Following 2023 victory, Iditarod champion stops by KUCB
This year’s Iditarod Champion visited Unalaska on Friday. Ryan Redington was a guest lecturer aboard the cruise ship Silver Wind, along with musher Sarah Keefer.
Redington sat down with KUCB’s Carlos Tayag to talk about the iconic sled dog race that his own grandfather co-founded fifty years ago.
This interview originally aired on KUCB on Sept. 22, 2023. It has been edited for length and clarity.
CARLOS TAYAG: So, Ryan Redington, the 2023 Iditarod champion. And you had three previous top 10 finishes before that?
RYAN REDINGTON: Yes.
TAYAG: And you’re a third generation musher?
REDINGTON: Third generation on my dad's side and four generations on my mom's.
TAYAG: That's amazing. And you've had how many family members compete in the Iditarod?
REDINGTON: I've had six members of my family compete in the Iditarod over 70 times in the 51 years of the race and I am the first one of the family to win it. My brothers, my dad, my Uncle Joey and my grandpa have all competed in the Iditarod.
TAYAG: Yeah, congratulations. And your grandpa was a founder?
REDINGTON: My Grandpa Joe is known as the father of the Iditarod and the race honors [him] by having the first-place trophy be a trophy of my grandpa. It weighs 101 pounds. And that was a really big honor to take home that trophy. It was my grandpa's dream to save the sport of mushing and the Alaskan Husky. When the snowmobiles came out, he saw that the sport of mushing and the Alaskan Husky was starting to fade away in the villages. So he wanted to start a race to help keep everybody excited. And that's what inspired him to start the Iditarod.
TAYAG: Yeah, and he did. I'd say that that goal was accomplished, if not just by you winning the race and carrying that legacy on. And let's zoom out to the big picture because it's not just you who's winning the race. It's your dogs. It's Sarah. It's everybody who's on the team. You are an athlete and the dogs are also athletes.
REDINGTON: I call them the true athletes. I'm just hanging on to the sled, I run up the hills. But most of the time, they're doing all the work. They're incredible, incredible dogs. And it's just an honor to be on the trail with them and on the journey to Nome.
TAYAG: So how did that feel crossing the finish line and winning?
REDINGTON: Yeah, it’s been a childhood dream of mine. Since I was five years old, I've been telling community members that I was going to win the Iditarod one day. Not all of it's been easy, I’ve had to scratch from some of my Iditarods. And so that's one thing that I say in the schools: I tell the kids never to give up on your dreams because it's been a dream of mine since I was five years old and I'm 40 years old now and I finally fulfilled my dream. You're right, it's been a big effort of a lot of people that helped me get to the Iditarod. Sarah is a huge part of that and helping me train and raise our dogs. It’s been a big effort of hers too so we say we won the Iditarod together.
TAYAG: I read that when you were training, there's a race called the Beargrease and typically you would have run that race, but Sarah ran it for training and she slowed the dogs down a bit. You had a strategy to kind of take your time and in go at a little bit of slower pace to save energy.
SARAH KEEFER: Yep. So the previous year, Ryan took the A team and I took the B team, and I ended up beating him in that race. After each race, what I do is a lot of analysis: what went well, and what could we improve on? And I said, “Next year, I'm taking the A team.” And Ryan was on board from minute one. He's very competitive and that helps him win the races, and he's won the Beargrease a couple of times and had some really solid finishes. But I didn't want to win the Beargrease. I did want to slow down the team, like you said, and have a strong team where we had a lot of good dogs in top shape for Iditarod. That was the goal, to win the Iditarod. So with a focus on that, I took the A team. And Ryan was my handler, and he was the best handler I've ever had. Every checkpoint that I would come in to, he would evaluate the dogs and help to feed them and take off booties and do everything that I would normally be doing if I was handling.
Halfway through the race he said, “You can start letting the dogs go a little faster now.” And I said, “I'm just going to let the dogs run however fast they want to go.” We just had a really fun time, it was a really smooth race, the dogs performed very well, and I finished with 10 out of 12 dogs in really strong form. The other two got a little bit of extra rest and then they were ready to go again. All the dogs that I finished with after 300 miles were ready to do another 300 miles, we could tell by looking at them. And that's what we want to see for Iditarod are dogs that are ready to go for another 300.
TAYAG: That was your A team, so were those the dogs that you ran the Iditarod with?
TAYAG: And that strategy paid off. Almost halfway through the Iditarod and you still had 12 of your dogs and you started with 14. Is that right?
KEEFER: More than halfway through the race, it was in Unalakleet, and we still had 12 dogs. Yeah, 700 miles in.
TAYAG: And the race is 1000 miles. So you've got 300 miles left, and you have almost your complete dog team, you've got a ton of energy in the reserve. And then you kind of blast it through to the end. Can you tell me about that?
REDINGTON: Yeah, when I got to Unalakleet, it's the first checkpoint on Norton Sound on the Bering Sea coast there. That was really special because that's where my mom was born, in Unalakleet. We had a lot of strong support from all of the villages that we traveled through, but it was getting more exciting the closer we were getting to Nome in first place. Everybody was getting more excited and cheering us on and we fed off of that energy. Sleep deprivation is a big challenge in the race, and I think that helped a lot because before that I was averaging about 25 minutes of sleep twice a day in the race. I used their support to help me keep excited and keep going strong. I was so proud of my dogs. They were doing such an amazing job and feeling good.
We raced Pete Kaiser and Richie Diehl, our two strongest competitors that finished second and third. In this year's race, the top three mushers were all Alaska Native mushers — so that was really special. We were able to continue our lead, but it was a close battle between me and Pete and it was it was an epic, epic last couple hundred miles for us.
TAYAG: When did you know that your team was going to win?
REDINGTON: When we got to White Mountain, we increased our lead from about 35 minutes to a four-hour and 17 minute lead and so I had a good feeling that it was going to happen. But we still had 77 miles to go and when we left White Mountain, there was a big windstorm and it was really tough trying to keep on the trail. The dogs wanted to run with the wind and it was taking us off trail, so there were times when I'd have to set my snow hooks and go search for the trail and leave my team and come back when I found the trail. That took some time away, but with that four-hour 17 minute cushion I was able to keep my calmness and stay level headed and just make it down the trail, marker to marker there for a while.
TAYAG: And the entire experience of mushing, of making it a thousand miles with your team, going all the way to Nome, that's a lot. But the mental fortitude you must have to stay on the sled and map out the trail and kind of work on your feet: you never know when you're going to get hit by a storm or what conditions you'll be faced with. I'm just amazed.
KEEFER: It does take a lot of fortitude. Like you said, it was a solid dog team that I worked with all season. I had a nice solid win, a third place finish in the Beargrease, with a team that was fantastic. And the 14 that we put together for Iditarod ended up being a winning team. In the end, it takes a great musher and a great dog team to pull off a win.
REDINGTON: We've been working to get to this team for many years, many generations of dogs. It's a unique lifestyle that that we love and we are addicted to the dogs and spending as much time with them as possible. It's a really, really exciting year coming up for us, where we want to defend our championship in the Iditarod and give it another go. It's been my dream of mine since I've been a small child to win the Iditarod and now it’s my dream to win it again.
TAYAG: I appreciate you being here, on short notice, and just coming into the radio studio and talking to me and talking to the listeners. I think it's a really special thing that we get to experience having you in this community. And it's also really special for you to go to the school and talk to the kids. What’s the message that you give to the kids? What's the inspiration that you want to leave them with?
REDINGTON: Like I was saying earlier, I tell every class that we talk to, “Never give up on your dreams.” You know, like I said, I've had some Iditarods where it didn't go our way. It took me 16 years of racing in the Iditarod to finally win it. And so I say never give up on your dreams and also to live a healthy lifestyle. I quit drinking soda and that was a really big part that helped in the Iditarod. I drank more water and I brush my teeth a lot more and all those things helped me to be healthier to race the Iditarod at a strong level which is what it takes to win.
KEEFER: And keep learning. He says respect and learn from your elders. We're always learning every year.
TAYAG: Absolutely. Well, thank you both for being here. I appreciate your time. I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay, have a safe journey home. That was my interview with the 2023 Iditarod trail sled dog race champion Ryan Redington and Sarah Keefer of Redington Mushing. For more information on how to support them, check out their website and follow them on Facebook. I'm Carlos Tayag, thanks for listening and have a great day.