Sass In Command
Lex Treinen/Dan Bross, KUAC
(Nenana, Ak.) Brent Sass’s team appears in command of the Yukon Quest 550 race in Nenana, where he arrived at 7:09 a.m. (Weds) for his mandatory 6-hour layover. He laid out straw for his dogs and had a quick breakfast of pancakes at the checkpoint at the Nenana Tribal Hall before lying down for a nap.
He was in good spirits, but the trail has taken a toll on him and his team.
Arriving at the Pleasant Valley community center a day before, Sass looked a little beat after coming down Rosebud Summit in the moonlight.
“It’s just super steep, super sharp turns,” he said.
His team immediately started pulling off their booties with their teeth. Sass said for the last 35 miles, he’d pulled two dogs in his sled after they got minor injuries coming down Rosebud Summit.
As he laid out straw over the snow for his dogs to sleep on, Sass said even with a decade going over Rosebud -- 17 times by his count -- the descent still kicks his butt.
A few hours later, Sass looks a little fresher after a 45-minute nap in his truck.
“It was a musher nap I would say,” he said with a laugh. “Every little bit helps at this point, I haven’t gotten a whole lot of sleep through this whole thing. “
Teams were required to rest four hours at Pleasant Valley before continuing on down the trail. Sass said even with the nap, he’s still running on just a few hours of sleep. But one thing he’s not skimping on is food. He said he stuffed himself on a breakfast burrito, sausage and eggs served at the checkpoint inside the community center.
Within a few minutes, Sass’s dogs are bootied up and ready to go. He blew past the four hours of mandatory rest, but there’s still not another team in sight. He said even with a good cushion, there’s plenty that can go wrong on a new section of course to North Pole and along the flood control levee. From there they turned onto the Tanana River to Nenana.
“Basically just staying on the trail, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “It hasn’t been super clear where I’m going, so I’m just gonna follow the trail markers.”
Wade Marrs slid into Two Rivers a few minutes after Sass left.
A few minutes later, Marrs had his dogs bedded down and was chopping meat with a hand ax bearing a piece of hockey stick for a shaft.
“Lots of different stuff: Beaver, beef, beef fat, chicken,” he said.
The beaver was donated by trappers in his home in Wisconsin. Marrs said he’s excited for some sleep, and for now, he’s said he doesn’t really see any way to catch up to Sass.
“The only way that would happen is if he got behind me somehow,” he said.
The race for second place remains tight between Marrs, Nic Petit, and Amanda Otto.
Meanwhile, farther back on the trail, Lauro Eklund’s race ended early yesterday (Tuesday).
The 26-year-old Quest rookie was withdrawn from the Quest after arriving at the Central checkpoint, around 300 miles into the race, in last place in the 9-team field, about six hours behind the next 550 musher.
Quest race marshal Mike McCowan says race rules allow him to withdraw a musher if they are quote “not making a true attempt at running a competitive race” unquote. Or if the team is causing a quote “undue burden on the Yukon Quest Alaska organization.”
McCowan says Eklund was going too slow. “For whatever reason he took a long time to get into Circle, and he took a long time to get to Central. I just thought that it's not going to improve as we go further into it.”
McCowan, who is officiating his fifth Yukon Quest, says he didn’t speak with Eklund or anyone else before making the call, emphasizing that the responsibility is his alone.
“It's my decision. Other people have opinions and they're allowed to have their opinions, but they do not count.”
McCowan said as race marshal, it’s his goal to get as many mushers to the finish line as possible, and he saw no other options without placing a burden on checkpoint volunteers.
Lauro Eklund could not be reached for comment, but his dad Neil emphasizes that his son was intentionally running a conservative pace.
“He was running the race the way that several top mushers had suggested to him and I agreed.”
Neil Eklund notes that Lauro had only dropped one dog, and satellite tracking data showed his team was maintaining decent speed.
“He was averaging 114 miles a day. How can a person be running that many miles a day, running a dog team that many miles and not be competitive. I just never heard of such a thing.”
Eklund says Lauro’s plan was to cut rest in the second half of the race and move up in the standings. Eklund’s withdrawal has drawn a lot of criticism on Facebook, including from mushers, saying it seems to punish good dog care and will do little to incentivize participation in future Quest races. ###