02-10-20 Midday Yukon Quest Update

Feb 10, 2020

02-10-20 Midday Quest Update:

Cody Strathe's dogs approach Carmacks.
Credit Lex Treinen / KUAC

Lex Treinen, KUAC (Carmacks, Yukon) The finish of the Yukon Quest is in Whitehorse this year, but the racers aren’t waiting to make their moves.

Through much of the first part of the race, mushers tend to run a consistent schedule: run six to eight hours, rest for four, but as the race approaches the finish line, that consistency starts to fall to the wayside. They know that they have an 8-hour layover in Braeburn and so getting to that checkpoint is about as hot as the competition gets.

Aliy Zirkle knows a thing or two about that stretch of trail. 20 years ago, she won the race. She has some ideas about race strategy, but first, she wants to clear something up about mushers who say they’re still just running on their own schedule this late in the race.

“Oh no their not,” she says. No self-respecting competitor, she says, isn’t thinking about the competition once they complete the 200-mile section of trail that precedes the dash to Braeburn. Instead, they’re setting themselves up for how to get to Braeburn first.

“You're only obligatory stop is Braeburn, right. So how are you gonna get to Braeburn? That's what starts going through your head, and the biggest thing to take into account is what your dog team looks like, and the second thing is who are you running against,” she says. With 150 miles from Pelly to Braeburn there are some strategic decisions to be made.

A standard run earlier in the race might be six hours, this late in the race the length of runs is stretched out to 10 plus hours, while rest is scaled back. A rest might just be an hour or two instead of four, though that can backfire, says Zirkle and keeping rest schedules up is beneficial if you can afford it. She’s watched Phillips bank a little more rest than Sass.

“In the world of dog mushing rest means speed. So is she putting more speed in her bank so that she and Brent leave at the same time but she has more speed and leaves him behind? Or not? Are they gonna go the same speed and we're gonna have like a photo finish kind of thing , because no matter what if they're both in Carmacks together, then they're gonna watch each other like hawks of how much time each one of them stays there,” she says.

That’s not to say that she would have taken a rest in McCabe Creek, where Phillips decided to make a short 34-mile run before resting for an hour. It’s a minuscule run for this late in the race accoriding to Zirkle.

“I thought Michelle was in a stronger position because then in my little mind she was gonna go through McCabe and then she was in the driver's seat, but now that she's stopped in McCabe - even stevens. Now she might mentally rest a bit more, but I don't understand why she stopped in McCabe but I'm not mushing her team,” she said.

Phillips’ handler Doug Vollman said that decision was thought-out. After a quick rest in McCabe Creek, her team will be fresher on the next stretch of trail and can cover it in two even runs.

“She set herself up to two even runs into Braeburn, by taking a rest, it gave her enough juice to get here (Carmacks) obviously, but obviously into Braeburn in one more break,” he said. He said she had made that decision during rest in Pelly, if not before. “That was part of her plan all along, I think that she had planned on it,” he said.

Out on the trail, how rested the teams are is a huge factor, but Zirkle says there’s one factor that she thinks could be even more decisive.

“I just think probably the most rested well-put-together musher is the one who's gonna win because they're gonna read their dogs the best, and it's the musher who is the weak link anyway, I mean you see those dogs out there, as soon as they pull in there, they eat they rest, they sleep,” she says.

Mushers, meanwhile, get caught up in head games - second guessing they’re decisions and in their sleep-deprived delirium, imagining strengths or weaknesses in their team or their competitors that makes the last hundred of miles especially dynamic. ###