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Schroeder wins Beargrease for second straight year

Nathan Schroeder waves to the crowd as he comes across the finish line to win the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2014. DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE/Bob King1 / 2
Four-year-old Gavin Schroeder waves to the crowd from his dad Nathan Schroder's arms at the finish of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2014. At right is his younger son, Sawyer, 1. Schroeder won the race. DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE/Bob King2 / 2

Mike Creger | Forum News Service

RICE LAKE TOWNSHIP, Minn. -- “Daddy?” Gavin Schroeder asked an obviously exhausted Nathan Schroeder in the parking lot of Billy’s Bar.

“Yes?” Nathan mustered, holding the oldest of his three young children in his arms.

“Congratulations,” Gavin said quietly.

Then came a chorus of “awws” among the scores of people surrounding the 2014 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champion.

Nathan Schroeder was the first to arrive at the finish line at Billy’s in Rice Lake Township, at 1:19 p.m., after four days of brutal racing. The Chisholm resident finished about two hours ahead of the next musher, Keith Aili of Ray. It’s Schroeder’s third win and a repeat of last year. He also won in 2010.

Schroeder said the race probably was the toughest he’d ever run, with wind and drifting snow slowing the pace by five or six hours.

“That wind,” he kept repeating while working on just an hour of sleep for the day. “It blew you right off the trail.”

The worst spot on the downbound was north of the Finland checkpoint. But Schroeder said his dogs were doing well and he “turned and burned” the checkpoint, scarcely stopping.

“Sorry, I have to keep these guys going,” he said in video of his early-morning run through Finland provided by race officials. Rest would come at the next stop, the required four-hour break north of Two Harbors.

Schroeder said he had an idea that he had the race won after Finland.

“It was about then,” he said, “but I still didn’t know where Keith was.”

Aili was about an hour behind. Schroeder ended up at the Lake County Highway 2 stop two hours ahead of Aili. The final run, 36 miles to Billy’s, took just more than four hours. Schroeder said he slept for only an hour during the required stop.

“It wasn’t a very good sleep,” he said.

Wednesday’s finish was sort of an oddity, with teams coming in during the afternoon and evening as mushers were slowed by conditions. Most early finishers have come in the midmorning in the past. Last year, with the race delayed into March, Schroeder finished minutes ahead of Aili at 8:50 a.m.

“This year it was the drifts,” Schroeder said.

And it was cold and windy. He used everything in his sled pack to keep warm, shoving hand warmers in his gloves and boots. By the time of the finish Wednesday, the temperature had fluctuated from the teens below zero during the heart of the race to the teens above.

There’s no time to rest for Schroeder. He plans to race for the first time in Alaska’s 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts March 1. He heads up to Alaska within days to tune up in the Denali Doubles Sled Dog Race. He continues to raise money for the Alaska trip.

Aili, expected to finish second, has run dogs for 25 years and won the 374-mile Beargrease in 2006. Five other mushers remained in the race as of midday Wednesday.

Schroeder had signed up for another race in Alaska scheduled to run this week when he heard in October that the Beargrease wouldn’t be run. He dropped out of the Alaska race after word came that the Beargrease hadn’t been canceled and new leadership was taking over. He said he was proud to win what became a rejuvenated Minnesota race.

“It feels good,” he said. And it turned out that mild weather in Alaska canceled the original race he was to run.

He said he hopes things shape up there for the two races in the next month.

“It’s 40 degrees there and the snow is going fast,” he said.

“I want a clean run to Nome,” he said, referring to the Iditarod, which begins in Anchorage.

Will the estimated $8,250 in Beargrease purse money help pay for his trip?

Schroeder looked back in the direction of Gavin and the rest of his family and managed a small chuckle. They will come first.

“I have a wife and three kids,” he said, dryly.

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