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