By Brady Slater
Duluth News Times
A funny thing happened on the way to the finish of the 2017 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon: a race broke out.
With three of its leaders each claiming to be using the Beargrease as a trial-and-error tuneup for the sport’s most iconic event, Alaska’s Iditarod, someone still had to win — and that someone was now three-time champion Ryan Anderson.
The 35-year-old from Ray, near the Canadian border, took control of the race across its final 90-plus miles. He crossed the line at Billy’s Bar in Rice Lake just after 10 a.m. Wednesday to hoots, whistles and the muffled applause of many mittens clapping.
Anderson said he’d spent the last two legs of the race looking over his shoulder for Alaska’s Ryan Redington, 33, who set the early pace for the Beargrease and finished in second place, with the race minimum of six dogs.
“I had more power than him,” said Anderson, who ended the race hauled by 10 dogs. “But if I stopped, he was right there and I could see his light coming most of the time.”
Missy Anderson gives her husband Ryan a kiss moments after he won the race. Bob King / News Tribune
The top four mushers across four days and 373 miles of racing crossed the finish line within about 70 minutes of one another. Four-time winner Nathan Schroeder, 39, of Warba, took third and race rookie Matthew Schmidt of Grand Marais came in fourth. Either Anderson or Schroeder has won every Beargrease dating back to 2010.Saying he wanted to put in long runs during the race, Anderson eschewed a traditional stopover in Finland on Day One and took his team all the way into Sawbill, 68 miles from the start in Two Harbors. It was atypical Beargrease strategy — as was Anderson’s rotating of “seven or eight” different lead dogs throughout the race.
“I didn’t push them,” he said. “I wanted to do 70-mile runs and I started by doing Sawbill in one shot. That’s not a strategy you see from winners typically at Beargrease.”
When it was over, Anderson made what has become for him the equivalent of a victory lap — walking up the line from his sled and patting each dog on its hindquarters before accepting a kiss from his wife, Missy.
The duel that materialized between Anderson and Redington was 18 years in the making. The two met in 1999 in Alaska at Jr. Iditarod.
“We’re good friends,” Redington said. “We’ve been very supportive of one another through the years and we’re glad to see each other do well.”
Both men said they relied heavily on 2-year-old dogs to get through the Beargrease in an effort to rest more mature racers left back home, and test the mettle of the younger dogs as the teams head into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March.
Anderson, Redington and Schroeder are registered among the 75 mushers scheduled to race in the 1,049-mile Iditarod that begins March 4.
Starting fast on trails that were iced over, the Beargrease slowed beginning with Monday’s snowfall. Redington described having to break trail in front of his team through new-fallen snow. A first-time Beargrease participant, Redington said he was eager to come back next year, professing a love for both the hilly course and the enthusiastic fans and volunteers he met at every checkpoint up to Grand Portage and back.
Musher Ryan Redington shouts to his dogs as he nears the finish. Bob King / News Tribune
“I’ll tell you what, Minnesota has some real good mushers,” he said. “I’m very impressed.”Each of the teams of dogs scarfed down hunks of raw meat when it was over. Anderson limited his crew to just a snack before putting them to nap in their traveling pickup-bed kennel.
“We’ll feed them later,” he told one of his handlers. “They’re eating better that way.”
For Anderson, evaluating and collecting mental data on his dogs was what it was all about. Minus some cramping, they came through in good shape, he said.
The snow that slowed the racers on the back half of the race benefited the spectators, who were able to see a daylight finish for the first time in three years.
“There was no excuse to miss it,” said Duluth’s Halee Schlangen, who brought her two children, West, 7, and Lulu, 6. “It’s a really cool vibe.”
The scene outside Billy’s Bar included the ever-present fire to warm waiting spectators, a line of TV cameras, an assortment of mushers’ trucks and trailers, and a simple red line marking the finish — formed by pouring grenadine on the packed snow.
Tony Mai of Big Falls took off work and followed the entire race, driving to every checkpoint. He was there when Schmidt left on the last leg only to return to the County Highway 2 checkpoint north of Two Harbors to drop off a dog that just didn’t want to go any farther.
“I’m friends with about 90 percent of these people,” said Mai, a past participant in the mid-distance race who is rebuilding his kennel using dogs that have bloodlines from Schroeder’s kennel. “Plus, I wanted to pick up some strategy.”
In winning his third Beargrease, Anderson turned strategy upside-down.
“More important than winning is the way the dogs look right now,” he said. “They could take 24 hours off and go do this race again tomorrow.”