02-17-20 Yukon Quest Wrap Up

Feb 17, 2020
Lex Treinen / KUAC

02-17-20 Quest Wrap Up

02-14-20 Yukon Quest Update

Feb 14, 2020
Lex Treinen / KUAC

02-14-20 Quest Update

Lex Treinen, KUAC (Whitehorse, Yukon) Nora Sjalin of Sweden crossed the line in 7th place to take the rookie of the year honor in this year’s Yukon Quest. But if you heard Nora Sjalin’s interview at the finish of the Yukon Quest, you might think the whole race for her was a 12-day long practical joke.

“I didn't read the trail report beforehand, which I should have, so I had to ask all the other mushers just like where's this summit, and what's coming up next.”

Asked what she learned during the Quest - her first 1,000-mile race:

“I need to pack more socks than I thought because I sweat a lot more than haha,” she says.

Sjalin says her last run into Whitehorse ddin't go exactly as planned.

“After the bridge there it was I got a bit off the tail and the sled got stuck and I had a lady in heat and the males got very interested so I sorted that out and then I needed to take the booties off because it was really wet and then they were napping so I'm like, I'm gonna give them forty minutes and some snacks and we did that and then we had a really nice run coming in.”

On the surface, it makes her look like an amateur, but in fact Sjalin is experienced and professional. She’s run the 750-mile Finnmarksloppet, Europe’s longest sled dog race and manages a kennel in Norway. She also ran a great rookie race to finish in seventh. She clearly had kept her dogs in top shape as they eagerly barked to leave the finish chute.

The 31-year-old said she invested thousands of dollars to send her dogs from Sweden four at a time, the maximum allowed by airlines. Earlier in the race, she joked she didn’t want to make a budget because she was too afraid to look at her finances - maybe she’d have a look at the end of the summer, she said. And if her results weren’t enough, 3 time Quest champion Brent Sass seconded the fact that Nora Sjalin is no joke. “Nora has been the best handler I've ever had in all of my time,” said Sass.

Sass says Nora was a handler for him about five years ago.

“She was persistent, she got in touch with me and said I want to come over to Alaska and be a handler and I already had a couple handlers and I didn't know if I needed help and she just kept sending emails and sending emails and finally I was like okay, you can come and it was the best decision I ever made so, yeah,” he said.

Sass said Sjalin helped him achieve his first major victory.

“She's the handler in 2015 for me when we won the first time and you know, she played a huge role in our victory that year. She's the hardest working handler, the best attitude you could possibly have, and I think she showed that out on the Quest trail this year, you know.”

Sass was there to cheer her on as she came through the finish chute. And not only because of his respect for the young musher. He also had lent Sjalin some of his dogs, bringing their connection to a full circle.

“She has a dog that she raised that when she was at my kennel that she got to run in her race this year and now I'm gonna take her on Iditarod, yeah it's awesome,” he said.

And someday, he said he wants to bring that connection full circle in a different way, running the Finnmarksloppet in Sjalin’s home territory.

“I'm definitely gonna go over there and a bunch of other friends that I already have it's definitely one of my goals to run that race,” he said “In the next three years, that’s our goal.”

And in that race, he might have some more competition from Sjalin on her home turf. After all, she is no joke. ###

02-13-20 AM Yukon Quest Update

Feb 13, 2020
Lex Treinen / KUAC

02-13-20 AM Quest Update

Lex Treinen (KUAC Fairbanks) Coming into sight towards the finish line in Whitehorse, three-time Quest Champion Allen Moore makes himself look like a bit of an amateur. He stops his dogs just in view of the finish line after they veer of the trail as people start to murmur. Just as he’s getting his dogs back on the trail, his handlers realize he’s not wearing his bib into the finish chute - a minor violation that could cost him $150. His handler athletically somersaults over the plastic fencing and sprints down the trail, hoping to catch him before he enters the finish chute.

It’s an uncharacteristic moment of chaos for the characteristically level-headed and calculating Moore, but nothing about this year’s Quest really went as expected. Allen Moore went into the 2020 Quest as one of the clear favorites, but he finished this year’s race in fourth, instead of fighting for the win. He looks tired and said the race felt longer than 1,000 miles.

“It feels like 10,000 because this is my 10th race.” 

Like most racers, he said he encountered some excruciatingly slow conditions on the trail this year, all the way into the finishing stretch, where his team got tangled up.

“It took a while but it got a little better right around here, but the snow was just piling up right exactly where the trail was, so that's the bad news,” That’s the bad news, he says. ”The good news is, I'm past it,” he says.

Whether because of bad luck or other reasons, Moore didn’t have any close competitors over the last 200 miles of the race. His closest competition this year, Cody Strathe, ended finishing five hours ahead of him. Moore said made for a different feeling coming into Whitehorse than what he’s used to.

“It was you know there's not anyone really close behind me or in front of me, so yes, you just take your time, I even left my seat on, which I never do, because you're usually racing, racing, so I could sit down and enjoy it,” he said.

Even during post race interviews, Moore is strangely introspective. Instead of dwelling about the sometimes brutal conditions of this year’s race, he launches into minutes-long reminiscences about past races. He tells stories with a comedian’s sense timing: like the time he was racing a competitor who started the final 100 mile-stretch just 2 minutes behind him.

“I knew he was gonna be right on my tail pretty soon, and I was double ski poling like I always do pretty hard and what do you do, you start looking back, so I glanced back, I see a headlight and we're 8 hours from the finish line, so I'm ski-poling like a mad-person, I mean like there's no tomorrow for 8 hours. Come to find out that it was a reflector. But I beat him by an hour and a half because of that.”

With this year’s race so spread out near him, he seemed not to be able to help remembering about other instances of his irremediable competitiveness.

“Usually I can ski pole the whole race and train for it all year so I can do it, but yeah, it helps me anyway and it helps me halfway to stay awake, even though I had a couple, I went to sleep and had a dream and woke up I’m still ski poling so.”

Unable to catch the musher in front of him, the 62-year-old Moore couldn’t help but have a little laugh at the expense of Cody Strathe, who is 20 years his junior.

“I passed him a couple of times in his sleeping bag and he jumped up, you know, and like he's not gonna let me get too far, but the thing for him is that his dogs were always faster, the whole race, so the only way I could have beat him is to get the same distance in front of him that he is in front of me, cause he could always catch me.”

While this year in some ways felt like a victory lap for the accomplished veteran, he said he’s still making up his mind about next year’s Quest. First though, he’s getting some rest. ###

02-12-20 Midday Yukon Quest Update

Feb 12, 2020
Lex Treinen / KUAC

02-12-20 Midday Quest Update

Lex Treinen (Whitehorse, Yukon) In gusting winds along the Yukon River, Cody Strathe said he was looking over his shoulder the whole way into Whitehorse, where he arrived early Wednesday morning.

The 42-year-old musher crossed the line in third place, the best finish in his career. For much of the past thousand miles, Strathe had fought for third place with three-time Quest winner Allen Moore, but finally, around Pelly Crossing, 300 miles from the finish, Strathe knew he had to make a move.

“Around Pelly I started trying to stay ahead of him, but still wasn't too concerned if he passed me, I don't know where he's at right now, but I was looking over my shoulder the whole way,” he said.

That continued all the way through the last 100 miles into Whitehorse. Strathe says he’d had experience getting passed by Moore in the final sections of trail and that was on his mind as he slogged through the gusts of wind and deep snowdrifts.

“We've run the Copper Basin with him for years and suddenly he'd come running around the corner and he'd have two ski poles on the back of that sled and it looked like it was like this crazy spider with all these things flailing around and I kept thinking that was gonna happen tonight, he was gonna come around the corner and catch up with me but he didn't haha,” said Strathe.

But Moore was nowhere to be seen - in fact, he was thirty miles behind Strathe, who had no real reason to be worried. Back in Carmacks, Allen Moore even told reporters that he wasn’t making any serious effort to catch Strathe, who he knew had a faster team. At the time, Moore said he was hoping he could just stay enough out of sight to make Strathe nervous and hopefully make a mistake. But Strathe did no such thing and continued to put time into Moore throughout the final run.

In fact, his moving speeds - the average speed his team ran not including rest times - were faster even than frontrunners Brent Sass and Michelle Phillips. It’s something he said he did through compassion for his dogs. "It's probably just me projecting cause I'm a wimp. My dogs are really tough but there's certain times where I'm like, 'I don't want my dogs to have to do that' and so then, but then sometimes we're just out there and we have to do it and it's not a big deal. They're so tough they're so amazing,” he said.

Before the race, Strathe said that he had the team to win and that it would be up to him to make good to them. While he improved his previous best finish - 12th last year - he said his fear of pushing his dogs too hard kept him from making a more decisive move. Still, he said that if he were in the right situation, he might be able to find a way to improve on his finish - if he gets the chance.

“It's just dependent on the situation, I mean I can't say it's like if the right moment would have happened here, I would have gone for it. I took specific times where things were going right and I took a chance,” he said.

During the early part of the race, Strathe said he had a realization that he doesn’t care about winning as much as some of his competitors. He was on the Yukon River breaking endless miles of trail - he was grumpy, his attitude transferred to the dogs, and the whole situation spiraled into misery. He said he never wanted to experience that again and threw out his goal of winning.

“The goal was not to try to win it, the goal was to do the best we could do with our dogs so that they could finish happy and strong and I mean I knew that the team possibly could win it, but I also didn't figure I would just because the kind of person I am, I probably wouldn't push them that hard, I wanted to be in the top five, but I didn't really care.”

And reach the finish line happy and strong his dogs did. Unlike Phillips and Sass’s dogs, which were visibly exhausted at the finish, Strathe’s dogs were barking energetically and jumping in their harnesses in the finish chute. Strathe said he’ll now go have a shower, a beer, and deal with some lingering injuries he’s accumulated over years of mushing. While he was sure to keep his dogs in top shape throughout the race - the dogs didn’t quite return the favor, but he’s okay with that. His injuries, he says, were from them.

“It's partly from just life with dogs - they beat us up, in a good way,” he said. ###

02-12-20 AM Yukon Quest Update

Feb 12, 2020
Lex Treinen / KUAC

02-12-20 AM Quest Update:

Brent Sass arrives at the finish line in Whitehorse at around 3 o'clock His hair is wet and he pushes with a ski pole in his right hand all the way across the line. The athletic 40-year-old says he's spent most of the last stretch of racing pushing and kicking with all his might. His clothes look like they're drenched through with sweat.

“I think I'm probably just gonna throw these clothes away. I've been living in my sweat - I did burn my boots, I'm ready to burn these, yeah, It was one of those deals where with all the trail breaking stuff I had to make sure that I did a lot of work to help the dogs. I love it and it's all part of the deal, but I'm feeling it,” he said.

Sass says he's broken more trail in this Quest than he has in any other Quest that he's done, beginning on the snow-drifted Yukon River. His team was clearly hungry at the finish scarfing down beef snacks and waiting attentively for second helpings, but he says a conservative rest schedule coming out of Dawson city gave his the dogs some strength coming into the final two hundred miles.

"We ran different schedules leaving Dawson and mine was definitely a more conservative one - it was a risk to give her an edge: she only camped twice across that big stretch and we camped three times with 5-hour rests, but it was that rest that we banked that gave us the edge in the end I think."

While Michelle Philips, his prime competitor throughout the race, seemed to have an advantage in the last 200 miles, Sass overtook her at one of her stops and used a tested tactic to make sure he could gauge her.

"I was sitting on Mandanna lake, I was sitting out waiting for her trying to squeeze out every last bit of rest and when I saw her headlamp you know, I started my cooker up and made my last wet snack and bootied the dogs quick and she went by and i bootied the last four dogs and I left 10 minutes after her and within 10 or 15 minutes I caught her an passed her and just kind of left her in the dust at that point," he said.

He said after that, he didn't look back and had gained an important psychological edge. "I was pretty confident that we had the speed at that point, and I wasn't gonna stop kicking and poling and she came in with a trail marker, That looks good but that doesn't do anything for you."

During the last run, Sass put another three hours into Phillips, who pulled into Whitehorse around 7 p.m. If anything, cheers for the Yukoner were even louder than they were for the race winner. Phillips thanked her dogs and gave hugs to family and friends in the finish chute, including to her husband Ed Hopkins. When asked whether she was happy to improve on her previous best finish of 4th place, she said she was.

"I'm happy that I beat my husband - his best finish is third, so that's important,” she said. Still, she said she wanted to win, not just for herself. “I wanted to do well for the Yukon, I wanted to win, I wanted to win for women, but you know, I tried (cheers) I tried my hardest,” she said.

Phillips said that a few things kept her from fighting with Sass until the end. The first was a minor equipment issue.

“I lost my ski pole before Pelly somewhere in the - I don't know, lost it somewhere and when we were in the Chain Lakes he pulled out his ski pole and he started poling and it was really a time that you needed a ski pole, it was a time when you could really just push your team through that snow and I think that made a big difference,” she said.

And then there was the run into Whitehorse. Instead of pushing through in one monster 15-hour run as Sass did, Phillips stopped to feed her dogs, and even take a quick nap.

"It was too long of a run and the conditions were too slow so I just had to do what was right for my dogs, so that's what I did,” she said.

This year was all about Sass though. He said that after his shower and eating, he's got something else on his mind: the Iditarod. He says he has his team pretty much picked out.

"The dogs really proved they got what it takes," he said.

But Phillips pointed out that she will be at Iditarod too, and she’s looking for some redemption. ###

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.###