Published January 31, 2010, 12:00 AM

Beargrease musher has a shot at third straight win

No one has won the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon three straight times. Jason Barron of Lincoln, Mont., will begin that quest today against what is widely considered one of the toughest and deepest fields in the event’s 27 races.

No one has won the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon three straight times.

Jason Barron of Lincoln, Mont., will begin that quest today against what is widely considered one of the toughest and deepest fields in the event’s 27 races.

For Barron to etch his name in Beargrease lore, his test will extend beyond pacing his 14 dogs, navigating the Sawtooth Mountains and enduring below-zero wind chills along the North Shore of Lake Superior. He will also have to outdo four other former Beargrease champions and a score of other respected mushers.

“It’s the deepest field we have had in quite some time,” said Beargrease race director Pat Olson of the 30 mushers entered in the 380-mile test from Duluth to near the Canadian border and back.

Joining Barron in this deep field will be his father, John, who won two straight Beargrease titles in 1999 and 2000, Jamie Nelson of Togo, the only four-time Bear­grease winner in 1988, 1995, 1997 and 1998, as well as Blake Freking of Finland, who won in 2004, and Mark Black of Hovland, who took top honors in 2005.

In the 14 races since 1995, those five mushers have won it nine times.

“This race is almost a fantasy matchup,” said Jason Barron, who returns with 10 of the 14 dogs that led him to last year’s win. “Everybody that watches sports thinks about how Muhammad Ali would fare against Mike Tyson. It’s a fantasy lineup that will never happen, obviously. But in this field here, it’s kind of cool. You do get this fantasy matchup. You get to see the old racing the new.”

John Barron and Nelson, both 61, represent the old guard, while Jason Barron, 38, and Freking, 36, represent the new. “The Bear­grease always reminds me of the tortoise and the hare, and most times the tortoise wins,” said Black, who will have participated in more Beargrease races (16) than anyone else. “The methodical 8-9 miles an hour is better than the 10-12 miles per hour, thinking that you are going to rest longer by going at those speeds.”

Barron used that tortoise strategy last year when he put two of his 14 dogs in his sled for the first 120 miles. Running behind the competition for most of the race, Barron made a comeback to the win as others dropped out.

“Jamie Nelson used to do that all the time, too,” said Black, who says he’s racing his last Beargrease this year. “That is a proven strategy that works in the Beargrease. Now, if you’ve got all top 10 teams doing that, it really makes things interesting.”

Black said the big strategy in the Beargrease is with the amount of rest required.

“You have got to blow in and out of one or two checkpoints. You can’t rest at every checkpoint. Now, where you do that can be the most advantageous to your team.”

It has been 12 years since Nelson last entered (and won) the Beargrease, and she knows how hard it is to win it.

“I know that he wants to go for his third straight win,” Nelson said of Jason Barron. “That has still not been done in the Bear­grease. … I was sick in ’96 and could not run. Who knows? Things might have been different.”

Nelson said she has modest expectations for a high finish.

“I was at the start last year and I thought that I’d like to see the trail again,” Nelson said. “I’m not out there to race. It’s a brand new race for me. It’s a new dog team and everything is new.”

Black has competed against Nelson many times and isn’t buying her humble approach.

“I don’t see Jamie ever going into a race not thinking that she is going to go in there and try and win it,” Black said. “Jamie has been around the block a few times, and she knows what she is doing.”

As for the Barrons, John taught Jason how to go around the block with a team of dogs when he was a child. They’ve since raced against each other many times, including in Idita­rods, but never in a Beargrease.

“I think his inspiration is to come and race against me,” Jason Barron said of his dad, who lives in Boulder, Mont. “Every time since I’ve come in ’08, I’ve been talking it up and talking it up and said, ‘Dad, you know, you have to come back, we need to race each other. Let’s go out there and finish one-two. Go out and do the father-son thing.’”

It could happen that none of the Beargrease legends win the race this year. Freking named a few other mushers who could vie for the title, including Nathan Schroeder of Chisholm, Matt Rossi of Herbster and Matt Carstens of Whitefield, N.H.

“I’m excited to see them,” said Freking, whose mushing wife, Jen, is pregnant and won’t race this year. “There are a lot of other teams that we are going to be watching, for sure.”

A 380-mile endurance race from Duluth to near the Canadian border and back
Who: 30 mushers and about 420 huskies
Where: Soccer fields in rural eastern Duluth at Jean Duluth Road and Riley Road
When: Meet the mushers at noon today; race starts at 1 p.m.
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