The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon officially gets underway on January 27th, 2008, but in the minds of some long-time mushers it’s probably already been underway for weeks.The North Shore Trail has a way of staying fresh in the memory. It has icy turns, out-of-control descents and relentless, leg-numbing uphill hikes that begin almost immediately out of the starting chute. It’s the kind of stuff that has a way of getting under the skin and staying there a while. “In one way or another it’s always there in the back of your mind,” says veteran musher John Stetson of Duluth. “It’s pretty much what I’ve been building up to every year. As you train, you’re thinking about which dogs are ready to handle the hills the best. Even in the spring, you’re thinking about which young dogs to keep and which ones to sell. It’s more than just jumping on the runners once the snow flies – it’s about planning in April where you hope to be in the fall, and then planning in the fall where you want to be at by January.”As dog drivers go, Stetson has had his share of successes on the Beargrease Trail. He’s placed in the top 5 in the Marathon more than once, and he is the two-time defending champion of the Beargrease 150 – the hotly contested mid-distance race coinciding with the running of the Marathon. “There’s a mental aspect to the Beargrease that gives it something extra,” notes Stetson. “I’ve run dogs all over the place, and sure – there are some big hills in other races too. But they’re gradual climbs over several miles. On the North Shore Trail, you’ll hit 15 or 20 hills where you’re making a 100 or 200 foot climb, but you’re also doing it in what seems like 100 or 200 feet of trail. Over and over again it just has this psychological domination over you, and I know the dogs feel it in their minds too.”Iditarod and Yukon Quest veteran Blake Freking of Finland, Minnesota says training for the Beargrease is about more than just putting lots of miles on your team.“You’re always going either uphill or downhill in the Beargrease, so it’s tough to achieve any sort of rhythm at all. In the Iditarod, you can sit down for a while and watch the miles whittle away slowly. But the Beargrease is just so fast-paced.”What a lot of top mushers notice immediately about the Beargrease is that the uphill is matched in the scope of the challenge coming down the other side. Shoulder and wrist injuries are fairly common for those who haven’t done extensive hill training with their dogs. The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon offers up some of the most breathtaking scenery Minnesota has to offer, running from Duluth to within a couple miles of the Canadian border, then making a return run to Duluth. It’s essentially the same path that namesake and legendary mail carrier John Beargrease himself used more than a century ago. Although Mr. Beargrease himself never got to experience the luxury of handlers and heated trucks awaiting him every 50 miles, today’s mushers have found that there’s really no better way to see the North Shore of Lake Superior.Checkpoints in several friendly towns along the way make camaraderie a natural element of this race, now in its 25th year. Mushers come from across the lower 48 and Canada each year to take on the trail, and many return because of the friends they made along the way. As we like to say here in the northland, “you’re a stranger here but once.”Jason Rice is the president of John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon Inc., and has has competed in several mid-distance sled dog races in Minnesota and Wisconsin, including three John Beargrease Mid-distance (150-mile) races. He lives in Duluth, MN.