DULUTH – Ashlyn Tomberlin sat in a folding chair plopped in a snowbank while she waited for the quiet sound of sled runners.

"I'm just excited to see the dogs," said Tomberlin, 15, whose family had been counting down the days until the 37th annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

After almost a year of canceled events and missed traditions due to COVID-19, participants and fans relished in the outdoors Sunday as the longest sled dog race in the Lower 48 states kicked off. Mushers missed the thousands of fans who usually see them off, but they were mostly just glad that the race was happening.

"The tradition continues!" longtime Beargrease announcer Ken Buehler boomed into a microphone near the starting line.

The 300-mile marathon runs from Duluth to Grand Portage and serves as a qualifier for the Iditarod, the world-premier Alaskan sled dog race held each March.

Fifteen mushers began their long treks Sunday morning, and the winner among them will likely cross the finish line by midafternoon Tuesday. Another 25 teams were running the mid-distance 120-mile race, and 18 lined up in Duluth for the 40-miler.

Before the start Sunday, mushers and volunteers greeted each other with waves and gloved high-fives. They would normally spend the race chatting with spectators about their dogs, but this year they had more time to catch up with the rest of the mushing community since fans were banned from the starting line and checkpoints due to COVID-19.

"It's just so good to see everyone," said Judi Laurence, an emergency medical technician who has helped at the race for years.

Locals still used the Beargrease as an excuse to get together, too. Some snowshoed to their favorite clearings, while others used snowmobiles to find a spot to camp out with coolers and snacks as they waited for the teams to whiz by.

Cousins Steve and Mikkel Long gathered with their families around a bonfire for the first time in months.

"This is our chance to get together every year," Mikkel Long said.

Farther along the trail, University of Minnesota Duluth freshmen Elizabeth Ring, Tierney Ras and Corrina Marolt waited for mushers to glide over a bridge surrounded by snowy birches

"It's so peaceful out here," said Ring, who grew up nearby.

The fans cheered as the teams raced through the woods, soliciting waves from the mushers.

"One of my favorite parts is seeing all the people at the start of races," Charmayne Morrison said before harnessing her team up for the marathon. "I miss that."

The Beargrease will be the longest race the 20-year-old musher from Montana has ever done. She noted Sunday morning that "the dogs would like it a little colder" than 30 degrees.

Beargrease's team of veterinaries checks the dogs at various stopping points to look for signs of injury or ill health. Most of the dogs prefer to run in temperatures hovering around zero, so mushers and vets will be especially careful to make sure their teams don't become dehydrated.

"We just want our dogs to be happy and healthy," musher Bailey Vitello said before the race. "That's a win to us."

He and his father, Gregg, both came from New Hampshire to compete in the marathon, chasing their dream of running the Iditarod together in 2023.

"We're glad this race is happening," Gregg Vitello said.

Dawn Miller stood with her husband and three small children on the edge of the action. The family could hear the dogs barking from their house early Sunday morning as the canines realized they were getting ready to run.

"We just love the energy," she said.

One by one, the teams took off into the woods, where the chaos of the starting line melded into calm. The top eight competitors of the long- and mid-distance races will split a $20,000 purse.

The marathon teams hadn't split too far apart by the time they pulled into their first checkpoint Sunday afternoon in Two Harbors, where dogs curled up on piles of hay for a break. Marathon teams are required to rest a total of 24 hours during the race that can be broken up however the mushers see fit.

"I always say the real race doesn't begin until Tuesday," joked Colleen Wallin, a musher from Two Harbors who has ran the marathon most years since 1995.

She fed her dogs then planned to take a rest herself before strapping on a headlamp and returning to the race through Minnesota's Northwoods, where the only sound for miles is the rhythmic pattering of paws.

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