Alex LaPlante of Esko set out down the Beargrease mid-distance trail Sunday afternoon, Jan. 27, with her sled dog team hoping to at least place in the top 10.
The 120-mile race started at Billy's Bar in Duluth and ended at Lutsen Mountain for the 25 teams participating in the shorter race. LaPlante pulled across the finish line in sixth place Monday morning to a small crowd of people waiting underneath twinkle lights strung between trees.
She spent just 45 more minutes on the trail than winner Ryan Anderson of St. Croix Falls, Wis.
"It went good, a little better than I expected it to," LaPlante said of her sixth-place finish. Last year, LaPlante finished the mid-distance in ninth-place.
As for her dogs?
"They are very happy to be here, but they're tired," LaPlante said. "It was slow, and sometimes when it gets really cold, the runners don't glide as well."
Despite those subzero temperatures, LaPlante said she never got cold. Her trick is to stay moving by doing what she calls "half of a cross-country ski move." In other words, a slight kick and a pull while she stands on the sled.
While LaPlante resides in Esko, her dogs live at Maple Ridge Kennel in Duluth. She ran a team that included both her dogs and other dogs at the kennel.
She first expressed interest in the sport of mushing and sled dogs when she was in her 20s. So LaPlante started volunteering to lead dogs to the starting line of the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, back when it started in Grand Marais.
"Then I married a guy who was a sled dog fan, too, but I was kind of over it for a while," LaPlante said.
Eventually, she would rekindle her interest in the sport after her husband, David Mills, started mushing with Maple Ridge Kennel when their kids got older. His first year participating in the Beargrease, she helped with his team at checkpoints as a handler, which she said she hated doing. The next year, she signed up to run the race, too.
Now, her husband helps handle her teams, along with three others.
"I'm really lucky I have these four handlers," LaPlante said of their help at checkpoints, which meant she could take a brief nap in the back of a Subaru late Monday night. It was cramped, but at least she stayed warm.