Ward Wallin of Two Harbors went into Saturday’s 2016 Gunflint Mail Run sled dog race planning for a training run leading up to the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon beginning Jan. 30 in Two Harbors. He came out with his first race win in more than 20 years of mushing.
“I was pretty shocked,” Wallin said. “I know we’ve got a pretty good team this year, but it was more of a shocker to me. Of all the guys in the race, I’m the oldest, I’m the biggest and I thought wow, that’s pretty cool.”
Wallin finished the 100-mile race that started and ended at Trail Center in nine hours, 36 minutes, 33 seconds. Schmidt finished less than two minutes later, in 9:37:55, according to race officials, who noted that the times were faster than expected thanks to fast snow conditions. Temperatures at the start of the race Saturday morning were above zero, and fell throughout the day into subzero territory.
Wallin was racing with several of the dogs that will pull his wife Colleen’s sled in a couple weeks during the Beargrease. His wife also raced with some of the younger dogs, so Ward knew that his team was stronger. Still, he started out a little faster than even he expected.
Ward said his wife snickered as he passed her about 4 miles into the race, saying, “You’re going a little fast, aren’t you, Wallin?”
The first 50 miles held little drama with Ward Wallin steadily moving up the standings and, surprisingly finishing with the best time on the opening leg.
“I went back and checked it, because I didn’t believe it,” Wallin said.
Despite the smooth start, trouble awaited Wallin in the second half of the race, where a beaver pond had broken loose and caused an 18 inch deep puddle of water that all the racers had to cross in the bitter cold.
Just after crossing the pond, Wallin’s 12-dog team got tangled when passing one of the eight-dog teams coming back in from its race.
“I jump off my sled, I’m trying to untangle my dogs and the team behind me comes flying by me and my team takes off down the wrong snowmobile trail,” he said.
Wallin said his team dragged him more than 20 yards off the course before he got the team righted and headed back in toward the correct trail. Unfortunately, the team pulled Wallin all the way across the trail and off course again.
In the meantime, Frank Moe of Hovland passed Wallin and saw that Wallin was in trouble. Moe stopped, but couldn’t come back and help Wallin. Instead, he waited with the idea that Wallin’s dogs would naturally follow his own dogs’ scent trail and get back on the right course.
When it was all said and done, Wallin spent more than eight minutes trying to get his dogs settled, untangled and back on course. He said he just hoped he came in 20 minutes or more behind the winners, at that point, so his delay wouldn’t even factor into the win, but a funny thing happened. Wallin started moving back up the leaderboard, even taking the lead and moving ahead of his competitors, but again trouble struck.
One of Wallin’s dog’s got loose, which if he finished without securing her again, he would be disqualified from the race.
“Well okay, whatever,” Wallin said. “It’s beautiful out, I’m having fun and finally after 2 miles I called the dog, she ran over and I clipped her into the line and she looked at me like, oh that was fun.”
Not only did Wallin win his first race ever on Saturday, he did it on a day he was just on a training run for the much bigger Beargrease race.
“I was conservative with the dogs and they came out healthy,” Wallin said.
Goal accomplished, with a little added bonus.