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Competitive spirit runs in the family

When Rachael, Rebecca and Saul Ellering were students in Melrose, they had no pets in the usual sense. But they had plenty of dogs–big, muscular huskies. They named them, played with them, gentled them, helped to train them, and rode behind them on the sled as they trained for their latest race. The dogs belonged to dad, otherwise known as “Precious Paul” Ellering, a musher who has had a colorful history in other fields as well.  It was inevitable that 20-year-old Saul would follow in his, um, paw prints.

“When I was younger I used to go with dad on training runs, and it just went from there,” Saul said. He ran three successful races in 2014, winning the Camp Ripley and the Mid-Minnesota at Reimer and placing third in the White Oak at McGregor, all races of 60 miles or so. At that point, he decided he was ready for a bigger challenge. In February of this year, he ran the three-and-a-half day John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, along with 16 other competitors. Dad and mom were both along for support and encouragement.

He finished last, but he finished, quite an accomplishment for a rookie with six untried dogs. He didn’t win big money prizes like the first eight finishers, but he was awarded the red lantern. Four other teams were not so lucky. “They dropped too many dogs,” Saul says. “You start with 12 dogs, and you can only run a minimum of five.” He finished with seven.

The Beargrease takes three and a half days, starting at Two Harbors and ending in Duluth. It commemorates the legendary John Beargrease, son of an Anishinaabe chief who carried the winter mail from Two Harbors to Grand Marais, by rowboat and dog sled, in the last two decades of the 19th century. It is the longest dog sled race in the lower 48, covering some steep terrain, including the Sawtooth Mountains.

“The first night we slept outside, but I didn’t sleep.  I just sat there because I knew I wasn’t going to sleep.” In fact, Saul was awake for the three and a half days of the race, running on adrenaline, energy drinks, and pure excitement. Once he managed to take an hour-long nap in dad’s truck, which also carried supplies, including food for the humans as well as the dogs.

“They eat hamburger, beef, pork, chicken, Dog Chow, and anything they want at that point,” Sauk says. Paul adds, “It’s winter camping. The dogs sleep in straw, and you save a little straw for yourself.” He ought to know, having run the Beargrease, the Iditarod, and other races throughout his career.

Saul knew he was still in the running when he hit the last checkpoint, exhausted, with his brain not functioning properly, but confident.

“I knew I was going to make it. Before that, I was a little worried, but I pushed through and finished.”

Saul said, “I learned a lot of do’s and don’ts. I had six rookies on the team this year, and they’d never been in a race before. I’ll make sure I get them in a smaller race before I do a bigger one. They get nervous, just like people.” Rookie dogs don’t have the concept of beating the team ahead of them, but they learn with experience. Because there wasn’t enough snow in the Grey Eagle area where he lives to train the dogs properly, Saul hitched the dogs to a truck or the 4-wheeler and let them pull it. They did fine on the flat, but on a hill, he had to put the truck in drive.

“Next time, I’ll train on snow, even if I have to go up north to find it.” Race times and locations depend on snowfall, or lack of it. Saul wanted to compete in this year’s Mid-Minnesota, but the weather just didn’t cooperate, as it didn’t for Saul’s sister Rebecca Sprenger, who trained for the Wolf Track Classic in February. Her dogs weren’t ready, and the weather was horrible.

The Ellerings are a sporting family, although some of the sports may not be as well known as others. Grandpa Alphonse Ellering ran track and played Melrose High football, when his team had a record string of championships throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. Mom Debra Ellering-Rosenberg was a body builder and health club owner. Sister Rachael is currently third in the world in power lifting, a sport not included in the Olympics, but popular in other countries. It consists of squat, deadlift, and bench press.  Her finish in last year’s World Power Lifting Championship in South Africa earned her a bronze medal and a chance to share the American flag with the winner, also an American.

Paul has had the most varied career, starting in Melrose High where he was a wrestler and weightlifter. He graduated in 1971 and continued weightlifting at South Dakota State University. By 1976 he had deadlifted 745 ½ pounds for a world record. This feat caught the attention of legendary wrestling promoter Vern Gagne, who suggested he become a professional wrestler. He figured that year or two of that would earn him enough money to buy a health club. He wrestled for the next eight years as Precious Paul.

At some point, possibly when fellow Minnesotan Jesse Ventura, who would also make an interesting career change, had him in a stranglehold or while reading The Wall Street Journal between bouts, he decided that management would be more profitable and less painful. As the manager of a number of wrestlers, including The Road Warriors, later called The Legion of Doom, he toured for the World Wrestling Federation.

Vacations up north and the novels of Jack London had sold him on the beauties and possibilities of Alaska, where he became intrigued with the world of mushing. He talked with experienced mushers, bought a team, began training, and entered a number of races, short and long. Realistically, he knew he wasn’t going to win the Beargrease or the Iditarod, but these races were part of his long-range plan. For a time, he manufactured and marketed his own brand of food for sled dogs, on the principle that nutrition was the key to their performance. He also bought that health club at last, Fitness Guru.

Business aspects were always foremost in Paul’s mind.

“A lot of guys neglect that aspect of sport. You’ve got all these people making lots of money and not knowing what to do with it. I was asked to help people, and that’s what got me into managing. I said, that’s a lot better deal. I’m not getting hurt, and I’m getting paid. So I went that direction.”  He adds, “Wrestling is all about noise and people, and tons of energy pouring in at you. I needed a release, and the dog mushing gave me that, because it’s totally quiet. It’s just you and the dogs. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum.”

He did the Iditarod three times, always finishing in the middle of the pack. In 2005, when he ran the grueling race alongside legally blind musher Rachael Scdoris, they made good time but had to scratch due to the dogs’ health. His latest venture is owning and managing a tavern by Grey Eagle.

On March 7, 2015, Rebecca had her chance at last, running the 46-mile White Oak Classic in Deer River. With her were Paul and Saul, who took seventh and eighth respectively, while Rebecca placed ninth.

“It was an awesome experience!” she said.”The weather was beautiful, and it was great to be out on the trail with my dad and brother. I cannot wait for next season to try some other races.”

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