02-11-20 AM Yukon Quest Update

Feb 11, 2020

02-11-20 AM Quest Update

Michelle Phillips arrives in Braeburn 37 minutes behind race leader Brent Sass.
Credit Lex Treinen / KUAC

Brent Sass works with his dogs while Michelle Phillips and team settle in behind him.
Credit Lex Treinen / KUAC

Lex Treinen, KUAC (Braeburn, Yukon) During the last few stretches of the race, tactics with run and rest schedules have taken on increasingly important roles, but some of those plans are being scrapped due to conditions beyond racers' control.

When Brent Sass made a decisive push into Braeburn that gave him an upper hand coming into the final 100 miles, it appeared to be a miraculous boost in his dogs’ morale, but the way he sees it, it’s part of a plan he made back in Dawson. As he lays straw and takes of booties off his dogs in warm, heavy snow at the Braeburn checkpoint, he says that it started over 200 miles back.

“It's a gamble because I pretty much knew that Michelle was going to do the run in two camps to get to Pelly and I was gonna get there in three, because I just didn't feel like I wanted to stress the dogs on those 70-mile runs” he said. That involved a special stop he likes to make in the rest stop of Stepping Stone, something he often does.

“I love Stepping Stone anyway, I got the best sleep of the race, there at Stepping Stone and everything kind of just fell together,” he said.

He seemed to be trailing Phillips and came into Carmacks over an hour behind her. But he had a trick up his sleeve out:

“I passed her last night and I went all the way to Mandanna Lake, and then I went to the other side of the lake, and so I could look back and see like maybe five miles, I could see her in advance and I got to my camp spot,” he said.

It’s a tactic he’s used before. The open area around the lake gives him the chance to gauge his competitors in ways that he simply can’t when he’s running in wooded areas where visibility is a few hundred yards. But it took his competitive spirit to make sure he executed well, especially in a sleep-deprived state.

“I was just hoping for three hours, that's what my goal was, I was going to try and stay three hours and at like 2 hours and forty minutes I saw the headlamp, so I quick bootied everybody up and put my cooker in for my one snack and she went by and ten minutes later I went by,” he said.

For a while, that meant he was trailing her by a mile or more, but his dogs started to perk up. His speed started to increase and he passed a resting Phillips on the trail.

“I went by her and then I just said, I'm not gonna look back,” he said.

His competitive drive, already turned up on high since arriving in Pelly, went into overdrive mode: he needed every ounce of advantage he could muster getting into Braeburn. With the mandatory 8-hour stop there, teams and mushers have a rare chance to reset, mentally and physically, before the 100-mile run into Whitehorse. He said he took out his ski pole, and poled for all of the last run while kicking with his leg.

“The whole way, I never stopped, my foot is something's wrong with it, it's a little bit bruised on the bottom of my right foot. I never stopped my ski pole, but my right arm - I got blisters all over from this arm from holding onto the handlebar cause you're kinda holding onto the handlebar,” he said.

It was a price that he thought was worth paying even as the snow started to fall as he approached Braeburn.

“The snow didn't start probably till like maybe 30 miles back, I guess that's kind of a long ways, but it was, yeah, it slowed us down a lot, I mean it was like, you just had to sort of shut your mental shut off the fact that you were all a sudden going 2 miles per hour slower," he said.

It also meant that he was breaking trail for Phillips, allowing her a faster trail, or at least a chance to conserve some of her dogs’ energy. But in Braeburn, Phillips isn’t quite as close as he fears. 38 minutes after Sass comes in, Phillips arrives. She’s also drenched after the wet run and gets down to business. The two park their teams one next to the other, surreptitiously sizing one another up. She declines interviews with reporters and is all business - though she still has a tired smile on her face.

Her plan of resting longer and more than Sass in the last stretch of trail confused some observers, but that extra rest might end up helping her considering the unexpected obstacle that’s facing the two of them coming into Whitehorse, snow.

When Sass hears about it from his handlers, he knows even he might have to adjust his plan. “10 inches or something in Whitehorse, what? Oh my lord!” he says. The best-laid plans of dogs and drivers go oft astray.###