Ready, set, mus­h! U.P. 200, Midnight Run off to a chilly start

MARQUETTE – Musher Frank Moe, of Bemidji, Minn., raced first out of the starting gate Friday evening as hundreds of chilly onlookers cheered him on in the 24th running of the U.P. 200.

Crews worked all day to truck in snow and lay a track down Washington Street for the bevy of mushers registered to compete in both the U.P. 200 and the Midnight Run.

This year, a section of Fourth Street between Washington Street and Baraga Avenue was also cordoned off, to lay a short track for Midnight Run mushers to use to get to the starting gate at the corner of Fourth and Washington streets.

The weekend of sled dog racing takes a lot of work to pull together and relies on a huge number of volunteers to make it happen.

Three of those volunteers spent their Friday afternoon checking musher bags, making sure racers had enough food and other supplies to get them through the 240-mile Iditarod-qualifying event.

Ishpeming residents Heidi and Lance Peterson and their daughter, Amanda Matznick, were volunteering at the U.P. 200 for the first time.

Heidi Peterson said they try to volunteer at a number of events throughout the year.

“We like to help the community,” Lance Peterson said as they checked musher Nathan Schroeder’s sled.

The cries of eager dogs ready to run could be heard throughout the day as U.P. 200 mushers readied their teams along Washington Street. Some mushers have a set routine they follow before a big race.

Musher Andrew Letzring, from Iron River, Wis., used to wear the same jacket for every race, until his wife convinced him to get a new one.

“My big thing was I had a jacket like this one, except it was green” he said, gesturing to the coat he had on. “It had no insulation. It did nothing to keep me warm, but I would wear it every time I would go out. Then I got married and she made me throw it away.”

Others simply wait out the long hours before the race can begin.

“I actually hate the day of the race, because we have so much time on our hands,” said musher Al Hardman, from Ludington. “I just like to get going. Once you get going, then you only have one thing to think about and that’s just running down the trail. Up until then, you’re thinking about everything. ‘Oh, did I do this. Oh, did I do that.’ You keep second guessing yourself.”

Hardman, who at 70 years of age has been running sled dogs for 20 years, usually listens to books during a long-distance race.

Friday night, he had Lee Child’s “Bad Luck and Trouble’ cued up and ready for the start.

Hundreds of spectators lined the street as the mushers made their way to the starting gate. The longest sled dog race in Michigan, the U.P. 200 draws people from all over to its unique, downtown start.

Letzring, who owns Bark River Racing with his wife, Christina, said the downtown start is one of the best parts of the race, which he has run three times previously.

“The U.P. 200 is awesome. I’ve been to every race, from little 20-mile sprint races around here to the Iditarod and this downtown start in Marquette is the coolest in the sport,” Letzring said. “It’s awesome. It’s why I keep coming back.”

This year, Midnight Run mushers started downtown as well, one hour and a half after the last U.P. 200 musher left the gates.

Most of the crowd packed their way into downtown businesses -some of which stayed open late to accommodate the group of cold spectators – in between races.

Temperatures hovered in the teens Friday night in Marquette and a lake effect snow advisory as well as a warning was in place as of 9 p.m. Friday for most of the race route.

But the cold temps didn’t slow anything down in the downtown area, and that’s something Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association President Pat Torreano was happy to see.

“I’m thrilled to death,” Torreano said of the crowd that surged back out into the cold to watch the Midnight Run mushers make their way down the starting chute. “I didn’t know what to expect. And this crowd looks as big as the other one. It’s phenomenal This town is to be commended on its support for all we do. We are thrilled.”

Though the crowd in Marquette had little to battle other than cold temperatures, the mushers were already fighting some nasty winter weather Friday night.

“The ham radio operator just told me there’s zero visibility… near Slapneck Creek,” Torreano said. “We got a dog race. We got a winter blizzard out there somewhere.”

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is jstark@miningjournal.net