Hugh Neff captured his elusive Yukon Quest championship in the most dramatic fashion imaginable Tuesday -- shrugging off a 30-minute penalty, charging from behind in the final 100 miles, catching up to leader Allen Moore about 20 miles from the finish, putting a dog in his sled with about five miles to go and, finally, holding off Moore by 26 seconds on the streets of Whitehorse to win the closest race in the 29-year history of the 1,000-mile sled dog race.
Neff, 44, erased a 42-minute gap between him and Moore on the final leg of the race to claim his first Quest victory in 12 attempts.
Neff, who lives in Tok but has a homestead near Whitehorse at Annie Lake, said he benefitted from his knowledge of the area as he pushed himself physically to help his team gain ground in the final stretch.
"I've been on this trail quite a bit and I know every inch of it," he told reporters after finishing Tuesday at 4:15 a.m. AST. "For every hill, even if it was only a couple centimeters in elevation, I would be running, and I knew where to snack the team and where to take it easy."
The frontrunners -- a group that for much of the race included four-time champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, who wound up a distant third -- seldom slept during their race across the Yukon. But Neff was in no hurry to slow down once he reached the finish line.
"I'm not sleeping anytime soon," he told reporters. "This is my first win. To do it here, it's a really special feeling."
The race was Neff's 20th thousand-mile race, a string that began with the 2000 Quest, according to his blog. In eight previous Quest finishes -- he dropped out of the race three times -- Neff placed third twice and second once. In eight Iditarods, his best finish was last year's fifth-place showing.
Neff grew up in Evanston, Ill., where he was an Eagle Scout. For one of his early scouting projects, he built a mini-dogsled.
The lure of the north drew him to Alaska and the love of sled dogs kept him here. His passion for both was apparent as he spoke to a crowd at the finish line.
"The Quest not only captures the spirit of the North but the history of the North," he said. "Whenever I'm out on that trail, I always think of all the amazing people that have been out on the trail, and it gives me motivation."
Neff has come excruciatingly close to winning the Quest but until now had always been denied, either by faster teams, hostile conditions or penalties.
Last year he built a seemingly insurmountable lead late in the race but had to withdraw after stalling during a wicked storm while trying to climb Eagle Summit en route to Fairbanks. One of his dogs died during the ordeal.
Two years earlier, he was hit with a two-hour penalty for running his team off-trail and went on to lose by four minutes -- which until Tuesday was the closest race in Quest history.
When he was penalized 30 minutes this year for not having an ax when he reached the Pelly Crossing checkpoint, the sanction looked like it could cost Neff victory again. But when he left Braeburn on Monday afternoon, after serving the extra 30 minutes at the checkpoint, he wasn't concerned, the Whitehorse Star reported.
"It's like deja vu all over again," he told the newspaper. "It's just Hugh Neff karma."
According to the Fairbanks News-Miner, Neff caught up to Moore about 20 minutes from the finish line but once the Two Rivers musher realized how close Neff was, he picked up his pace by double ski-poling in an effort to keep his lead.
Moore, who placed sixth last year in his rookie run, told reporters the two teams stayed within 100 yards of each other in the final miles.
"It was exciting. That's the best kind of race, when you're back and forth," he told reporters. "I ran about as good a race as I could run. His dogs were just a little bit faster - that's what made the difference."
Neff said he took a risk about five miles from the finish by stopping to put a dog in his sled bag.
"I had to bag Gringo about five miles out," he told the Star. "Sometimes when you pack a dog, you actually go faster, and I got lucky this time."
Neff reached the finish line at 5:15 a.m. Yukon time. It was still dark, and video of the finish shows Moore's bouncing headlamp approaching the finish after Neff's came to a halt.
"Since the race started, it's been that way with us; we've been camping right together, we've been doing everything together and turns out we're together at the finish," Moore said at the finish line. "It could have went either way: one mistake and either one of us could have won."
Neff finished in 9 days, 16 hours, 5 minutes and collected $28,395 in prize money. Moore finished 26 seconds back and won $20,230 for second place plus four ounces of placer gold, worth about $7,000, that he will collect for being the first musher to reach the halfway point in Dawson.
"We're taught that we all want to win and be champions and all that," Neff said. "But for me, coming in first is not what it's all about. It's about what you do when you do well in life.
"Even if I came in second, I wouldn't have cared; I was having fun out there and Allen's a buddy of mine. He won this race just as much as I did."
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News