02-11-20 Midday Yukon Quest Update

Feb 11, 2020
Lex Treinen / KUAC

02-11-20 1PM Quest Update

Lex Treinen, KUAC (Whitehorse, Yukon) Brent Sass is just a few miles from claiming his 3rd Yukon Quest title. Making his way toward Whitehorse well ahead of 2nd place musher Michelle Phillips, both mushers are pushing through deep fresh that fell overnight.

Tuesday morning, snow blowers, shovels and snow plows were working at full steam to clear the walkways and side roads around Whitehorse so that pedestrians and cars could move through.

Out on the trail, nobody will be helping remove the foot of snow that fell around the area - 27 centimeters - in Whitehorse according to an official measurement.

It took some of the racers by surprise as it also warmed up to about 20 degrees.

"At this point I'm sopped all the way through to everything, so I gotta get these guys taken care of right now and then get dried up a little bit and then well I'll think about that," said Sass. Sass arrived in Braeburn at 3:37 in the afternoon yesterday after plowing trail for 30 miles.

Sass said he'd have to think of some way to use the lead to his advantage, but he was coy about what exactly that would be.

"But it's 100 miles and I gotta go, so you know, obviously it's gonna take a heck of a lot longer than it normally does, so some sort of plan is going to have to be established, because I'm not gonna just say, I'm gonna just get on my my sled and run 100 miles straight through 10 inches of snow, so I don't know," he said.

Still, Sass said, being in front in Braeburn was his goal, so he'll have to take whatever advantage he can get. ###

02-11-20 AM Yukon Quest Update

Feb 11, 2020
Lex Treinen / KUAC

02-11-20 AM Quest Update

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.###

02-10-20 Midday Yukon Quest Update

Feb 10, 2020
Lex Treinen / KUAC

02-10-20 Midday Quest Update:

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. ###

02-10-20 AM Yukon Quest Update

Feb 10, 2020
Lex Treinen / KUAC

02-10-20 AM Quest Update

Lex Treine, KUAC (Pelly Crossing, Yukon) After running near-identical schedules during the first half of the race, Brent Sass and Michelle Philips decided to take a very different run-rest schedule during their 200-mile stretch of trail from Dawson to Pelly.

Sometime during the moonlit hours of Sunday morning, Michelle Phillips’ team overtook a resting Brent Sass to come into Pelly Crossing first. But Phillips is exhausted. Over the two hundred miles of trail, Phillips took started with a ten-hour unbroken run, then an eight-hour run, then another nearly-ten hour run. It’s an aggressive schedule considering that she had just about four hours of rest between each run.

While she decides to rest in Pelly, she does get a boost from some local fans. Phillips has a lot of friends in Pelly, connections from her years of dog mushing in the Yukon. The executive director of the Selkirk First Nation, Sandy Roach, in fact, is Phillips’s son’s godmother. Roach says that the people of the Yukon are excited to see Phillips in first.

“Oh I've just been watching some of the Facebook posts and just talking to the community here and everybody's just so proud and so happy especially being a woman, you know, there's only been one other woman who has won the Yukon Quest,” she says.

Phillips efficiently gets to work snacking and laying out straw for her team of twelve dogs. She’ll drop one there and then get a few quick hours of sleep. She asks checkpoint volunteers to wake her up at 11 am, less than four hours after she arrived, and the time that her prime competitor Brent Sass is expected to arrive.

Sass is all business when he arrives and is greeted by a team of handlers and helpers - though fewer local fans: this is the Yukon, after all. He quickly shows officials his gear before he can receive a special gift from local craftspeople, just as Phillips did. It’s a pair of beaded moccasins made with moosehide by the local First Nation and he takes a quick moment to accept the gift during his hectic layover in Pelly.

Sass knows he has to make up time on Phillips after he decided to rest four an extra four hours out on trail and he gets a rare chance to do it as Phillips rests. He covered the distance in four more-or-less equal runs, while Phillips used just three. While quickly snacking his dogs, Sass answers a few short questions, though there’s a sense that he’s distracted. "

The dogs are in good shape, they're eating really well and we're moving, you know, we're not making monster time, but we're having a good time,” he says.

But not all are great: he decides to drop one dog, leaving just 11.

"Jeep just can't keep the pace. He did good but time to let him go."

He’s sad to see him go, especially since he was one of the dogs who led him triumphantly into Fairbanks last year. He says he’s still running his own race.

“I kinda was out there but I don't really care, I'm just gonna continue running these guys,” he says. But clearly he’s also competitive.

Talking to his handlers, he adds: “Am I losing time on her?”

He knows he has to get back on the trail, even though he’s already run for five hours straight. He signs the final paperwork, and kicks the sled as he disappears down the road. His total time at the checkpoint was just eight minutes. The race is on. ###