A grin on his face and a GoPro camera in his hand to capture the moment, musher Ryan Redington pulled to a stop at the finish line and casually asked the crowd, “How are you guys?”
Redington, who trains in both Alaska and Northwestern Wisconsin, won his first John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon title on Wednesday, crossing the finish line at Billy’s Bar near Duluth at 5 a.m. with a cushion of several hours separating him and second-place finisher Ryan Anderson of Ray.
“I’m very surprised that we won by a big margin. There’s a lot of good dog teams and that team of mine just got stronger from the halfway point on. It was so much fun to see. It was just a magic carpet ride,” he said.
Redington's victory breaks the hold on the Beargrease crown by two race icons from the Northland: Four-time winner Nathan Schroeder of Warba, and defending and three-time champion Anderson. Schroeder and Anderson had combined to win every Beargrease that was held since 2010. The most-recent musher other than Anderson or Schroeder to win the race was Montana's Jason Barron in 2008 and 2009.
Finishing shortly before 8 a.m. Wednesday, Anderson said it was “impressive” that Redington could maintain the speed he did during the race. Anderson explained that snowy weather on Tuesday slowed him down between the Sawbill and Finland checkpoints.
“Even if I would have done anything different, I wouldn’t have caught him,” Anderson said.
Redington finished this year’s race at a blistering pace - his average speed for the race was 10.1 miles per hour. Anderson said he wasn’t expecting to win this year’s Beargrease because he thought Redington would have a team that could win - but he’s still happy with his team’s performance.
“It was a good team, but it’s just not the right mix to win. There’s too many older dogs, not enough dogs in their prime, and I knew that coming in,” Anderson said.
Redington took his win in stride in the dark Wednesday morning. He went down the line to pet each dog and noted that his two lead dogs wanted to go fast the entire way. Meeting with the media following his win, Redington looked at Billy’s Bar from across the parking lot and began his comments, “It’s probably too early for a burger now, huh?”
Redington maintained a strong lead for the second half of the race thanks to lessons he learned during last year’s Beargrease, when he also held an early lead - but came in second after his dogs ran out of energy down the stretch.
To train for this year’s race, Redington ran his dogs 1,200 more miles than he did last year. He also kept his team running slow at the start of this year’s race to conserve the dogs’ energy for the second half. He held the team’s pace in check early on by keeping his two lead dogs, Archer and Rumba, in his sled for a time.
“We weren’t worried about the first 100 miles of the race, how we were doing. It was something different for me. It was hard, when we were getting passed; it’s hard to not let the dogs go. They wanted to run with those guys and I was telling them, ‘In time, be patient, we’ll get with it,’ ” he said.
The race isn’t won in the first 100 miles - but it can be lost there. Redington said he didn’t realize last year the toll a fast pace up and down the North Shore’s many hills could have on a dog team.
The new strategy of having patience during this year’s race paid off - he left the halfway point at Grand Portage with 11 dogs this year, compared to seven last year. The remaining dogs had enough energy to keep up a winning pace on the trip back down the North Shore.
“I let them have a little bit of fun and speed up some. They were ready for the challenge, that’s for sure,” Redington said. “There was times when I was going 13, 14 miles per hour and I was like, ‘We’re going way too fast’ and I even took a video when we left Finland, they were just on fire. Every time we left (a checkpoint), they (had) just really great speed and I was smiling ear to ear all the way.”
Partway through his interview at the finish line early Wednesday, Redington was handed a phone so his young son and daughter could talk to him following his win. His daughter, Eve Redington, took second place in this year’s Beargrease Cub Run; both his kids will be in next year’s Cub Run, he said.
“I hope to one day handle for them when they run the Beargrease,” Redington said.
He said he’s looking forward to many more Beargrease races in the future.
“This race is really amazing, all the volunteers, the race staff. It’s so much fun. We can’t wait. We’re already thinking about next year,” he said.
But before next year’s Beargrease, he’ll be heading back to Alaska today to prepare to race in his 11th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March. Redington, the grandson of Iditarod founder Joe Redington Sr., finished 14th in last year’s Iditarod, winning the award for most improved musher; he hopes to improve on that this year.
“It’s by far the best team I’ve put together. It’s a lot of fun. I’m very excited,” he said. “It’s going to be an enjoyable trip up.”
Beargrease spokesman Jason Rice said this year’s race went well for mushers, fans and the organization. Spectators got to see a “fantastic” and “unbelievable” performance by Redington in this year’s race, Rice said - Redington was running so fast that he beat some of the race volunteers who usually help out at the finish line.
The “magic carpet ride” experienced by Redington this year held true for the Beargrease organization, too, Rice said. Two fundraisers - the Beer and Bacon Bash in the fall and Beer-grease last week - did well, he said.
Race headquarters moved to Superior Shores Resort near Two Harbors this year to provide more space for the opening ceremonies - a partnership that came out of a conversation at the Beer and Bacon Bash. Rice said families staying at the resort last weekend heard about the race and attended the opening ceremonies, as well as the race start.
“It’s just a magic moment for some reason,” he said.
John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon
- Ryan Redington, Wasilla, Alaska, finished at 5 a.m. Wednesday; 2. Ryan Anderson, Ray, 7:47 a.m.; 3. Denis Tremblay, St. Michel des Saints, Quebec, 8:38 a.m.; 4. Colleen Wallin, Two Harbors, 9:36 a.m.; 5. Nathan Schroeder, Warba, 10:06 a.m.; 6. Blake Freking, Finland, 10:49 a.m. Scratched: Keith Aili, Ray; Matt Schmidt, Grand Marais; Blair Braverman, Mountain, Wis.; Kevin Mathis, Monona, Iowa.
2018 - Ryan Redington, Wasilla, Alaska
2017 - Ryan Anderson, Ray
2016 - Nathan Schroeder, Warba
2015 - Ryan Anderson, Ray
2014 - Nathan Schroeder, Chisholm
2013 - Nathan Schroeder, Chisholm
2012 - No race
2011 - Ryan Anderson, Ray
2010 - Nathan Schroeder, Chisholm
2009 - Jason Barron, Lincoln, Mont.
2008 - Jason Barron, Lincoln, Mont.
2007 - No race
2006 - Keith Aili, Ray
2005 - Mark Black, Hovland
2004 - Blake Freking, Finland
2003 - Cliff Wang, Ely
2002 - Frank Teasley, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
2001 - Cliff Wang, Ely
2000 - John Barron, Willow, Alaska
1999 - John Barron, Willow, Alaska
1998 - Jamie Nelson, Togo
1997 - Jamie Nelson, Togo
1996 - Doug Swingley, Simms, Mont.
1995 - Jamie Nelson, Togo
1994 - Doug Swingley, Simms, Mont.
1993 - Greg Swingley, Simms, Mont.
1992 - Greg Swingley, Simms, Mont.
1991 - Terry Adkins, Sand Coulee, Mont.
1990 - Susan Butcher, Manley, Alaska
1989 - DeeDee Jonrowe, Willow, Alaska
1988 - Jamie Nelson, Togo
1987 - Myron Angstman, Bethel, Alaska
1986 - Robin Jacobson, Squaw Lake
1985 - John Patten, Grand Marais
1984 - Kevin Turnbough, Grand Marais
1981-83 - No race
1980 - Gary Hokkanen, Minneapolis