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John Beargrease: Ready to run

The 27th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, with stops near Two Harbors, Beaver Bay, and Finland, begins Jan. 31 at a new location on Jean Duluth Road in Duluth, by the Lake Park soccer field and adjacent to Riley Road.

With a promise of good racing snow, organizers are looking at an interesting race. "It's the most competitive field we've seen in years," said race coordinator Pat Olson. The marathon will have five returning champions who hold 10 titles, including 2004 champion Blake Freking of Finland.

Jason Barron of Lincoln, Mont., is the two-time defending champion. A win this year would be a record for consecutive wins. His father, John Barron of Boulder, Mont., is also two-time champion, winning in 1999 and 2000. He's returning after a few years off and is racing against his son.

Four-time champion Jamie Nelson of Togo, (1988, 1995, 1997, 1998) also returns.

Despite the tough economic times, the race purse remains the same as last year at $35,000, Beargrease board president Geoff Vukelich said.

New this year is a winter camp at the Sawtooth checkpoint with food, entertainment, and educational presentations. Beargrease checkpoints are accessible to the public. Race fans can drive to the checkpoints to experience the race excitement firsthand off Highway 2 north of Two Harbors, in Beaver Bay and Finland, at Sawbill near Tofte (the finish for the mid-distance race), and up on the Gunflint Trail.

There are some internet enhancements to the race as well. There will be a live webcast of the race on www.ifan. tv. Fans can sign up for just $10 a year and watch the race from anywhere in the world. The site will also host archives, training videos and more throughout the year. Green Mill restaurant in Duluth will show the webcast at its Canal Park location. The Beargrease web site has been redesigned and will provide race updates as well.

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is the longest running race in the lower 48 states. The 390 mile course of rugged, awesome scenery winds its way up the North Shore of Lake Superior and into the primal wilderness along the Canadian border. This race commemorates the courage and endurance of John Beargrease, the intrepid Chippewa dog-driver who carried the U.S. mail to outposts along the North Shore of Lake Superior in the late 1800s.

Saturday, Jan. 30

7 a.m.-noon

Vet checks for the 80 teams at Grandma's Sports Garden, Canal Park.

Noon-2 p.m.

Cutest puppy contest in halls of Fitger's complex at 600 East Superior Street in Duluth.

4-6 p.m.

Beargrease photo show at Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth.

7:30-9 p.m.

Opening ceremonies, spaghetti dinner at Grandma's Sports Garden

Sunday, Jan 31

Noon-3 p.m.

Race day start at Jean Duluth and Riley roads. Meet the mushers at noon. Teams sent off beginning at 1 p.m.

Monday, Feb. 1

Mid-distance finish at AmericInn in Tofte.

Noon-2 p.m.

Sawbill checkpoint winter camping village. Classes on camping, cooking and race photography.

Tuesday, Feb. 2

11 a.m. -1p.m.

Mid-distance awards banquet at Bluefin Bay in Tofte.

Wednesday, Feb. 3

All Day

Marathon finish at Billy's in Duluth. Red Lantern Party in the evening.

Thursday, Fe.b 4

11:30a.m.-1 p.m.

Marathon awards luncheon at Holiday Inn in downtown Duluth.

New at the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon this year is a winter camping village at the Sawbill checkpoint near Tofte. You can bring your own gear or rent some from The Canoeist in Two Harbors (834-3523). Northbound marathon teams will be arriving and departing 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Sawbill Monday, Feb. 1 and all day on the way back Tuesday.

Veteran winter campers and a professional photographer will be on hand to offer advice and tips all day Monday in warmed tents along with refreshments. Other checkpoints, there will be one north of Two Harbors and in Finland, will also have events for the Jan. 31-Feb. 3 race. For details, visit