Beargrease sled race winner, runner-up talk dogs, cold, competition

Keith Aili and Ryan Anderson spoke Wednesday with MPR News' Cathy Wurzer

A man and his dog on a snowy part of the road
Beargrease musher Keith Aili, of Ray, Minn., celebrates after being presented with Lead Dog Award at the finish line of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon at the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino on Tuesday.
Clint Austin | Duluth News Tribune

Dog tired.

That’s perhaps the best way to sum up the condition Wednesday of the four-legged and two-legged athletes that finished the 2023 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

The iconic, grueling 300-mile race across northern Minnesota wrapped up Tuesday in subzero temperatures in Grand Portage. Keith Aili of Ray, Minn., near Voyageurs National Park, finished about eight minutes ahead of second-place musher and four-time champion Ryan Anderson.

For a time, Anderson and his team were in first and positioned to deliver Anderson a fifth championship, but Aili won the day.

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They spoke Wednesday with MPR News about working through 20-below race temps and coaching dogs that sometimes aren’t all that keen on people.

“Both of us have a lot of experience racing,” Anderson said. “It was exciting for people to watch us a little bit, and for us out on the trail. We knew both of us had a good dog team. And we were just doing our best to manage our own team.”

Aili and Anderson both said their dogs were doing fine the day after the race. Aili said his team was relatively young and so brought some new and specific challenges on the trail.

“They just they have hardly any race experience, maybe one or two, but nothing as long (as Beargrease) … so, a little bit trickier running a dog team like that,” he said.

“It's much more enjoyable when you got a team that’s veterans in as they've all raced before. So this one took a little bit more coaching on my end.”

It was a particular challenge toward the finish line, he said, because his dogs were not well socialized with people. “They're running fast. But when they get to a big group of people, and they can't see a narrow path between them, they're just scared of them.”

Anderson, who lives about an hour northeast of St. Paul in Cushing, Wis., said the bitter cold this weekend in northern Minnesota was “a huge adjustment” for his dogs.

“My team hasn't seen 20 below,” he said, adding the dogs were were initially stressed but acclimated quickly. “I don't think anybody's seen a trail that hard all year long, so that was also another adjustment for the dogs to try to just get toned back and not try to go so hard and fast on the trail to try to conserve energy.”

Aili has been running sled dogs since he was a teenager. The Minnesotan did the Alaskan Iditarod race twice, starting in 2002.

Anderson said he’s “90 percent sure” he’ll be back next year to run the Beargrease marathon.

Aili was not as certain, noting that he was recently married, although he said his wife wants to continue racing and the pair are building up a kennel operation. “That’s that the start of what we're trying to put together, for both of us.”