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Heron Lake native Blake Freking braves 45-below windchill to win Beargrease marathon

Beargrease marathon champ Blake Freking watches as his daughter, Nicole, pets his lead dog, Eagle. Freking and his wife Jennifer finished 1-2 in this year's race braving a 45-below windchill. (Steve Kuchera/Duluth News)

Blake Freking’s interest in sled dogs and mushing started innocently enough. But as a youth growing up in a place like Heron Lake, the fascination confused his parents Rich and Diane -- at least at first.

“I don’t know where it came from, coming from southwestern Minnesota,” Rich said, looking back. “At first we thought, ‘What is he doing?’ The more we heard about it, the better it was.”

Blake, a 1991 graduate of Heron Lake-Okabena/Lakefield High School, said he was first drawn to the winter sport in elementary school, from reading books.

“It hung with me the whole time,” he said.

While he was still living in Heron Lake, he procured a couple of dogs. He got his third dog from a young woman who lived in Cambridge, who later became his wife. She was already a fan of mushing, and she was in Alaska at the time, running in the Junior Iditarod.

Blake headed to Alaska in the winter of 1998-99, and that’s when he became hooked. Now 45, he has run the 1,000-mile Iditarod three times, the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest once, and several other races including the Beargrease from Duluth across the forests of Cook County to Grand Portage, 11 times.

This year’s Beargrease was special. Not only did Blake win it, but his wife, Jennifer, came in second.

“It’s the first time a married couple finished 1-2 in any of the big races,” said Blake from his home in Finland, Minn.

Blake was surprised at the finish line. He knew that Jennifer was having issues with her two lead dogs during the race. But she got them under control and finished only 15 minutes ahead of the third-place team.

Blake and Jennifer’s dogs literally flew through the snow on the final leg. Blake’s team of Siberian and Alaskan huskies, he said, seemed so fresh they would have turned around and gone back to Duluth if he’d asked them to. And Jennifer not only passed the third-place team on the final leg, but two other teams as well.

The historic 1-2 husband-wife finish certainly enriched the Freking family history. They’re a mushing family all the way, and their two daughters also race.

This year’s Beargrease was run in sub-zero temperatures in late January, including a 45-below windchill.

But it was nothing to Blake.

“Truly I was not cold during the race. They say there’s not cold weather, just bad clothing,” said he, who sailed his 10 dogs across the Grand Portage finish line in four layers of warmth.

During the race, wind was fierce. During one clear stretch, gusts blew the sled sideways. Blake told WDIO-TV reporter Baihly Warfield that he was “kind of pedaling alongside the sled, and the sled was blown out from underneath my feet.”

A great deal of credit, of course, goes to the dogs. The Frekings specialize in purebred Siberian huskies, and they have 62 dogs in all. There is an enormous amount of work involved in housing, feeding and training so many animals. Blake said each dog is trained for 2,000 miles.

The social dynamic of putting together a dog team, he said, is a lot like putting together a football team. They all must get along, they must work together as a group, and the Frekings’ dogs are outstanding.

“They thrive in conditions like the Beargrease was this year,” said Blake.

Without a doubt, Blake and Jennifer’s 1-2 finish impressed his dad.

“Back in, I think, ‘06, they came in second and third,” recalled Rich. “Back at that time, we thought, ‘How do you beat that?’”

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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