NOME — Ryan Redington crossed the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finish line in Nome on Tuesday to earn his first victory in the grueling race his grandfather pioneered more than half a century ago.
His team of six dogs — featuring leaders Ghost, 6, and Sven, 4 — came to a rest on Nome’s Front Street at 12:13 p.m., a couple hours after the sun cracked over the sea ice on the southern horizon.
Redington is the first member of his family to win the Iditarod in the decades they’ve been part of its legacy. “We’ve waited 51 years for this, ladies and gentleman,” emcee Greg Heister of Iditarod Insider told the crowd in Nome, to a roaring cheer.
Redington made the nearly 1,000-mile run in 8 days, 21 hours, 12 minutes and 58 seconds. Hundreds of people lined the race chute in excitement as he jogged beside his sled and up toward the finish line in his lime-green parka ruffed with wolverine fur.
Redington thanked the fans and supporters who’d helped him reach this moment, which marked the culmination of a childhood dream.
“It means everything to bring that trophy home. It’s been a goal of mine since a very small child to win the Iditarod, and I can’t believe it. It finally happened. It took a lot of work, took a lot of patience. We failed quite a few times,” Redington said in the race chute after snacking his dogs and hugging friends, family and other mushers.
The 40-year-old comes from one of Alaska’s most esteemed mushing families, one that played a crucial role in competitive long-distance sled dog racing. His grandfather Joe Redington Sr. is regarded as the “father of the Iditarod,” an event he dreamed up with a handful of others at a time when mushing was vanishing across Alaska.
For winning, in addition to prize money and awards Ryan Redington has racked up along the trail, he’ll receive a bronze statue of his grandfather — customarily presented to each year’s champion.
Ryan, who grew up in Knik and now splits his time between Alaska and Wisconsin, is one of six Redingtons to have finished the Iditarod since it started half a century ago, with plenty of top-10 finishes among them.
“It’s been a very doggy life for all of us,” he said. “No days off — we think about winning the Iditarod.”
Earlier Tuesday morning as the sun rose over Nome, his mother, Barb Redington, was walking up and down Front Street, trying to loosen some nerves with her son approaching the finish line.
He’d taken a widening lead, and she’d watched with delight from afar as he mushed through the Unalakleet checkpoint, the race’s first stop on the Norton Sound coast. Barb Redington was born in Unalakleet, where her father used sled dogs to deliver mail and on a trapline.
“I was watching the live feed and looking at all the people that came out to see him. It was really heartwarming. I was looking at the parkas and saying, ‘Is that my cousin?’”
It was special to see not only her son in the lead, but also that the top three contenders were all Alaska Native, she said.
[Alaska Native mushers sweep Iditarod’s top 3 spots in ‘a good showing for rural Alaska’]
What was the first thing she planned to say to her son under the burled arch?
“I love you,” she said. “I’m proud of you.”
Later Tuesday, she recalled a time when Ryan was in fourth grade and came home from school while ferocious winds were howling outside. He wanted to hook up the dogs and go for a run, but his father, Raymie Redington, told him it would be best to wait for conditions to die down.
“He said, ‘Martin Buser just won in a blizzard,’ ” his mother recalled, referring to Buser mushing to an Iditarod victory in the midst of a storm.
Ryan promptly went out to hook up his team.
“We’ve been working on it a long time,” Raymie Redington said a few minutes ahead of his son’s arrival.
Asked how Joe Redington Sr. would think of the day’s victory for his grandson: “He’d be happy,” Raymie said with a slow smile.
A comeback, a bold move and ‘a different level of camaraderie’
The victory comes a little more than a year after Ryan Redington and his team underwent a violent ordeal. During a training run in northern Wisconsin, a snowmachiner drove into his dogs, injuring two that had been slated to run in that year’s Iditarod. One dog, a 3-year-old, was badly hurt, requiring costly surgeries Redington was able to fund after tens of thousands of dollars in donations from fans and supporters poured in.
“We did have a horrific accident that involved my dog Wildfire. He was on the team this year in the race,” Redington said Tuesday to applause. “He’s an Iditarod champion. He’s had a great comeback.”
Redington is the first former Junior Iditarod champion — claiming victories in the 150-mile contest in 1999 and 2000 — to go on to win the thousand-mile main race. He won back-to-back Kobuk 440 races in 2019 and 2021; the pandemic canceled the 2020 event. Over the years he’s won major races in the Lower 48, including the Gunflint Mail Run and John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
He credits part of his Iditarod win to training his team for slower, longer races rather than some of the shorter sprint contests he’s kept his sights on in the past.
Though Redington was mixed into the front of the pack from the race’s outset, it was during the race’s second half slogging down the Yukon River that fortunes decisively changed. And on Monday, while his next-closest competitor — 2019 champion Peter Kaiser of Bethel — rested at the checkpoint of Elim, Redington mushed on, extending his run from Koyuk all the way to White Mountain, a distance of 94 miles that took around 14 hours with no significant breaks along the way.
“I had to make my move — that long run from Elim over to White Mountain,” Redington said. “I thought that was my only chance … to maintain our lead, we needed to make a big move.”
That bold maneuver secured Redington’s lead, putting him in White Mountain more than four hours before Kaiser.
“It was a risky move,” Redington said of the long push. “I was just hoping it paid off.”
After taking a mandatory eight-hour rest at the checkpoint, Redington took off, Nome-bound, at 12:15 a.m. Tuesday.
His hardest moment was yet to come. Mushing through the notoriously windy “blow hole” early in the morning, visibility dropped so low that all Redington could make out were his wheel-dogs, the two closest to the sled.
“It was marker to marker,” he said of conditions. “My eyes were freezing up, I couldn’t see, it was crazy windy through there.”
Kaiser was the next musher to pull into Nome, crossing the finish line with eight dogs in harness at 1:36 p.m. Tuesday, about an hour and a half after Redington. In third place was Aniak musher Richie Diehl, arriving with seven dogs at 2:40 p.m., followed by Matt Hall of Two Rivers and his seven-dog team at 5:21 p.m.
On Tuesday evening, Brushkana musher Jessie Holmes leapfrogged past Big Lake’s Kelly Maixner after leaving the checkpoint of Safety. Claiming fifth place, Holmes arrived at 7:08 p.m. with 10 dogs in harness, and Maixner trailed him in sixth place. Chasing them in the hunt for a top-10 finish: Matthew Failor, rookie Eddie Burke Jr., Mille Porsild, rookie Hunter Keefe and Wade Marrs, who left White Mountain just before 6 p.m. Tuesday.
After securing his second-place finish, Kaiser described the camaraderie among mushers and how, being out in tough situations, competitors need to “have each other’s back to some extent.” Redington earlier said that Kaiser had given him some words of encouragement during the race.
“There’s a different level of camaraderie in this race than other competitions in the world,” Kaiser said. “It’s very unique.”
As for Kaiser’s next move after wrapping up his nearly nine-day journey to Nome? “Eat and sleep and stretch my back out a little bit,” he said.