GRAND PORTAGE, MINN. – After pumping his fist in the air near the finish line painted in the snow, the 2020 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon winner cracked an exhausted smile Tuesday, stepped off his sled and patted every one of the dogs that had carried him to the end.
It was the second win for Ryan Redington of Skagway, Alaska, who finished the race on the shore of Lake Superior at 4:36 p.m., after he and his Alaskan huskies spent more than 29 hours on the nearly 300-mile trail from Duluth.
“Pretty happy with the dogs,” he said as he worked his way toward the front of the gangline and stroked 4-year-old Henry and 3-year-old Ghost. “What a great race.”
The seven canines that finished the race with Redington were each immediately treated to hunks of frozen meat along with dishes of water. Redington, who was running on about 3 ½ hours of sleep since the race began late Sunday morning, was looking forward to a shower and a warm meal.
Coming from a family of dog mushers, Redington was in familiar frozen territory. He won the Beargrease marathon in 2018 and has run numerous other races, including Alaska’s famous Iditarod, which his grandfather founded.
Redington’s team crossed about 15 minutes ahead of second-place finisher Keith Aili of Ray, Minn. The two are familiar with each other’s dogs; Aili sold his kennel of dogs to Redington nearly two years ago and Aili used many of his original dogs this year, Redington said.
The two ran close to each other for most of the marathon and shared handlers to help them feed and care for their dogs at most of the race’s six checkpoints. Marathon teams are required to rest a total of 24 hours during the race, with the musher responsible for watching the dogs and strategically choosing part of how that rest time is broken up.
Mushers and organizers stress that dog health and happiness is always the primary goal. Veterinarians check dog health at various checkpoints.
While many dogs prefer running in temperatures hovering around zero, this year’s race brought relatively warm weather, with highs in the 20s.
“The race itself has been a little faster than we originally thought because in Duluth [on Sunday] it was so mushy and warm,” said Beargrease spokeswoman Monica Hendrickson. “Once they kind of got out of Duluth, the trail conditions improved. It hardened up a little, got cooler at night.”
The warmth was an advantage for Redington, whose dogs struggled during last year’s polar vortex conditions. Redington said he runs his dogs five to six days a week during the summer and trains frequently at the warmest point of winter days.
“When I saw the forecast I was really happy with that,” he said. “I knew it was a strength to us.”
Redington spends about three months in Moquah, Wis., each winter, but lives with his wife and two children in Alaska, where he runs sled dog tours for cruise ship tourists.
He started the Beargrease with 12 dogs but took five out of the race along the way because they “were just a little tired and not wanting to go the speed that we were wanting to maintain.” He said he wanted to keep them rested for the possibility of joining a team to run the Iditarod in early March.
The Beargrease is known to be a difficult race among mushers because of the elevation changes in Minnesota’s Arrowhead. Many mushers run alongside their sleds on hills to ease the pulling for their dogs.
“My legs are pretty tired right now from all the running I did,” Redington said.
The lead dogs — male Henry and female Ghost — are smart and loving and get along well, never arguing with each other, Redington said. Ghost is small but competitive; Henry “thrives on all the interaction he can get.”
Redington, who won a purse of nearly $4,900, was looking forward to the race in his home state. He has run the Iditarod more than 10 times, he said, but has never won.
“First place gets a ... statue of my grandpa,” he said. “Nobody from my family has ever won it yet.”