Keith Aili had a mix of emotions when his sled dog team crossed the finish line to win the U.P. 200 race in Marquette, Mich., on a recent Sunday.
"It was the hardest finish of my 30 years because coming into the finish line, you're going to win the race and you're pretty happy, but on the other end, it was bad," he said.
It was his fifth U.P. 200 win, but he says it was the last race of his career.
Aili, a musher from Ray, Minn., who has been a regular at Midwestern races since the mid-1990s, decided last summer that it was time to retire -- and he officially announced it after finishing the U.P. 200. The 43-year-old won the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in 2006 and finished the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2002.
Although Aili is retiring, his dogs will continue to race. They'll be joining the kennel of Ryan Redington, this year's Beargrease marathon champion, and some will be racing on his team during next month's Iditarod. Redington took most of Aili's kennel following the Beargrease; the remaining dogs joined Redington after the U.P. 200. Aili said it was difficult to return home without his dogs, because they're more than pets.
"Ryan is a good friend and I respect him as a dog driver, too. He understands dogs like I do, so it couldn't have worked out any better," Aili said.
With Aili's retirement, the sport is losing a good competitor, said Nathan Schroeder, a Warba musher who is good friends with Aili and has known him since they were kids.
"He's very good. He's a very competitive guy and he knows what he's doing. Definitely a good bond between him and his dogs," Schroeder said.
When Schroeder won the Beargrease in 2013 and 2014, Aili was right on his heels the whole way.
"He was not easy to outrun. Any little mistake I made, he would have won," Schroeder said, adding that Aili has finished ahead of him at the Beargrease, too. "I wish him the best. He's a good friend of mine."