Record-shattering race to Braeburn
Hans Gatt wound up playing the head games early Sunday, and maneuvered into position to win as much as Hugh Neff and Lance Mackey.
As the front three teams in this record-destroying Yukon Quest drive to the last mandatory rest stop at Braeburn, some 80 miles and at least nine or 10 hours from Carmacks, Gatt has positioned himself to draft off the front two. He was five minutes behind them leaving Carmacks, and the trio were all perhaps a half mile apart as their indomitable dogs set a steady 7 to 8 mph pace approaching the twisting, turning “ping pong alley” just outside the checkpoint.
At this point, there’s no more strategizing. It’s all about who’s got the speed and stamina and good luck to reach Braeburn with a buffer ahead of the next team. And the dog power to take off on one final long run to the finish line after the mandatory 8-hour layover there. It is a long 100 miles, maybe 109, from Braeburn to the finish line, and likely a final 12-hour push for the front teams. Temperatures are forecast to rise into the mid 30s F, which may yet play a role in this race.
But when it comes to strategy, Gatt proved he’s able to play with the best. He got what may have been the last word in, strategy-wise, when he pulled over at Stepping Stone for a couple hours and let Neff and Mackey push on to Pelly Crossing. He followed them to Pelly by a couple of hours. Once there, he then either pretended to declare himself out of contention or just spoke his mind to reporters at the moment.
But I did hear from people there that Gatt pretended to be asleep as Mackey and Neff hooked up their teams, but jumped up and got his dogs ready the moment those two took off. He departed 40 minutes behind them, and made up the difference before the teams had gone 30 miles to McCabe Creek dog drop.
I got through to Jake Berkowitz, handling for Zack Steer, at Pelly Crossing and he said that Gatt’s team displayed the most enthusiasm, jumping in harness and barking.
He described Neff and Mackey as in good spirits, and he marveled at Neff’s ability to stay alert and fresh with no apparent need for sleep. Mackey had praise for Neff’s team, saying this was the first time any team has been able to stay with him this far into a race.
As I write, the trio are plugging along on the long, lake-pocked leg to Braeburn. It is mostly flat, but the heat of the day could play a factor when they are in the middle of the snow-covered lakes in the bright sunshine this afternoon. Temperatures are forecast to climb and the teams are bound to slow down.
Behind them, by a gap of more than 11 hours, is Zack Steer, still with a dozen dogs. Berkowitz said Steer definitely has Iditarod on his mind at this point, since he hopes 8 to 10 of his Quest dogs will be ready for the next 1,000-mile race, The Iditarod, which starts March 7 in Willow. Steer noted that this is the most he’s asked from a dog team, and he’s far ahead of his second-place pace in 2004.
Ken Anderson was cruising along with 11 dogs, having maintained a disciplined rest schedule. He should have enough gas in the tank to have a strong final push to the finish in Whitehorse. Sonny Lindner and Brent Sass were right in the mix with Steer and Anderson, as well.
We could have a winner by 2 p.m. Monday.
» Here’s a link to the latest Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article describing the three front runners. It includes this quote from Gatt: “I think the race for first place is over for me.” I guess he changed his mind. I said the same thing at Circle City last year but kept on racing.
» Amazingly, the Quest went all this time without a scratch, or serious issue. Gerry Willomitzer was the first to drop out, shortly after departing Dawson. His runner plastic came off his sled and he turned around and called it a day.
» Observers at the checkpoints say the dogs in these teams are incredible, but the pace is taking some toll. Lance Mackey was working hard with wrist wraps at Pelly Crossing, which indicates he was either taking precautions or that his dogs are developing some soreness in their wrists.
» Their speeds, indicated by the Spot tracker system, appear very good for this stage in the race and the long runs and short rests they’re taking.
» Take a look at this comment, from a reader whom I assume is Will Forsberg. Great insight. How many of us are training and conditioning our dogs inappropriately to race today’s 1,000-mile sled dog races?