One of the most accomplished mushers in the history of the sport was going to race the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon next week.
Until he wasn’t.
In a phone call from his home in Talkeetna, Alaska on Friday, Dallas Seavey told the News Tribune he’d be forgoing the race this year in order to undertake broader duties related to the race and the sport of mushing.
“I’m disappointed I’m not going to be there,” Seavey, the four-time Iditarod champion, said. “I’ve followed Beargrease from a distance my entire life. It’s a really exciting race. It’s definitely still on my to-do list.”
Seavey will fly to Norway in the coming days in order to provide studio commentary for Beargrease and the three other races that make up the inaugural Qrill Pet Arctic World Series. Seavey races as part of the Qrill Pet Mushing Team, and the Norwegian pet food maker is attempting to elevate the sport by uniting races from all parts of the world into a competitive series.
“I feel like the best way I can support mushing right now is by doing what I can for Qrill and helping them do their commentary," Seavey said. "That’s a better use of my efforts this winter than actually racing.”
Beargrease organizers were staying positive and noting that the 15-musher field includes five past champions.
“We are disappointed that Dallas won’t be here in person,” race spokesperson Jean Vincent said. “We are happy he will be involved in some capacity and we’ve very excited about the field of mushers we have, the arctic world series and the race in general.”
The 36th Beargrease starts Jan. 26 at Billy’s bar on the north edge of Duluth. This year’s marathon marks the second year since the race went from an out-and-back 400-mile format to a 300-mile, one-way marathon up the North Shore, ending in Grand Portage.
Vincent noted that a win by four-time Beargrease champion Nathan Schroeder would break a tie with Jamie Nelson and make Schroeder the winningest musher in the race’s history. Other past champions appearing in the field include three-time winner Ryan Anderson, two-time winner and defending champion Blake Freking, Keith Aili and Ryan Redington.
Beargrease, Norway’s Femundløpet (Jan. 31), Russia’s Volga Quest (Feb. 8) and Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (March 7) make up the inaugural season of Qrill's arctic world series.
“From when I was 5 years old we’ve been talking about this stuff,” the 32-year-old Seavey said. “What if there was a mushing series? How do we get the best racers in Norway, Canada, Alaska and the continental U.S. all in one place for a big race? We’ve been talking about it forever.”
Seavey has spent the past two seasons racing in Norway, building his relationship with the sport there and his racing sponsor. He described the community of mushing as made up of pockets around the frozen parts of the globe, each supporting their own, mostly smaller races, and doing their own thing, Seavey said.
“I want (Qrill) to have a successful winter and I want this whole system to work for the sake of mushing,” Seavey said. “I would love to see this arctic world series take off and races like Beargrease get the coverage they deserve, and be an even bigger and better presented race.”
Vincent confirmed that Iditarod Insider, the online subscription home for the sport’s biggest race, will use a two-person team to document Beargrease, in addition to daily coverage provided online by Qrill. She said links to the coverage are in the process of being added to the Beargrease website as Qrill works to unify some of the sports racing communities in the online realm as well as on the trail.
The three-time Beargrease champion, Anderson, formerly of Ray, Minn., now based in Cushing, Wis., had been eager to race Seavey.
“He’s dedicated,” Anderson said. “He’s built his life around mushing. He’s a hard worker and he’s got the personality that wants to win and be successful. He was a wrestler in high school and college, and he’s got that personality trait you can’t really teach.”
Seavey admitted he’d rather be on the rails of his sled, but added that he’s, for once, immersed himself in rebuilding his team by raising yearlings and 2-year-olds.
“I’ve enjoyed having one of the best dog teams in the world — one of the best ever — and working with this amazing race team,” he said. “It’s a ton of fun. But focusing on the next generations has been fun, too.”
He described veteran dogs as capable of showing small percentage changes over the course of a season, with the focus always being on peaking for the next big race. He's enjoying the opportunity to develop a dog team “under no rush,” saying young dogs offer the chance to see "huge growth".
“In five or six months you see the dog becoming what it’s going to be,” he said.
This year will be the third straight in which Seavey will not race Iditarod. But he’s planning on a comeback.
“It’s very likely I’ll be having another serious season next year,” he said. “I’ll be back into it in 2021, and would love to get lined up for another four- or five-year run at Iditarod.”
In the meantime, he’s still hitting the trail.
“Oh yeah, I’m always mushing whether or not I’m racing,” he said.
So, could his trail lead back to Duluth, the North Shore, and a future run at Beargrease?
“There’s a very good chance,” Seavey said. “I don’t want to promise that just yet. I’m sorry I’m not going to be there, that’s for sure. I’ve traveled halfway around the world to do dog races, and I would like to do them all.”