After withdrawing from last year's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, Nathan Schroeder returned to his Chisholm home to contemplate how he could win the 380-mile race next time around.
The 32-year-old millwright and musher said he was too concerned with how other mushers were racing and needed to return to the strategy that helped him place sixth in 2008.
Come Wednesday morning, in his sixth attempt, Schroeder did better than sixth place: He won the 27th running of the Beargrease. Led by nine dogs, Schroeder traversed the trail along the North Shore of Lake Superior in 40 hours, 4 minutes and 25 seconds.
In 2009, "he got a little cocky and overconfident and was not as consistent in his training," his father, Vern Schroeder, said. "After that race, he went home and did a lot of thinking. He set a plan, held to it through the summer and ran the dogs how they were trained."
Schroeder's strategy was to build a big lead through the first half of the race and hope other mushers would travel the same speeds as he did back to Duluth. It worked, as he led almost start to finish.
"A lot of mushers in the race, I think, dismissed him because he was running so fast, but he proved them wrong in that respect," Vern Schroeder said. "He flew under the radar, and when they noticed, it was too late."
Nathan Schroeder's triumph came against a 30-musher field that included five former Beargrease winners. Schroeder turned back Jason Barron's attempt to become the first musher to win three straight Beargreases.
Schroeder's strategy of sprint and hold usurped Barron's strategy of slow starts and fast finishes. Barron, of Lincoln, Mont., was runner-up in 41:55:00 and Denis Tremblay of Quebec was third in 44:03:04.
"I knew I had a good team," Schroeder said. "At Devil's Track on the way back, I knew if I ran 8.5 [mph] or better no one would catch me."
For the entire trek, Schroeder averaged 9.3 mph, besting Barron's 8.9 mph.
"It feels good," he said. "I'm proud of my dogs and the family support, and I ran a good race. Man, these dogs are fast."
Schroeder grew up in Warba, a small community southeast of Grand Rapids. He was first attracted to mushing at age 12 when a substitute teacher brought a malamute puppy into class.
"He initiated, and I had never been to a sled-dog race before that," Vern said. "We did everything the hard way. It was trial and error -- and mostly error."
The missteps included initial purchases of a malamute and three Siberian huskies instead of Alaskan huskies, which are traditional mushing dogs.
In the early years, Vern would race and Nathan would help handle the team, or at least that was the theory.
Nathan's success took off in spring 2006 when he purchased a dozen dogs from 2006 Beargrease winner Keith Aili of Ray. Two dogs on Nathan's championship team were from Aili's winning team.
"I needed a core of older, experienced dogs," Nathan said. "And whoa, that was the ticket."