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Smiling Beargrease veteran Colleen Wallin of Two Harbors has participated in the annual race since 1995. Photo by Dudley Edmondson

John Beargrease 2013

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Nathan Schroeder of Chisholm won the 29th running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, crossing the finish line at Billy's in Duluth at 8:52 a.m. Wednesday morning. Schroeder left the final check point just north of Two Harbors on Highway 2 just 14 minutes ahead of second-place finisher Keith Aili and his team of eight dogs.

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In 2011, the last time the Beargrease was run, Schroeder left the race's last checkpoint with a healthy lead only to have his team falter and finish second by a heartbreaking 20 seconds. This morning, Schroeder wasn't letting that happen again.

"I wasn't going to let off the gas pedal," knowing that Aili was close behind, Schroeder said shortly after crossing the finish line.

This year's Beargrease was one of the toughest in mushers' recent memories. Half of the starting field of 10 scratched. The race began with soft snow and warm weather -- both tough on sled dogs. When colder weather came Monday night, so did wind and snowdrift. Schroeder estimated it took him an extra 15 to 20 minutes to break the trail on Gunflint Lake. He called the experience "leader training" as he issued voice commands to keep his team headed in a straight line. Nonetheless, he said he left a zigzag trail across the lake, much to the dismay of the mushers who followed.

"The guys behind me were complaining about the trail," Schroeder joked.

Pat Olson, race coordinator, was warming up by a fire at the Highway 2 checkpoint on Wednesday at noon, where she had been since 3 a.m. that morning. She said there were fewer volunteers this year than normal, thanks to the delayed start date, but she still thinks the race went well.

"Everybody came together and pulled off a good event," she said.

Two Harborite Colleen Wallin, who was competing for the 19th time, emerged from a nap around noon at the Highway 2 checkpoint. She had arrived at the stop at 8 a.m. and capitalized on the mandatory four-hour break by resting in her team's camper.

Her family and handlers took care of the dogs, massaging their legs, covering them in blankets and giving them snacks made from beaver belly to prepare them for the last leg of the race.

Wallin, just four or five hours from the finish line, grew emotional as she told about the 350 miles she had already covered--and the two lead dogs she had to leave behind when they were deemed unable to continue by Beargrease veterinarians. Musket and Bootstrap have never dropped out of a race, she said.

"It had ups and downs...it had the highest mountains and the lowest valleys," she said.

Wallin's sister, Maureen Sexton, comes up from Texas each year during the race to act as "kid handler" for Wallin's two children. Sexton said the conditions were rough this year. Despite the difficulties, she said that her sister was determined to complete the marathon--a race that five of her competitors didn't finish.

Wallin expressed gratitude for all of the volunteers that help make the Beargrease happen.

"They are angels guiding us," she said.

Wallin, who finished fourth in 2011, was expected to cross the finish line in fifth place around 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

The Beargrease mid-distance winner was 17-year-old Jenny Greger of Bozeman, Mont. with a time of 6:52:58. The second-place finisher was Erin Altemus of Glenwood City, Wis., who came in at 7:18:48. This was Greger's first running of the Beargrease, but she's no stranger to competitive mushing. She's been racing since she was just six years old and is a veteran of numerous mid-distance races including the Eagle Cap 100-mile race and the Junior Iditarod. She said she may return to Minnesota next year to give the Beargrease another go.

"Maybe I'll do the marathon some year, maybe next," she said. "The trail was really nice. I really enjoyed it."

Greger's father, Rob was enthusiastic about his daughter's race, too.

"Her dogs and she did awesome," he said. "She was perfect. She did everything right, and the dogs did awesome."

In third place was Martha Schouweiler who said she lost a little time on the race's second leg but "really let them run" during the last leg. Her strategy paid off. She came in almost 19 minutes ahead of fourth-place finisher Michael Bestgen. As she spoke, Bestgen and his team passed by Schouweiler's dog truck.

"Bam, I finally passed you," he quipped. Just shy of eight minutes later, fifth place finisher Ryan Redington--beer in hand--and his team crossed the finish line.

"I was just having as much fun as I could in this last race," Redington said. "We're headed home Friday."

Two Harbors musher Nick Turman came in a respectable seventh place with other mushers such as Jennifer Frekking, Thea Schneinder and Mike Hoff doing Lake County proud in the standings as well.

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