Whitehorse, YK - Mushers drew their bib numbers for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race last (Thursday) night. Allen Moore will leave the start line wearing bib number one.
There are 26 teams are set to leave Whitehorse Saturday morning. Among them are four returning champions. During a pre-race event, KUAC’s Emily Schwing caught up with them to find out why they signed up this year.
It’s been 25 years since Jeff King last drove a dog team along the Yukon Quest trail. “The Quest was a huge part of my life in the 80’s and I was proud to be part of the very first Quest and committed much of my energy to it for those first seven years,” he said.
King has placed in the top five or better six times. He won the race in 1989. “Then I made a switch and started running the Iditarod in 1991 and I certainly didn’t believe you could run them both well,” he said. “Many Quest mushers have proven that wrong and its clearly not a fluke that people have run the Quest well can also runt eh Iditarod well.”
So, that’s exactly King’s plan this year: to run back-to-back thousand mile sled dog races. But he’s also extremely competitive. King rarely enters a race he doesn’t think he can win. “I have the best trained team I’ve ever had and I’ve had a lot of teams. I have the best genetics I’ve ever had and I have the best equipment. My sled is unique,” said King.
King runs a sled with a trailer in the back, that he uses to rest dogs while the team is travelling. He also says he’s studied the run and rest schedules of most of his competition. In particular, that of two-time defending champion Allen Moore.
“Now, why would they want to do that?” joked Moore.
Moore said he can’t run the same schedule he followed in 2013, when the race finished in Fairbanks, because a rule change this year means what used to be a 36-hour layover at the halfway point in Dawson City has been cut to 24 hours.
“Two years ago, we pushed them pretty hard but with 36 hours they came back,” explained Moore. “ I don’t think [the dogs] can come back if I run the, the same exact way I did two years ago.”
Holding a dog team back in the first half of the race is challenging for any competitive musher, but it might be particularly difficult for 2012 Champion Hugh Neff. This will be Neff’s 15th Yukon Quest. In previous years, he has pushed his dogs hard to claim an early lead in the race. “I’m going to do what whoever is in front of me is doing that’s leading the race because I definitely don’t an on being the Sherpa this time around,” Neff said.
Neff said even he’s had a hard time trying to make predictions about who might finish in the top five or even top ten this year. “There’s so many unknowns in this race so it’s not even worth discussing who the frontrunner is because there’s a whole pack of them!” exclaimed Neff.
That pack also includes four-time Yukon Quest Champion, Lance Mackey. “We’re all on the same playing field,” Mackey said. “Last year was last year and next year will be next year and this year? It might be a race of champions for the red lantern. We don’t know,” he said.
Mackey said he didn’t sign up for this year’s Quest to prove anything to anyone other than himself. “Somewhere along the line, my mind is changed and my attitude is changed and my goals have changed,” he said. “My number one goal is to have fun for the reasons that I started this sport and this race in the first place. We all started out for the love of the dogs and seeing the dogs and the experience and the competitive part came naturally for all of us,” he said.
Alongside the four returning champions are a number of other mushers who have finished near the top in recent years. There are also a few new teams with mushers who may be rookies to the Quest, but they certainly aren’t new to the sport.