Breaking trail through the night, Nathan Schroeder overcame newfallen snow, a game challenger — and a haunting past — to win a record-tying fourth John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon early Wednesday.
Schroeder, of Warba, crossed the finish line at Billy’s Bar in Rice Lake just before 6 a.m. — 44 minutes in front of Canadian challenger Jason Campeau. Two-time and defending champion Ryan Anderson of Ray came in third.
After finishing, Schroeder walked up the line and patted the ribs of all his dogs while saving nose-to-nose nuzzling for his two lead dogs. Spotlit in the predawn by the media’s cameras, Schroeder accepted “attaboys” from the crowd as he tossed frozen beaver treats to the dogs. They snatched and gobbled them up. Race director Jason Rice hailed Schroeder as “your champion, our champion.”
In a quiet moment away from the hoopla, the champion described the charge into home.
“It was only 3 inches of snow, but I’ve been breaking trail for the last 110 miles,” said Schroeder, who called the victory that leveled him with race iconJamie Nelson “real rewarding.”
With his dogs wobbling on and off a single snowmobile track laid down by organizers to help pave the way, Schroeder fended off Campeau, a fellow Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher who closed to within a half-hour of Schroeder before calling off a hard but futile pursuit.
“Nathan ran a hell of a race — real impressive and with good speed,” said Campeau, who backed off late to preserve his dogs for Alaska’s Iditarod starting the first week of March.
The chase was reminiscent of 2011 when Anderson overtook Schroeder in the final 35 miles beginning at the Highway 2 checkpoint outside Two Harbors.
“I still have nightmares about it,” Schroeder said. “Those last 30 miles are always the toughest for me.”
Braced for the charging Campeau, Schroeder also kept his thoughts on Anderson and 2006 champion Keith Aili of Ray. They’re Northlanders who understand the course well, Schroeder reasoned.
“To be honest with you I was more worried about Ryan and Keith,” he said.
Aili finished fourth and Colleen Wallin of Two Harbors rounded out the top five. For his win, Schroeder earned $4,500 of the race’s $30,000 purse.
Schroeder won the marathon’s chess match with the decisions he made on Sunday, the race’s opening day. He rested at early checkpoints, content to let Campeau, Anderson and others take it out fast. Schroeder said he wanted to get his mandatory rest hours out of the way so he could eat up trail as the race wore into midweek. Schroeder covered the race’s 383 miles to the Canadian border and back along the North Shore State Trail at an impressive clip, hauling at an average speed of just under 10 mph. There were times, even around dodgy corners, he wasn’t anything but at the mercy of his ambitious team of Alaskan huskies.
“I couldn’t slow ’em down,” Schroeder said. “I put two feet on my drag pad and I still couldn’t slow them down.”
Schroeder had to drop one of his lead dogs, Fillmore, heading into the race’s final stages after the dog’s toenails began to chip. Other dogs were waylaid by sores and dehydration. After starting the stretch run home with 13 dogs, he finished with nine and was happy to test an up-and-coming 2-year-old, Bambi, on the front. Amid blowing snow and other sharp tastes of winter at the finish line, Bambi and her co-leader, Sheriff, were fitted with Hawaiian leis around their necks, making for sharp contrasts with the dogs’ frosty whiskers.
“I couldn’t get flowers, so I got these,” said Jean Vincent, race board president, to Schroeder and a throng of hearty wellwishers at the finish line.
Schroeder acknowledged reaching a tie in career Beargrease wins with the 67-year-old Nelson, the Togo musher who has supported him throughout his career.
“She’s the dog whisperer,” he said.
When Schroeder lived in Chisholm, he would take marathon practice runs and stop at Nelson’s home deep in the woods. They would sometimes cook a frozen pizza — his post-race meal again after this latest victory to go with wins in 2010 and 2013-14.
No dogs from Schroeder’s first win remained active on this team, he said, having retired his mightiest dog, Achilles, and others from that championship.
“But we’ve got some three-time champions,” he said, listing the dogs by name. “Google, Sheriff, Lightning …”
Schroeder will now turn his attention to competing in a third straight Iditarod. The race across the Alaskan outback starts March 5. He said he’ll put in some light practice runs before heading north Feb. 22 in his rumbling diesel rig and trailer.
“This is kind of my prep run before Iditarod,” he said. “If they can handle the hills at Beargrease they can handle the rivers and stuff on the Iditarod trail.”