TAKOTNA -- Wet snowflakes fell from a dark sky early Thursday morning as Sebastian Schnuelle headed out of this quaint village on the edge of the Kuskokwim Mountains behind a dog team deep into its second 1,000-mile race in a month.
Out on the trail ahead of him, Nenana's Aaron Burmeister and Schnuelle's friend Hugh Neff were already pounding up the grade on the state highway that tops out seven miles distant and then drops down to the old mining camp of Ophir. All were fresh off their mandatory 24-hour layovers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
A wild-haired German who now lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, the 38-year-old Schnuelle disappeared from sight behind 15 hard-charging, potential super-dogs.
Only about two weeks ago, all those dogs crossed the finish line of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race on the Chena River in Fairbanks. Ten helped Schnuelle win his first Quest in record time; the other five finished with an 11th-place team driven by Schnuelle's handler.
This is the fourth year running that Schnuelle has done the world's two biggest sled-dog ultramarathons back to back. He cracked the Iditarod Top 10 for the first time last year.
"I just like running dogs," he said. "That's why I like running both races. I don't think I will win this one, honestly. If I get Top 10, I'll be happy."
His buddy Neff hopes to be in that group too. A 41-year-old who lives in the mountains near Annie Lake, Yukon, with his girlfriend and training partner Tamra Reynolds, Neff has never cracked the Iditarod Top 10. But he finished second to Schnuelle in the Quest this year and might have won but for a time penalty. Like Schnuelle, Neff is doing the Quest-Iditarod double for the fourth time.
A one-time resident of the Windy City who moved north to become a musher nearly 14 years ago, Neff said he couldn't imagine not doing both.
"I'd feel sick inside," he said. "It's not that hard. I mean, look at me, I'm from Chicago. You just have to be a little different."
Vagabonds in the mid-1990s, Neff and Schnuelle were destined to be different. They gravitated to the cold, remote country of Klondike gold rush fame and came up through the mushing ranks together just across the border from each other. They started their careers with 200-mile races and built their kennels into top 1,000-mile contenders.
"We know each other inside and out," said Neff. "You know, I'm German too. But I'm Chicago German."
The two regularly park their sleds next to each other.
On Thursday, the teams were nestled out of the wind behind the community center. The dogs ate frozen chunks of lamb while mushers inside the building feasted on lasagna and Jan Newton's heavenly pecan pie.
"Hey, Annie," Neff called to his top lead dog, now on her way to completing her fifth 1,000-mile race. "She's the best dog in the world."
A family pet, Annie is allowed to sleep at the foot of the bed at night at home. Sometimes, Neff said, he realizes then how it is these dogs can go so far, so fast, for so long.
"Her whole body just vibrates," Neff said. "Like (Iditarod veteran) Zack Steer once said, 'They're like big masses of energy.' "
MACKEY RAISES THE BAR
Once it was thought running the Quest as a lead-in to the Iditarod doomed a team's chances in the race from Anchorage to Nome. But defending Iditarod champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks has twice won both races back to back, and the current Top 20 is full of Quest teams: Schnuelle, Neff, fourth-place Quest finisher Martin Buser from Big Lake, ninth-place finisher Warren Palfrey from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and Hans Gatt from Whitehorse, the three-time Quest winner who pulled out of that race early this year to save himself and his team for the Iditarod.
Gatt was running 11th in the Iditarod on Thursday. Neff and Schnuelle were near the lead.
"We'll see if the Quest dogs have enough energy in their battery," Denali Park musher Jeff King said. "They've been at it hard for a while."
Lance Mackey's Idita-Quest charge in 2007 lasted all the way to Nome, where he became the first musher to win both races in the same year and kill the idea that feat was impossible. Mackey did it with an Iditarod team that had 13 of his Quest dogs.
Schueulle said that it's all a matter of managing the team's pace.
"When my dogs finished the Quest, their harnesses were banging to go some more," he said. "So why not go another 1,000 miles? The distance might be mind-boggling to us, but for them it's not. They don't think, 'Oh we have to go run another thousand miles.' For them, it's just another day on the trail."
His dogs looked warm and comfy Wednesday evening as they napped away their layover on small piles of straw. Schnuelle had them covered with nylon blankets lined in fleece to make them even more comfortable.
"They don't have the speed like Jeff (King)," he said. "We're slow, but very, very steady."
HARD ON HUMANS
King, a four-time Iditarod champion and a 1989 Quest winner, said racing both events in the same year takes more than just good dog care. The musher has to want it too.
"I've thought about it, sure," said the 53-year-old as he finished feeding his dogs dinner Wednesday night. "But running them both just doesn't sound like any fun. My iron man days are over."
And despite Mackey's two back-to-back Quest-Iditarod victories, King doesn't buy the idea that running both in the same year is an advantage. He's racing the Iditarod with a Quest dog borrowed from the team of third-place Quest finisher Jon Little from Kasilof. The dog is running well, King said, but doesn't look better than other dogs.
Ramey Smyth of Willow is also racing with some Quest dogs. They took his wife, Becca Moore, to a 17th place Quest finish. Smyth told King the Quest dogs haven't pulled since departing Willow on Sunday.
"He's not expecting them to (pull) from the looks of things," King said. "So it's clearly not (great performance) across the board."
Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/sports/kklott or 257-4335.