DULUTH – The fi­nal stretch of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon was called "no man's land," one mile of trail where regu­lar race et­i­quette doesn't ap­ply.

For about 300 miles, any time a mush­er want­ed to pass a com­pet­i­tor, he or she would have to "call trail," prompt­ing the mush­er in the lead to pull over so the oth­er could go by.

But mush­ers Erin Letzring and Ryan Redington were neck and neck when they reached that last part of the trail, where teams no long­er must yield to gain­ing op­po­nents on the nar­row, wood­ed course. Who­ev­er reached no man's land first was like­ly going to win the race, the long­est sled dog e­vent in the Lower 48 states.

"I tried re­al­ly hard to do that, but in the end we just ran out of trail," said Redington, who fin­ished this year's Beargrease in se­cond place, seven sec­onds behind Letzring.

The thril­ling end to the near­ly 2½-day con­test was the clos­est in race his­tory­. The small group of me­di­a, race or­gan­iz­ers and dog team han­dlers wait­ing at the fin­ish line could not tell which mush­er was in front as two dots of light from head­lamps hur­tled through the woods in Grand Por­tage.

Letzring and Redington, who were pre­vi­ous­ly mar­ried, said they passed each oth­er multi­ple times dur­ing the last leg of the race. Some of their dogs came from the same blood­line.

"They liked see­ing their bud­dies earli­er on, but dogs are very com­pe­ti­tive, too," Letzring said. "When we come up on a team and were pass­ing them, the dogs def­i­nite­ly get jazzed up and want to go on by them — re­gard­less of wheth­er they're friends or not."

The race was Letzring's first full Beargrease mar­a­thon, though she's been at­tend­ing the e­vent for years as a han­dler for dif­fer­ent teams. She was the first woman to win the mar­a­thon in more than two de­cades. A photographer captured a shot of Letzring's brother throwing his arms in the air as she crossed the finish line.

"That was my favorite moment," she said. "It was a team effort — myself, my brother, my partner, my dogs. We did it."

The 38-year-old mush­er grew up in Duluth and now splits her time be­tween Skagway, Al­as­ka, and Ashland, Wis.

Her fam­i­ly pur­chased sled dog pup­pies when she was 13 or 14, and they quick­ly em­braced the sport. Letzring's fa­ther and brother have both raced in Al­as­ka's fa­mous I­dit­arod, and she has com­peted in short­er pre­mier rac­es like the UP 200 in Mich­i­gan and the Ped­i­gree Stage Stop in Wyoming.

Af­ter at­tend­ing Duluth East High School and the University of Minnesota Duluth, Letzring moved to Al­as­ka to give dog sled rides to tour­ists. She now works as gen­er­al man­ag­er for a com­pany in Skagway that takes cruise ship pas­sen­gers on dog sled ex­cur­sions, horse­back rides and zipline trips.

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic meant more time for train­ing and strat­e­giz­ing.

"We worked re­al­ly hard with the dogs on hills, train­ing them to charge at the hills," Letzring said. That paid off when the al­read­y chal­len­ging course through the North Shore's Sawtooth Mountains was co­vered with fresh snow Sun­day.

Letzring said she has to fig­ure out her train­ing plans for next year but hopes to run the Beargrease mar­a­thon a­gain.

"For it to come down to seven sec­onds, af­ter 300 miles, is a pret­ty crazy fin­ish," she said.

Redington, who won the Beargrease in 2018 and 2020, said he plans to be back next year as well. But first on his mind is the up­com­ing I­dit­a­rod, which his grand­father found­ed.

A se­cond team of dogs from Redington's ken­nel, raced by Sar­ah Kee­fer of Burnsville, fin­ished the Beargrease in third place.

"I'm very proud of my dogs," Redington said. "Erin did a lot of work and ran a smart race — I tried my best to win it but came up short.

"There was so much adrenaline and ex­cite­ment," he add­ed. "That last leg was ev­er­y­thing that you want­ed in a dog race."

Kat­ie Galioto • 612-673-4478