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Erin Letzring wins Beargrease in near photo-finish

Alaska musher beat her ex-husband by just 7 seconds to become the first woman to win the marathon since 1998.

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Erin Letzring hugs a lead dog and handler and former Beargrease marathon champion Keith Aili after winning the marathon by seven seconds. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

MINERAL CENTER — In a near-photo finish stolen from the mushing movie "Iron Will," Erin Letzring won the 37th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon Tuesday evening by just 7 seconds over her fellow Alaskan Ryan Redington.

The two battled back and forth for the final leg of the 302-mile race, swapping the lead multiple times before Letzring pulled ahead for the final few hundred feet, emerging out of the dark to a stunned crowd of media and race officials bathed in television floodlights.

“I think we passed each other three, maybe four times in the last few miles,’’ said an exhausted Letzring, who hugged each of her dogs after the victory.

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Erin Letzring reaches for her snow hook to hold her team as defending Beargrease marathon champion Ryan Redington’s team crosses the finish line. Letzring won the 302-mile-long race by seven seconds. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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The two teams raced into this remote outpost near Grand Portage at 6:20 Tuesday evening. The race started at 9 a.m. Sunday just outside Duluth, and rules required teams to rest for at least 24 hours along the way.

The two Alaskan mushers — who were previously married but are now divorced — have Alaskan huskies from the same bloodlines.

Both racers described their duel Tuesday, and their rivalry, as competitive but friendly.

“It was pretty crazy,’’ Letzring, 38, said of the last leg of the race. “He was ahead of me a lot until the end.”

Letzring said she knew Redington, 37, was mere feet behind her heading to the finish line.

“I just thought, come on (dogs) don’t give up now, don’t give in. ... And don’t one of you stop to poop now!’’ she said with a smile.

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Erin Letzring runs ahead of her team in an effort to get them going. The team bulked shortly after leaving Mineral Center for the final leg of the Beargrease marathon, costing her an eight minute lead she had over Ryan Redington. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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Alex Angelos, Beargrease race director who has been involved in the race every year, said it was the closest marathon finish that he could recall.

Letzring praised her lead dogs, Blackhawk and Wilder, and also her handlers. She said the dogs would get rewards of chicken for dinner while her first post-race priority would be “a nap.”

Redington said he was trying to pass Letzring again just a half-mile or less from the finish line when his team began to stop, possibly because his dogs recognized Letzring’s dogs. Both mushers stopped and “needed to rearrange dogs,’’ Redington said, before they sprinted to the finish, Letzring with nine dogs still running and Redington with just seven.

“That was probably the difference,’’ Redington said of Letzring’s two extra dogs. “I pushed hard, but so did Erin. … I’m not making excuses. Congratulations to Erin. It was great for her to win her rookie’’ Beargrease Marathon.

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Erin Altemus starts the final leg of the Beargrease marathon Tuesday afternoon. She finished the race in fourth place. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Letzring had an 8-minute lead over Redington leaving the last checkpoint, with about 30 miles to go in the final leg. But her dogs stopped running just 200 yards out of the gate and the lead evaporated before she could convince the dogs to move again.

Apparently the extra rest helped, however.

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“To make it in ahead of Ryan took a lot of effort by the whole team,’’ Letzring said.

It was Letzring’s first Beargrease full marathon while Redington is a veteran, having won in 2020 and in 2018. Letzring is from Skagway, Alaska. Redington is from Wasilla, Alaska.

“I’m looking forward to a rematch,’’ Redington said, already eyeing the 2022 Beargrease.

While women mushers have traditionally done well in the Beargrease, Letzring is the first woman to win the marathon since Jamie Nelson, a four-time champion, won in 1998.

Some 17 mushers started the race Sunday and 15 of them were still running as of Tuesday evening, although it would be early Wednesday before the final racers finished.

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Ward Wallin gives Beargrease marathon racer Blake Freking a fist bump as he prepares to leave Mineral Center checkpoint Tuesday. Freking’s wife Jennifer also ran the race, as did Wallin’s wife Colleen and son Ero. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The three-day, 302-mile race up the North Shore on snowmobile trails, usually a popular event drawing hundreds of Northlanders along the route, was for the first time run without spectators as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

The precautions forced officials to stagger race starts so that teams from various races didn't overlap or even park their teams and rigs in the same spots.

But, unlike many other dog sled races canceled due to COVID-19, such as the Gunflint Mail Run canceled last month, the Beargrease went off as scheduled.

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One of the Freking’s dogs sleeps in the sun at the Mineral Center checkpoint Tuesday afternoon. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“Hats off to the Beargrease people for putting on a hell of a race during all this,’’ Redington said after the finish.

In the end it was snow, or a lack of it on the ground, that had the biggest impact on mushers. Course officials nearly postponed the race due to thin snow cover on some trails, and the planned final leg of the race from Mineral Center to the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino was nixed entirely.

Sara Keefer of Burnsville, Minnesota — racing with dogs out of Redington’s Alaska kennel — finished in third place about 25 minutes behind the leaders. Erin Altemus of Grand Marais finished fourth, with 2019 champion Blake Freking of Finland in fifth and rookie Ero Wallin, 18, of Two Harbors, in sixth place.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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