UPSDA opts out of 2021 sled dog races, including 32nd UP 200

COVID+CANCELLATIONS%E2%80%94COVID-19+has+canceled+many+sporting+events+over+the+past+seven+months%2C+and+the+UP+200%2C+Midnight+Run+and+Jack+Pine+30+were+no+exception.+The+races+will+be+held+in+2022.+Photo+courtesy+of+the+Upper+Peninsula+Sled+Dog+Association.

COVID CANCELLATIONS—COVID-19 has canceled many sporting events over the past seven months, and the UP 200, Midnight Run and Jack Pine 30 were no exception. The races will be held in 2022. Photo courtesy of the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association.

Travis Nelson

After much talks and consideration, the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association announced at its monthly board meeting that the UP 200, Midnight Run and Jack Pine Run events for 2021 were canceled.

The decision was ultimately a tough one, and was made by the 10-person board and various people who had input, said UPSDA President Darlene Walch. When looking at the everchanging COVID-19 requirements, the board had a copy of the Beargrease Sled Dog Race COVID-19 plan in attempts to make this year’s races work. The UPSDA was concerned that the scenario of the pandemic wasn’t going to change, and felt the best approach was to make a decision sooner rather than later, Walch said.

Originally targeting November for the latest date of a decision, the organization wanted to make a decision now rather than a month down the road, Walch said. Another concern that UPSDA was faced with was bringing in many race officials, volunteers and mushers from outside of the area while trying to keep everybody safe.

“To bring them here and also then send them back from our location, which is obviously having a COVID-19 uptick, didn’t seem like a prudent thing to do,” Walch said.

Race officials had a lot of factors to consider in making this decision, including putting on the races and a lot of commitment into them, just for the events to be canceled last minute and not being able to be permitted locations for the race, Walch said. Race entities were hesitant to buy into the event, and with facilities possibly not being available, the pieces weren’t coming together to guarantee a good event, she said. Not only were outside factors of COVID-19 in the way, but the virus has been impacting the U.P. more and more over the course of the past couple of months.

“Watching things locally, regionally, nationally and internationally—places that shut down early and then opened back up are seeing resurgence. The numbers in the U.P. are going up steadily, and it didn’t appear that things would calm down enough to be safe even by the second week of February,” Walch said. “It takes months to put these races together, so it’s not something that we can wait until January and pull it off.”

Financially, the cancellation of the event will be felt both for the organization and the community, Walch said. There’s a very large economic impact in the Marquette-Alger region, which earns $2 million during race week according to an economic study done by the Lake Superior Community Partnership. UPSDA wanted to be careful how having the race or not would affect local sponsors who have had a difficult year due to the pandemic, Walch said.

It takes close to 900 volunteers for the UP 200 to run smoothly, and an estimated half of them are from NMU, Walch said. With the fall semester ending earlier and winter semester starting later, it would give the UPSDA two weeks to put volunteers where they need to be, and they are unsure of what things would look like in January, she said. With other volunteers not willing to travel to Marquette due to COVID-19, it made the decision that much easier.

“We did look at a lot of alternatives, running just one or two of the races, shortening the races, designing alternate routes, alternate locations. We obviously don’t foresee a downtown start where 5,000 people show up; that’s something that hasn’t been feasible since March and April,” Walch said. “When you take all of those factors together, potential for problems outweighed the benefits of doing some kind of modified version.” 

With the goal every year of striving to put on a safe race, volunteers are typically everywhere to keep people safe, Walch said. When it comes to safety, UPSDA determined that it wouldn’t be safe to run the events in 2021.

“What headlines we would want to see and what headlines would you not want to see? One headline that we agreed that we didn’t want to see is that the U.P. 200, Midnight Run and Jack Pine 30 become a hotspot for COVID-19,” Walch said. “That in the long run would be more devastating, and the board would have a hard time with it because everybody’s very responsible and very conscientious.”