montana's Race to the Sky were canceled due to COVID-19, the Minnesota marathon became one of the only opportunities for mushers seeking some long-distance experience ahead of the almost 1,000-mile Iditarod, the world's premier sled dog race held each March.
The Canadian border's closing also limits U.S. mushers' race options. Longtime Beargrease competitor Blake Freking, of Finland, Minn., said he will miss catching up with some of the neighbors from the north who usually travel down for the event.
"There's certain people I only see once a year — at Beargrease," he said.
'A bright spot'
Once he and his team of dogs hit the trail, though, Freking expects to feel a sense of normalcy. Same hilly route through the woods, same rhythmic music of paws on snow.
"For us, that's uplifting," he said. "A bright spot in this year."
Mushers, fans and volunteers have echoed Freking's gratitude to race organizers for making the Beargrease happen in a year of so many uncertainties. The nonprofit board in charge of the event for months refined a COVID-19 safety plan for the marathon, as well as the 120-mile and 40-mile races that take place at the same time.
The Beargrease usually kicks off at Billy's bar in Duluth with a few thousand people cheering at the starting line. Redington said in the past, fans have followed him to each checkpoint over the course of the Sunday-to-Tuesday marathon, supplying him with offerings of Gatorade and warm snacks during required rest periods.
"We'll miss that for sure," he said. "It's such a special energy."
Some fans still have plans to stake out public trails to catch a glimpse of mushers and dogs, while others will track the race from home on beargrease.com and WDIO-TV.
A winter wonder
Among those viewers will be the students of Secret Forest Playschool in Duluth. Each child in the class picked a dog to cheer on, and Redington — who spends a few months in the region each winter — invited the "mini mushers" and their parents to his kennel for a ride.
Meghan Morrow, who runs the school and works as a handler for Redington, will be sending updates to families throughout the race.
"The mushing community is so special," said Morrow, who thinks the Beargrease — named after an Anishinabe man who delivered mail along the North Shore using sled dogs in the late 1800s — epitomizes the wonders of Minnesota's winters.
"I'm so glad we get to still have this tradition in this crazy year," she added.
Vitello said he is excited for his inaugural Beargrease experience. It will be his first long-distance race; he plans to complete two more before hopefully making the Iditarod in 2022.
The pandemic had a silver lining for many mushers: more time to train.
"It's never really been about the people for us. It's about being with the dogs," Vitello said.
Quarantining has meant lots of extra hours with his canine teammates in the New Hampshire mountains, which he hopes has prepared them well to soon race through the rocky hills near Lake Superior.