St. Cloud State sophomore Ero Wallin approached the starting line of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon at 10:12 a.m. on Jan. 29, the weather a crisp -6°F.
Despite the noise and energy of hundreds of spectators and dogs assembled, Wallin had to focus his sled dog team for the upcoming 300-mile journey.
But just like on the baseball diamond, Wallin had a group of teammates backing him up.
SCSU baseball alumnus Reid Conlee and current teammates Sam Riola, John Nett, Ethan Lanthier and Noah Dehne were part of a group that made the three-hour trip north to Duluth to cheer on their fellow Husky.
“We got to help out a little bit with the pre-race dog checks with Ero’s team,” Riola said. “His dad and family gave us the whole run down, we were just shooting questions at them the whole time … they had no problem answering all of our questions.”
The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon has been held for over 40 years along Minnesota’s North Shore. The 300-mile race begins at Billy’s Bar in Duluth and ends just short of the Canadian border in Grand Portage, making it the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states.
His SCSU teammates were able to watch the first mile of Wallin’s journey from the starting line, quickly hustling to the first checkpoint north of Two Harbors to catch up with him during a rest period. They wished him luck as he soon sped off again with his 12 dogs, 260 miles left to go.
“That was pretty unbelievable,” Wallin said about seeing the level of support. “They will never know how much that meant to me.”
A family of racers
Wallin’s parents weren’t born into the sled dog tradition, but it quickly became a huge part of their lives.
“My dad for a Christmas present got my mom a sled dog ride out in Ely; she absolutely loved it,” Wallin said. “She came back home and started crying to my dad saying she only wanted four dogs … (now) here we are with 43 dogs and we race competitively all across the United States.”
Since he was about five years old, Wallin would wake up at 5 a.m. to walk out in the dog yard and play with the teams. Once he got older he’d go on runs with his parents, joining on the four wheeler as the dogs trained. The toughest times were when his parents were out competing in the Beargrease (then a 500-mile marathon) without him, but he’d pass time by doing the dog chores himself at home.
He competed in the Beargrease mid-distance races in 2019 and 2020, finally getting to compete in his first full-length marathon in 2021. He finished an impressive sixth place on debut, including earning the sportsmanship award after helping another musher ride along to find their team after they fell asleep during the marathon.
The 2022 race was a thrilling finish for the family, with Wallin’s mom Colleen passing him late in the race to finish third, only about 30 seconds ahead of her son.
“There’s not a lot of sports you can do with your parents: sled dog mushing is one of them,” Wallin said. “My mom and I are super close … I look up to my mom for everything. To be able to share that experience at the finish line with her was pretty surreal.”
Colleen has finished third on three different occasions with their team Silver Creek Sled Dogs. His father Ward has raced the Beargrease in the past and recently has competed at the UP 200 in Michigan and the 250-mile Can Am Crown in Maine.
The training season begins in fall by running with the four wheeler, starting with three-mile runs and progressively getting longer for strength and conditioning training to raise the dogs’ endurance. Sled training comes later, allowing for more work on speed. The 12-dog teams alternate training days leading up to the marathon, which can last up to 6-8 hours for 60-80 mile runs.
“Mushing competitively is not just a magic carpet ride: there’s a lot of work that goes into it year-round,” Wallin said. “You face a lot of adversity while you’re doing it.”
2023’s eventful race, future goals
Wallin finished 8th of 17 competitors in the 2023 marathon, ending with nine of his 12 dogs after having one drop out to illness and two to injury. With five total dogs getting sick and feeling ill himself, Wallin took it easy in the later stages to make sure he finished with a healthy team. His favorite part was seeing his dogs happy and back to normal by the conclusion.
The race began on the morning of Sunday, Jan. 29, with Wallin crossing the finish line around 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 31. Wallin loves the atmosphere of the race, included the positivity and smiles of hundreds of volunteers that stand outside in weather that can dip below -50°F Wind Chill.
The 2.5 day, 300-mile journey runs through the night, with mandatory checkpoints set up to make sure dogs get the necessary rest.
“The dogs are like humans; every one of them has a different personality,” Wallin said. “It’s the interaction and connection you make with the dogs, especially after a 300-mile race. In two and a half days you get to know them real well. You’re in the middle of nowhere with your 12 best friends: to me it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Leaving dozens of his furry friends at home was difficult in his first year of college in 2022, but this year he found more time to get back home to train on his parent’s 120-acre property. He ran dogs every day during the month-long winter break, also competing in the 100-mile Gunflint Mail Run and taking fourth before returning for the spring semester.
“I was home every weekend, even if it was for a day, I’d drive home to run dogs and prepare for the Beargrease,” Wallin said. “The Beargrease isn’t getting easier. I want to keep being competitive in that race and eventually win it; that would mean a lot to my family.”
Wallin is an Environmental Science major, with goals to be a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Officer. His other major goal post-graduation? Win the toughest sled dog race in the world.
“My parents have never ran the Iditarod: that’s eventually my goal is to get up to Alaska,” Wallin said about the premier sled dog race that totals about 1,000 miles. “The best of the best compete in that race. I want to win it.
“I got a fire in me,” he continued. “I’m a really competitive kid and that’s what I’m working towards.”