By Elle McMahon and Chance Fortune
Dog is man’s best friend as the old saying goes, but few dog owners know the true depth of this statement like a sled dog musher. This past week the 34 annual John Beargrease Sled Dog race kicked off and brought together mushers and their dog teams from across the Midwest and even Alaska. This year’s race, 90 percent of which unseen except by GPS tracker, had more than a few notable ups, and downs, as well as the occasional wolf sighting.
On Sunday, January 29, in the frigid northern parts of Minnesota, twelve mushing teams started out on their 373-mile journey in memory of a man who once did so much for this part of the region over 100 years ago.
The John Beargrease Marathon featured twelve mushers from all over the country that are temporarily sworn in as US postal carriers for a 373-mile long track that takes a similar route that John Beargrease did when he, and his brothers, would carry the mail to many people in the northern parts of Minnesota. The mushers started their journey to the very top of the state in Two Harbors, MN. Along this journey, the mushers had to endure freeze temperatures, about 35,000 feet (seven miles) in elevation change, and in two cases- wolves.
The stand out story this year though is the story of the race’s second place winner Ryan Redington who was forced to run a large chunk of the race after three of the dogs on his team went down due to exhaustion and had to be left at the Grand Portidge check point. Two checkpoints later another dog on the team hit its limit leaving Redington in a dangerous competitive situation.
“Six is the bare minimum requirement to finish with; you’re disqualified if you have to drop more than that,” said race board member Jason Rice.
Luckily the rest of Redington’s dogs were able carry on with the support of their musher who was more than ready to run alongside his team and share the burden. The drop in pulling power may have lost Redington the lead but that did not deter him or his team from driving forward. The John Beargrease is not a simple straight path start to finish. To take the strain off his dogs and maximize their race potential, Redington sprinted each hill that his team came across. With roughly 120 miles left to go in the race, Redington was able to maintain second-place and even temporarily retake the lead from Ryan Anderson until exhaustion finally set in and he once again lost the first-place spot.
At one point the race was very close in time with three teams. Rice stated in an in class interview that, “we have never had three teams enter the final checkpoint within twelve minutes of each other.” At the end of the trail, however, there was one definite winner. According to the Beargrease website, Anderson from Ray, Minnesota crossed the finish line with a trail time of 43:40:55 with an average speed of 7.3 mph.
Anderson was running with a team of ten dogs during the race. However, according to Rice, Anderson was not out to win. He was running his dogs as a chance to do a 400-mile trial run before he travels to Alaska for the 1000-mile Iditarod race in March. However, with the right guidance and strategy, Anderson and his team of ten dogs, with only 1650 miles of training, crossed the finish line as the winner.
Despite the challenges, cold, and adversity that Redington and his team faced they were able to find their inner fire and drive on through, finishing second in a race that only eight of the twelve teams were able to finish at all. After crossing the finish line Redington was treated for severe blisters on his feet and was seen hobbling when he accepted his award but still maintained a positive attitude.
Next time you hear the phrase that dog is man’s best friend, think of mushers like Redington who truly embody how close the relationship between dog and man can be in the harshest of situations.