DULUTH — Ryan Anderson spent the few seconds before his staggered start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon checking in with his dogs — a team that includes seven Alaskan huskies who helped him to his record-tying fourth win last year.
The dogs yipped and leaped in the chute, seemingly eager to race, a marked contrast to the cool musher from Cushing, Wis., who — with another victory — could this year become the 300-mile race's winningest.
"We're pretty excited about this team," Anderson said, describing his crew as "pretty strong."
True enough, as the dogs — outfitted in black and purple booties — cruised up the first snowy hill along Tischer Road, a wide-eyed woman who had helped wrangle the pack at the start said it was the strongest team she had ever handled.
The 39th running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog races started Sunday morning on the grounds of Billy's Bar, a townie tavern on the border of Duluth and Rice Lake. Seventeen teams started the race that winds up the North Shore with a series of checkpoints along the way where mushers take mandatory rest breaks and tend to their dogs.
Marathon officials predict that the first mushers will cross the finish line at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino on Tuesday evening.
There were 58 total mushers signed up for Beargrease races, which include a 120-mile mid-distance competition that is expected to end early Monday morning at the Trestle Inn in Finland, Minn. Ashley Thaemert of Cook, won the 40-mile race on Sunday afternoon.
It was sunny and 10 degrees below zero at the starting line, cold that was expected to last the duration of the marathon. Hundreds of fans mingled with mushers and took photographs of dogs — whose barks turned into puffs of clouds. Some fans dipped into a heated tent for coffee mixed with Bailey's or a Bloody Mary. Inside the crowded bar, parents tended to cold fingers and toes.
Anderson won the Beargrease in 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2022. Last year, he stopped to eat a corn dog between Skyport and Mineral Center checkpoints, the final legs of the race, and a volunteer told him that nearly half of the competitors had already quit. He'd had no idea.
Anderson tied Nathan Schroeder and Jamie Nelson for most Beargrease victories when he crossed the finish line, drawn in the snow between the lodge and Lake Superior. Anderson said this year's lineup includes a lot of good teams that will make for a tight competition.
Veteran musher Colleen Wallin finished third in last year's race, minutes ahead of her son Ero Wallin. This year, as handlers applied ointment to the dogs' paws, she outlined her plan: Take it one checkpoint at a time.
"I'm at the start, I'm going to Two Harbors. Period," she said. "I don't think beyond that."
She will make sure the dogs are eating, hydrated and getting enough snacks before she focuses on the next stop.
Ero Wallin, his facial hair covered in ice, predicted a fast race — though he wants to take it slow and steady. He doesn't expect there will ever be another back-to-back finish for the Wallin family.
"That was pretty unbelievable," he said. "It probably won't happen again. To finish so close to your best friend or your mom — it was awesome."
Musher Sarah Keefer was more focused on her own team than who is competing. The dogs from Redington Mushing are competing with Ryan Redington in the Iditarod, which starts March 4 in Anchorage, Alaska.
"I'm out here to have fun and get as many dogs through the 300 miles as I can," she said.
In the minutes before the races started, announcer Ken Buehler gave the history of John Beargrease, an Anishinaabe chief and mail carrier who used a team of three dogs to make deliveries between Two Harbors, Minn., and Grand Marais. Race organizers reserve the No. 1 bib to honor Beargrease, who died in 1910, and start racers' bibs at No. 2.