Wehesler takes first in Beargrease 120, a race she almost didn't run

Trail conditions led to fast times on the trail.

Beargrease 120 winner.
John Beargrease 120 winner Rita Wehesler talks about the race while resting in the Trestle Inn in Finland on Monday. On her lap is the Frank Bishop Lead Dog Award, named for a late, longtime Beargrease volunteer.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

FINLAND, Minn. — Rita Wehesler won the John Beargrease 120 this year — a race she almost didn’t run.

“I didn’t think I had the dogs to be very competitive at all,” she said.

Wehesler explained that two of her dogs, Sushi and Ski, were just 16 months old, but they rose to the challenge, and then some.

Describing her team of eight dogs’ performance in the mid-distance race, she said: “They took off and never stopped. They charged up every hill. That’s the way you win this race.”

Wehesler knows the trails around Finland well. Her kennel in Cramer sits just 8 miles away from the finish line at the Trestle Inn.


Two mushers.
John Beargrease 120 winner Rita Wehesler, right, greets friend Talia Martens at the finish line Monday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

She has run the race many times and has finished in the top three previously, but this is the first time Wehesler has crossed the line first.

In the past few weeks of training, Wehesler said her team “really gelled.”

She said the conditions for this year’s mid-distance race were nearly ideal with firm, fast snow.

Wehesler was the last to leave the finish line in a staggered start but said she enjoyed giving chase.

“We went from last to first,” she said.

Wehesler said her familiarity with the trails worked to her advantage.

“I know every bridge. I know where the hills and the flats are. I know the downhills where you shouldn’t let the dogs lope,” Wehesler said.

She was introduced to the sport in 1993, courtesy of former professional wrestler/musher Paul Ellering. And about 25 years ago, she moved up the shore to Tofte to pursue mushing in earnest. Wehesler now has 38 Alaskan husky mixed-breed dogs in her kennel.


Dog team nears finish.
John Beargrease 120 racer Thomas Bauer, of Tapiola, Mich., nears the finish line Monday. He placed fifth.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The Beargrease 120 started Sunday at 10:56 a.m. and the Marathon at 10 a.m. at Billy's in Duluth. Wehesler won the 120 handily, crossing the line at 3:59 a.m. Monday. The second-place finisher, Michael Bestgen, of St. Cloud, came in shortly before 4:12 a.m., and Joanna Oberg, of Grand Marais, took third, crossing at 4:17 a.m.

Wehesler’s two lead dogs were Mitre Saw and Thread. As part of the winning team, Mitre received the prestigious beaded Frank Bishop Lead Dog Award.

Beargrease volunteer Patty Prudden created the award in honor of her friend and colleague, who died in 2015.

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon finishes Tuesday at the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino.

As of 9:45 a.m. Monday, Ryan Redington, of Knik, Alaska, led the pack as he made his way to the Trail Center checkpoint. He was followed by Wade Marrs, also of Knik, in second and Erin Letzring, of Moquah, Wisconsin, in third. Live GPS tracking of the teams is available at .

Musher talks to vet.
John Beargrease 120 racer Lynne Witte, of Cheboygan, Mich., talks with a race vet at the finish line Monday. Witte finished sixth.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Beargrease 120 results

  1. Rita Wehseler, Tofte, Minn., 17 hours, 7 minutes, 8 seconds
  2. Michael Bestgen, St. Cloud, Minn., 17:19:53
  3. Joanna Oberg, Grand Marais, Minn., 17:25:16
  4. Joann Fortier, Gaylord, Mich., 17:44:45
  5. Thomas Bauer, Tapiola, Mich., 17:59: 19
  6. Lynne Witte, Cheboygan, Mich., 18:10:08
  7. Erin Schouweiler, Irma, Wis., 18:15:03
  8. Eliza Vistica, Isabella, Minn., 18:15:29
  9. Alex LaPlante, Duluth, 18:22:01
  10. Nick Truman, Two Harbors, Minn., 18:51:33
  11. Bucky Tippett, Grand View, Wis., 19:19:53
  12. Talia Martens, Brule, Wis., 19:43:51
  13. Morgan Martens, Brule, Wis., 20:18:08
  14. Sam Louters, Hollandale, Minn., 20:56:40
  15. Kristen McCarty, Babbitt, Minn., 21:03:40
  16. Michaela Jurewicz, Maywood, Ill., 21:25:44
  17. Miguel Isla Casares, Ushuaia, Argentina, 22:33:12

Scratched: Ryan Miller, Cook, Minn.; Neal Seeger, Detroit Lakes, Minn.
This story was updated at 10:15 a.m. Jan. 31 with more Beargrease 120 results. It was originally posted at 9:42 a.m. Jan. 31.

Dogs roll in snow.
Musher Eliza Vistica’s wheel dogs roll in the snow after finishing the John Beargrease 120 on Monday. The team from Isabella finished eighth.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
People by fire.
John Beargrease 120 spectators stay warm near the race’s finish line Monday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Beargrease Mid 7
John Beargrease 120 winner Rita Wehesler and her husband, Bill, share a laugh in the Trestle Inn an hour after she crossed the finish line Monday. On her lap is the Frank Bishop Lead Dog Award, named for a late, longtime Beargrease volunteer.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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