UNALAKLEET — Ryan Redington was the first Iditarod musher to reach the Bering Sea coast on Sunday.
Redington ran the marathon 85-mile portage trail from Kaltag nonstop and arrived in Unalakleet at 4:20 a.m., three-quarters of the way into the race. The move gave him a clear, if precarious advantage over his closest competitors, Pete Kaiser and Richie Diehl, as the teams sped up the coast toward Shaktoolik.
Redington got a warm welcome from the Unalakleet crowd gathered in the predawn hours in subzero temperatures with biting wind. His mom was born in Unalakleet and he still has family here.
“It’s like a childhood dream coming alive,” said Redington who now splits his time between Knik and Wisconsin.
Redington called the trail from Kaltag “really perfect” and said his dogs handled the challenge well.
He fed his 12 dogs a big meal of bacon, beef, kibble and chicken and noted they were eating voraciously, a sign they are healthy and that their metabolisms are kicked into high gear. And after 10 hours of nonstop mushing, Redington devoured slices of pizza sent to the checkpoint by fans and said he would try to get 20 minutes of sleep before heading back out to the dog yard.
It’s a tight race for first place after defending champion Brent Sass dropped out the Iditarod Saturday with health problems and early race leader Jessie Holmes’s team faded during the last several runs.
At the windy Unalakleet checkpoint, Redington swapped out his big sled for a smaller, lighter sled with no seat and meticulously packed his required supplies like snowshoes and his ax.
“Now the racing starts,” he said. “If you’re gonna win this race you can’t step back. And they’re not gonna hand it over to you.”
After hundreds of miles along the flat Yukon River and forested Interior hills, the Bering Sea coast challenges teams with vast stretches of windy and unprotected trail along the sea ice from Unalakleet to Nome.
“I train in Wisconsin so we don’t have anything like this, but we’re up for the challenge,” said Redington.
Originally from Knik, Redington is the grandson of Joe Redington Sr., who is considered a founder of the Iditarod. His three consecutive top 10 Iditarod finishes leading into the 2023 race have been his best.
The two mushers with the best chance of catching Redington — Kaiser and Diehl — each rested their teams on the trail before Unalakleet and stopped at the checkpoint only long enough to grab more food for their dog teams and a thermos of hot water to stay warm.
Kaiser left the Unalakleet checkpoint 52 minutes after Redington’s departure. An hour and 13 minutes later Richie Diehl gave chase on the trail up the coast toward Shaktoolik.
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