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02-09-20 Yukon Quest Update

Lex Treinen

02-09-20 Quest Update

Credit Lex Treinen / KUAC
Michelle Phillips carries straw to her team at Pelly Crossing.

Lex Treinen (Dawson City, Yukon) Defending Quest champ Brent Sass and veteran racer Michelle Phillips have been trading the lead since leaving the race’s halfway point in Dawson City Friday night, and Phillips was first into the Pelly checkpoint Sunday morning. Pelly Crossing is nearly 750 miles into the thousand mile Quest trail, and while the leaders are in race mode, behind them some mushers are still dealing with fallout from problems encountered along the first half of the trail.

Cody Strathe is on track for his best finish yet of the Yukon Quest. He's fighting a tight battle with veteran Allen Moore, a three-time winner of the Yukon Quest, even though his top finish previously is 12th. Being in such a competitive position though seems to be something he's not comfortable with, something he discovered on the last section of trail. "It was after we made it over American Summit, it wasn't as bad as they said it was gonna be back there. It was a lot of climbing, we had a pretty heavy load, the snow was just soft, the dogs were getting iced up with snow building up on their booties and on their legs, and they're just getting tired and a little bit sick of it, and my attitude, I hurt myself up there a little bit, cause I'm falling apart, I'm old," he says at the checkpoint in Dawson City shortly before heading out on the trail himself. Strathe says a snow machine accident just a couple of weeks before the Quest put his start spot in jeopardy. With his knee almost immobile for a week, he was ready to have his wife take his start spot, but it wasn't just his knee that was hurting. "Knee, bad back, bad bicep tendon, everything was hurting because it was tough going over the mountain. My attitude was down, the dog's attitude was down and once that happens then everything spirals down," he said. He says his bad attitude about the difficulty transferred to the dogs and it made a feedback loop. But it helped him have an important realization about dog racing. "I realized at that time, that winning doesn't matter to me at all. "Like I want that team to have fun all the way through and I want to finish, whether it's third place or eighth place or fifteenth place, I wanna finish with that team looking like they did when I pulled into here so, that's to me, that's gonna be winning the race is showing up looking like that, so I'm just gonna keep it fun. 3:53 If that means I drop back places, fine, as long as the dogs are having fun and I'm having fun," he said.

Strathe is channeling one of his friend and Quest champion's Brent Sass favorite aphorisms: attitude is everything. So far, it seems to be working out well for the musher as his run times continue to be some of the fastest in the field. He says he has a team that could win the Quest, but he knows he's a ways behind the leaders. "I'm not gonna go out of my way to try to race them down, but if my dogs look like they can do it, we'll give it a shot. As far as Allen, we're right next to each other, it's fun with him, my team's only been running faster, so as long as I can keep that up, I should come up ahead of him, but I'll have to watch my back, he's very experienced, he's a champion, he knows how to win this race and so, it's fun running with him because of that because I'm learning a lot and yeah, it's good," he said.

Richie Beattie is dealing with a different kind of challenge - getting back on his feet after a difficult first half of the race - topped off by his falling asleep on his sled and falling off just three miles from the finish line. He arrived in Dawson City after having received a ride from a fellow musher to help who came up shortly behind him, and found his team safely at the finish line. Here's what he says happened out on the trail. "Yesterday morning coming in here I was losing my touch with reality and at times I would catch myself like wondering 'Where I am and what's going on?' and I had literally had to walk myself mentally through like, 'You're in the Quest, dude, you're coming into Dawson,' you know, like losing it, delirious," he said. 24 hours later, he's realizing how lucky he actually was. "At least when it happened to me it happened in the context that the dogs weren't running off for another 80-mile stretch through the wilderness, they're just running into a checkpoint where there are plenty of people around to grab them and secure them," he said.

Beattiee said he's fallen asleep hundreds of times throughout his years of racing, as many mushers have, but this was the first time he's fallen off a sled. It was a result of his having been short on sleep, even before the Quest started. "The three nights leading up to the race I was up till 2 or 4 in the morning getting everything ready because I've had - I sometimes have a terrible habit of procrastination," he said. He said he's hoping to get 20 hours of sleep in his 36 hours in Dawson. As for his ego? "It's a little bruised and battered but you know, builds character, right? You learn from your mistakes," he said.

It's a common theme during the first half of the race: even well-weathered mushers learning something new and bringing it into the next section of racing. "You don't sign up for the Yukon Quest thinking that it's gonna be easy, you know, you're looking for a challenge and adversity and figuring out how to become a better musher and in general a better human being, you know," he says. He's taking grapes and making wine, he says, a tropical metaphor that's oddly appropriate to describe the sometimes absurd trail that is the Yukon Quest. ###

Dan has been in public radio news in Alaska since 1993. He’s worked as a reporter, newscaster and talk show host at stations in McGrath, Valdez and Fairbanks. Dan’s experience includes coverage of a wide range of topics, from wolf control to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and dog mushing.