MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The new leadership team for northern Minnesota's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon expressed optimism Tuesday about restoring the struggling race to its former glory, when the nearly 400-mile haul along the north shore of Lake Superior rivaled Alaska's famed Iditarod for prestige and prize money.
The previous volunteer board sent a shudder through the mushing world last week by abruptly canceling the 2014 race, citing a lack of money. But the old guard handed over control Monday to an upstart team of new leaders, who plan to reboot the race for its 30th running, scheduled to start Jan. 26. They hope to keep it going for years to come.
Interim president Tone (TOH'-nee) Coughlin said the new team is made up of professionals experienced in running events, advertising and marketing who are passionate about the Beargrease. Their top tasks include winning back former sponsors and recruiting volunteers. Coughlin is also race director of the NorthShore Inline Marathon.
Another organizer, John Stetson, of Duluth, who won the Beargrease mid-distance race in 2005 and 2006, said he hopes it comes back "bigger and better. That's the dream I think. To bring it back to its full glory."
The Beargrease, which began in 1980, is the longest dog sled race in the Lower 48 states and a qualifier for the Iditarod. It's named for an Ojibwe Indian from Beaver Bay who delivered mail along the north shore from 1879 to 1910— by dogsled in winter and on foot or by boat in summer. Thousands of people have served as volunteers, and it has drawn thousands of spectators from around the world.
"It's an event that has been an icon for a generation of people," said organizer Linda Nervick, vice president of marketing partnerships and advertising sales at Lake Superior Magazine.
But the Beargrease suffered from declining prize money, sponsorships and participation. Recent mild winters haven't helped. Last year's race had to be delayed from January to March, and the 2012 and 2007 races were canceled for lack of snow.
The new leaders and several mushers were reluctant to criticize the old board. But the consensus is previous leaders were burned out by the enormous effort it takes to stage the race, and short on ideas for reviving it.
"The Beargrease was huge in the late '80s and '90s. It was as big as the Iditarod," said last year's winner, Nathan Schroeder, who lives north of Chisholm. "At one point the Beargrease paid better than the Iditarod did for the winner. I hope one day it will be back in that direction."
But Schroeder said he still plans to leave for Alaska on Jan. 20 to compete in the Iditarod instead. He said the Beargrease remains his favorite race, but he'd need a generous sponsor or bigger prizes to bring him back. He said he won half the money last year as he did in 2010 — $4,000 versus $8,000.
Colleen Wallin, who lives north of Two Harbors, said she's excited and relieved to get back to training her 14 dogs for the Beargrease. She's mushed teams 22 races.
It's a grueling, hilly race, Wallin said. Heavy snow can blow in off Lake Superior. Temperatures can plummet to 50 below zero, then bounce back to 30 above.
The harsh conditions contribute to the Beargrease mystique, which is part of what draws large crowds to Duluth for the start and finish.
"Now all we have to do is get snow," said Gene Shaw, spokesman for the Visit Duluth tourism bureau.