By Andy Greder
Duluth News Tribune
Jason Barron spoke more like a banker than a dog musher Wednesday as he described the strategy that propelled him to his second consecutive win in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
Barron, of Lincoln, Mont., said he put "money in the bank" when he let his two top dogs rest in the sled during the first 120 miles of the 380-mile race. Then, when Barron needed to make a comeback after the midway point, he used "a bailout clause" to embark on a long-distance run.
With that deft strategy employed, Barron crossed the finish line about 2:30 p.m. with 10 dogs in a total trail time of 42 hours, 36 minutes and five seconds to win the 26th running of the Beargrease. Runner-up John Stetson of Duluth finished about an hour later after 44:29:09 on the trail.
Barron, 37, also benefited from pedigree and prestige. Half of the 14 dogs he ran had won last year's race. And his reputation as defending champion pushed some fellow competitors to set a fast pace to get ahead of him, Barron said. That fast pace eventually took many of them out of the race.
In winning back-to-back Beargrease marathons, Barron matched his father, John Barron of Willow, Alaska, with two straight titles.
"He was born and bred into the sport," Stetson said.
Barron, who has competed in the Iditarod in Alaska eight times, blew out a field that was decimated by scratches as a record-low six mushers were expected to complete the endurance test. The last one, Colleen Wallin of Two Harbors, was expected to finish around midnight.
The weather and the wind were cold and the trail was frozen hard, racers said. The fast pace set by many mushers on a cold and hard trail eventually took its toll. Ryan Anderson of Ray, Matt Carstens of Whitefield, N.H., and Matt Rossi of Herbster, Wis. -- three of last year's top six finishers -- arrived first in Beaver Bay on Sunday, but they didn't finish the race.
Barron described some of the fast starters as "kamikazes."
"He held his team back," said Dan Bergerson of Grand Rapids, a handler and strategist for Barron. "That is why so many teams crashed on the way to Devil's Track. They ran a distance race with a mid-distance strategy."
Barron rested extensively early in the race and had gathered three more hours of rest on the field at Devil's Track, near the Canadian border.
He said his top two dogs, Xena and Clumber, were getting amorous during the 120 miles they spent in the pack on the sled.
"There was a lot of noise in there," Barron said. When Barron took them out, he did so in part to keep the "romance" down.
He harnessed his superstars, and "then we started to crush the competition," Barron said.
Barron said he reconfigured last year's winning strategy to match changes to the course: This year, the Beargrease added 50 miles, increased the limit of dogs to 14 and decreased the mandatory rest time to 28 hours. He said he consulted with former Beargrease winners Cliff Wang of Ely and Doug Swingley of Simms, Mont.
"He is such a disciplined musher," Bergerson said. "That is what makes it so enjoyable to handle for him."
Barron, his father and two other mushers -- Jamie Nelson of Togo and Greg Swingley of Simms, Mont. -- are the only mushers to accomplish two straight wins in the Beargrease.
"His dad won twice. He's won twice, so it's in the blood," said Wang, who won Beargrease titles in 2001 and 2003. "It's as simple as that."
The Beargrease should get used to the Barrons. Jason could go for three straight wins next year, while his wife, Harmony, who is four months pregnant with their second child, could participate in 2011 or 2012.
Maybe Harmony Barron will then harness sled dogs that were conceived by Xena and Clumber along the North Shore trail.