GRAND PORTAGE, MINN. – Two teams of sled dogs crossed the finish line Tuesday night seven seconds apart to finish what organizers said was the closest John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in race history.
Erin Letzring of Skagway, Alaska, edged out defending champion Ryan Redington to become the first female musher to win the Duluth-to-Grand Portage race since 1998.
"These guys didn't give up," Letzring said as she petted Black Hawk and Wilder, the four-year-old Alaskan huskies that led her team as they clinched victory. "They exceeded my expectations."
The 300-mile contest began Sunday morning and wrapped up at the Mineral Center checkpoint next to a log cabin in the woods, where a few dozen volunteers, judges, veterinarians and dog handlers cheered on Letzring and Redington.
Marathon racers must rest for a total of 24 hours during the race to be broken up as the mushers see fit. When Letzring embarked on the last leg of the race — a 31-mile set of trails in Grand Portage — she had an eight-minute lead on Redington.
"We just kept passing each other," Redington said. "It was a great race."
He waved to Letzring and shouted congratulations, then went to give his dogs some food.
Mushers finished a few hours slower than past years due to a weekend snowfall and unseasonably warm weather. Daytime temperatures have hovered around 30 degrees, slowing down some of the dogs bred to run in subzero temperatures.
"This is great people weather, it's just not great dog weather," said Kirk Weber, vice president of the Beargrease board.
Veterinarians check dogs at each stopping point, and mushers stress that the happiness and health of their dogs are their top priority.
The race is the longest sled dog event in the Lower 48 states and one of the only qualifiers for the Iditarod that was not canceled because of the pandemic.
No spectators were allowed at checkpoints due to COVID-19.
"In a way, it's been kind of nice because it's been an intimate race," said Beargrease spokeswoman Monica Hendrickson. "It's been fun to see everyone in the mushing community because we never thought we were going to this year.
"But we really miss our fans," she added. "And hope to see them next year."
The marathon is named after an Anishinabe man who delivered mail along the North Shore using sled dogs in the late 1800s. His great-grandson, Mike Keyport, was at the finish line.
"In all my 20 years with this race," he said, "I've never seen anything this close."
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478