History of the U.P. 200 & Midnight Run
In the summer of 1988, musher Jeffrey Mann and his family moved to Marquette, Michigan from Seattle. Not long after arriving, he met the families of Scott & Elise Bunce and Tom and Sarah Lindstrom. The group soon discovered a common thread in their lives: sled dog racing. Scott and Elise were training a team of their own, and Tom was the past President of the Beargrease Association which sponsors the well known Beargrease 10 and 6 dog races in Minnesota. Jeff had been an avid and successful racer while living in Alaska.
As they spent time together, the families often talked of having a race in the Upper Peninsula. They discussed the idea with friends and met with others who were interested, finally deciding to formulate a race plan. When the race finally began to take shape, the trail encompassed Marquette, Alger, and Delta counties, and ran from Marquette to Chatham, Rapid River, Escanaba, Gwinn, and back to Marquette. People throughout the area began to become excited, volunteering their time and abilities to the efforts. Many local businesses began to offer financial support as well, and the event grew from an idea to reality. What started with three families soon grew into a group of many families, bringing their unique talents and ideas, immersing them into this new challenge. Some were former Alaskans missing a familiar pastime. Others had followed news of races in other areas for years and looked forward to a race hosted in their native region. Several had teams of their own, and were ecstatic over the opportunity to race in their home territory.
Through the Marquette Chamber of Commerce, Jeff met LouAnn Balding, who quickly became a key member of the race committee, investing her considerable organizational abilities in the project. From this diverse group emerged a strong commitment and on a snowy Friday evening in February of 1990, the dedication and perseverance finally paid off. To the cheers of 10,000 spectators, the mushers of the first UP 200 Sled Dog Championship ten dog race sped down Washington street in Marquette and into the night. At midnight, in the community of Chatham the first Midnight Run racers departed on the long, cold journey toward Escanaba. These racers went on their way into history, with many “tails of the trails” for the years to come. Since that time, the UP200 and Midnight Run have been extremely successful events each year. In 2003, the UP200 race trail was moved to Grand Marais as the turnaround point, and in 2014, the Midnight Run trail was altered to turn around in Chatham and return to Marquette for the finish.
This is the story of how the U.P. 200 & Midnight Run became a reality. Sled Dog racing itself typically involves every member of the family. Traveling by sled dog is no longer a necessity; it has become a hobby and a sport. Today’s mushers do not take part in this activity for money or fame, because there is very little of both in sled dog racing. When you look at this sport, it always comes back to one thing – it’s about the dogs.
How Grand Marais Came To Be The Turnaround Checkpoint
Grand Marais is a small village tucked away on the south shore of Lake Superior, in the central Upper Peninsula. Surrounded by state land on the east and south, and with Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore just to the west, it’s a recreational playground for all seasons of the year. The locals like to joke that “Grand Marais isn’t the end of the earth, but we can see it from here,” and they claim that the 25-mile drive north from Seney on M-77 is the state’s longest driveway. Since 2003, the highlight of the winter season has been the UP200 Sled Dog Championship, which rolls into town the third weekend in February. The story of how Grand Marais came to be the turnaround checkpoint for the race highlights the resourcefulness of the people who live in this remote section of the UP.
The UP200 ran for many years on a trail between Marquette and Escanaba. In 2003, the winter was unseasonably warm, and three weeks before the race there was almost no snow in Escanaba. The UPSDA board made the decision to move the race trail, if a suitable halfway point could be found.
And here is where the tale takes a distinctly Yooper turn. The race committee headed east, looking for potential trail locations. While having lunch in at the Golden Grill in Seney, they ran into Father Fred, priest at Holy Rosary Church in Grand Marais. The race committee explained that they were looking for a local group that could put a checkpoint together, and Father Fred suggested they head north to Grand Marais and talk to realtor Rosie Meldrum. Rosie called the president of the Grand Marais Women’s Club and explained the situation. After some discussion, it looked like the Chamber of Commerce would be a better fit, so the race committee contacted the Chamber, and the rest is history.
Lake Superior is prone to heavy lake-effect snowfall, and Grand Marais was the perfect distance from Marquette, plus snow was almost guaranteed. The trail could be re-routed through commercial forestland. But could a tiny town of only 300 people manage to organize a checkpoint with 13 road crossings, parking, vet facilities, timers, bag checkers, phone lines, and all the other necessities of a major checkpoint – in only three weeks?
The Grand Marais Chamber of Commerce stepped up to the task. The word went out to Chamber members, families, friends, visitors, and anyone else who would listen that the UP200 wanted to come to town, and Grand Marais wanted to make it happen! Volunteers stepped right up, and before the dust settled over 100 people had signed up to take on the necessary tasks. The Community Center was booked for the weekend, the Women’s Club organized a luncheon, volunteers cleared the ball diamond to create a parking area, and Chamber members built a special finish gate. The race was on!
On Saturday morning, February 15th, 2003 the town cheered as the first mushers arrived after making a 120-mile journey through the night from Marquette. The mushers were delighted with the warm welcome they found – happy crowds, plenty of parking, a warm building, food, restrooms, even hot water for their dog chow. In 2004, the UPSDA board voted to make Grand Marais the permanent halfway checkpoint for the UP200. The mushers say it’s one of their favorite checkpoints of any race, and the town of Grand Marais welcomes them with open arms every February.
Checkpoint Coordinator Cathy Egerer has organized the action in Grand Marais for the last six races. “I’m the third coordinator we’ve had here, after Kay Wampler and Dawn Marx. Kay and Dawn did a great job of getting the checkpoint up and running and then adding to it and making it better every year. When I took over in 2008, it was a seamless transition because we all knew each other, and I’d been involved since the first race when I started by working at the stats and information table. In 2013 I asked Nikki Darrow to join me as a co-coordinator and she’s been fantastic to work with. We have to organize over 120 volunteers, so it’s great to have a partner and divide the tasks. We’re going to have a great checkpoint again this year!”
This year, the checkpoint activities will include a pie-by-the-slice sale, a silent auction, great UP200 merchandise, and of course the famous Women’s Club luncheon, all of which is open to the public. The dog lot is open for visitors to stroll through and take photos. Checkpoint coordinators Cathy Egerer and Nikki Darrow invite everyone to come up to Grand Marais on Saturday, February 17th, and see the teams up close!
The Founding & The First Year
The founders of the UP200 & Midnight Run were Jeffrey Mann, Scott and Elise Bunce, Tom and Sarah Lindstrom, and Lou Ann Balding.
When Jeffery Mann came to Marquette, he had an idea for a sled dog race that started to become a reality, thanks to Tom Lindstrom. When he arrived in Marquette, Jeffrey had 20 dogs and 3 years later he left with 28 dogs for home, Fairbanks, Alaska. After Jeff finished the UP200 in 1991 in 9th place, disappointed, he went to Togo, MN to train with Jamie Nelson, who had finished 2nd in the race that year.
The UP200 initially ran a maximum of 10 dogs and the Midnight Run a maximum of 6 dogs.
The first UP200 race had 14 teams, and the Midnight Run had 12 teams. In the MNR the second-place winner was Darlene Leafgren of Superior, WI; she had the distinction of being the ONLY woman musher in the race.
State Representative D.J. Jacobetti, from the Michigan Travel Commission, presented to the UPSDA the Governor’s Tourism Marketing Award.
In 1990 President and Mrs. Bush were invited to attend the first UP200/MNR. In our Archives are the letter and the reply back, stating they were sorry but would not be able to attend, but sent their best wishes for a successful race.
In 1990 on the day before the first race, Marquette got 16 inches of snow. Oberstar still hauled and dumped snow along the M-28 snowmobile trail and bike trail to make a five-mile path. At the start there was an honor escort of 20 snowmobiles out of town.
In 1990 a snowmobile accident occurred, 45 minutes into the race near Deerton trail. A single snowmobile came down the trail, and the musher and his dogs jumped to the side of trail. The snowmobiler stopped for a moment, stared at team, said nothing and then sped off.
In 1991 Dr. Tom Cooley was killed in a lodge fire in Minnesota. He had been the Chief Veterinarian for the races, coordinating the crew of veterinarians responsible for conducting the mandatory pre-race vet check as well as the vet check required at each checkpoint. In memory of Dr. Cooley, the Cooley Challenge award was established. The winner is selected and presented by the veterinary staff at the end of the race, for exemplary care of their dog team.
In 1991 William Kleedehn, called the “one-legged musher”, from Willard Lake, Ontario, raced in the UP200. Kleedehn lost his leg in a motorcycle accident at age 18 when a drunk driver struck his cycle. He didn’t feel having an artificial leg was a great handicap as far as sled dog racing was concerned, and raced competitively until 2010.
In 1993 the mandatory total rest time for UP200 teams was 12 hours. The race start was extended one block, starting at 4th & Washington, which is still the starting point for the race.
In 1994, running on ice led to the worst accident in the UP200. William “Billy” Orazietti, an experienced and well-liked musher from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario became disoriented on the ice over Little Bay de Noc. After straying off course, Orazietti’s dogs ran off the ice into open water. He managed to free two dogs from their harnesses, but ultimately the cold water took the lives of Billy and 8 of his dogs. In honor of Billy, his 1994 bib number, 11, has been retired from the race.
In 1994 Biologist Tom McCutcheon developed a formula for skunk remover stink. It was 1 quart of 3% Hydrogen Peroxide, ¼ cup baking soda, 1 tsp liquid soap. Mix, apply to dog, and follow with a through tap water rise.
In 1995 Dr Tom Porn, a Marquette chiropractor who served as the official race photographer, drowned in a scuba diving accident. The Tom Porn Award was established in his memory. This coveted sportsmanship award is presented by the mushers themselves to a fellow musher who demonstrates a positive attitude along with fair play and compassion.
In 1995, John Schandelmeir of Alaska won by less than a minute over Lloyd Gilbertson of Chatham.
In 1996 the UP200 was shortened by 112 miles due to white out conditions. The mushers voted to suspend the race, pack up and drive to Gwinn for a re-start and on to Marquette for the finish.
In 1997 ‘Cyber mushing’ took fans on the trail. Computer users were able to track the UP200 on the Internet thanks to a Marquette computer consulting firm that set up a race web page. At this time the John Beargrease Marathon was the only race you could follow on the web. Local web hosting company up.net posted updates every 15 minutes during the race. Thanks to Jeff Blackman, president of Future Basic.
The 1998 UP200 winner, Keith Aili, was the youngest musher to win at that time.
In 1999, the eighth graders at National Mine schools learned about mushing and built a sled and dog boxes. Their teacher was Charlie Yeager.
In 2000 a big change was made for the UP200. Mushers could now have a maximum of 12 dogs, rather than 10.
In 2000, Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm was the guest of Munising News’ Willie Peterson. She attended the race and rode in the first sled with musher Tim Hunt. She said it was like nothing she had ever experienced before.
In 2001 the first fall sled dog symposium took place; the special guests were Rick Mackey and Joe Runyon. In 2002 the guest speaker was Doug Swingley.
2001 was dedicated to the Volunteers, as is this year’s race, which has been officially designated The Year of the Volunteer and is dedicated to all the volunteers who make it possible.
In 2001, the 12th year of the Midnight Run, the race gained world-class status and was recognized by the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports as the mid-distance 6-dog class world championship race that year. Entrants came from Russia, Norway, Belgium, Italy, Finland, New Zealand, and Quebec. It was first time the world championship race had been held in the ‘lower 48’; previous championship races had been held in Alaska, Norway, and Sweden, but never before in the continental U.S.
In 2001 the race Head Judge was Dick Mackey
2003 saw the start of the Jack Pine 30 mile race, from Gwinn to Marquette. This was a 6-dog race leaving from Larry’s Foods in Gwinn.
In 2003 the UP200 trail was changed to travel to Grand Marais, because Escanaba had no snow. Grand Marais put an entire checkpoint and 13 crossings together in less than three weeks. A year later the change was made permanent. This little town of 300 people still lines up over 100 volunteers each year. The UP200 trail is now 234 miles long.
In 2005 a motion was made to eliminate Chatham as a Checkpoint but use it as a dog drop.
In 2005 the Midnight Run would begin in Gwinn, travel to Marquette and on to Deerton, finishing in Munising. It also was changed to 8 dogs maximum rather than 6.
In 2006, a blinding winter storm blew into the UP as the race started. Mushers faced white-out conditions and loss of the trail due to poor visibility. The judges made the decision to end the race in Grand Marais, and Tasha Stielstra of McMillan, MI was the winner.
In 2012, temperatures in the UP rose to 60 degrees three days before the start of the race. Due to the deterioration of the trail between Marquette and Wetmore, the race route was changed at the last minute. The mushers raced from Marquette to Grand Marais, then back to Wetmore, and returned to Grand Marais for the finish.