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New rest rules means major shakeup for Yukon Quest

Suzanna Caldwell
Yukon Quest / Heidi McGuire

The party days of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in Dawson City just got a little shorter.

The 1,000-mile dog sled race announced Tuesday it was shortening its mandatory 36-hour layover in Dawson City to 24 hours, changing for the first time in history one of the race’s most defining characteristics.

Organizers also redistributed rest times at other checkpoints. For example, what was once a four-hour required layover early in the race -- which alternates direction between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks each year -- has been extended to six hours. The 2015 race, which will run from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, will require a six-hour mandatory stop once racers leave the Yukon River in either Circle, Central or Mile 101. The eight-hour mandatory rest at the penultimate checkpoint, which in 2015 will be Two Rivers, will remain the same.

The changes will cut two hours off the total mandatory rest time, from 52 hours to 50.

The decision is part of an ongoing race conversation, according to Alaska executive director Marti Steury. She said the breed of dog has changed over the years, and 36 hours of rest might have become too much for them -- if not for the mushers.

The change will also give way to a different kind of strategy, perhaps changing how some mushers charge toward Dawson knowing 36 hours of rest -- and four ounces of placer gold to the first musher -- are waiting.

The 36-hour rule was unique to the Yukon Quest. In Dawson, mushers could head off the trail and into hotel rooms, if they desired, while handlers took over care of the teams for the allotted time. It generally led to a festive atmosphere in the tiny Yukon community, famous for its role in the Klondike Gold Rush -- a quick pause before the race resumed.

In comparison, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Alaska’s other 1,000-mile sled dog race, allows one 24-hour rest, though competitors can take it anywhere on the trail.

Two-time Quest champion Allen Moore has concerns over the new requirements. He ran the numbers on the new rest based on numbers from the 2013 and 2014 races and calculated major deficits.

He said based on the mandatory rests he took in 2013, when the race ran last from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, the new requirements would have shaved off approximately 9 hours and 20 minutes of mandatory rest for his team. In 2014, he would have lost 6 hours and 38 minutes of rest, while runner-up Hugh Neff would have lost just under 8 hours.

The main loss comes from the 12 hours sliced from the Dawson layover, he said. Most mushers already take long breaks in other checkpoints -- a necessity given the long distances between them. 

However, Brent Sass, who led for most of the 2014 race, would have gained an hour and a half of mandatory rest. Sass took an untraditional strategy during the 2014 race, instead stopping in checkpoints to only gather what supplies he needed for the next run. 

That strategy seemed to pay off when Sass built what looked like a dominating lead heading into the final checkpoint of Braeburn. But just few miles outside the checkpoint he slipped on an icy lake and hit his head, suffering a concussion. He was unable to finish the race and had to withdraw after receiving outside assistance.

Moore wondered if perhaps the rest adjustment was a result of what happened with Sass, because it the new rules would have forced him to rest longer at previous checkpoints. Steury insisted the Sass situation was not a factor.

Sass, who trains in remote Eureka, did not respond to requests for comment.

Moore believes the change will only make the race more difficult, especially when dealing with obstacles like the notorious climb up steep Eagle Summit.

“It’s just going to be less rest for us and the dogs, and if they think that will help, I don’t think it will,” Moore said.

 Neff, the 2012 champ and three-time runner-up, said in a Facebook message he supported the idea of rest being spread out among checkpoints. He said races should be based on the overall health of the field and not just front-running teams.

And whether or not the change would affect his overall strategy remains to be seen, he said.

“Mother Nature determines the pace of the race,” Neff said.

Yukon Quest mandatory layovers

(Whitehorse to Fairbanks route)

Prior to changes

  • 4 hours at either Braeburn or Carmacks (musher's choice)
  • ​36 hours at Dawson City
  • 4 hours in Eagle
  • 8 hours in Two Rivers

Total: 52 mandatory rest hours

After changes

  • 6 hours at either Braeburn or Carmacks 
  • 24 hours at Dawson City
  • 6 hours at Eagle
  • 6 hours at either Circle, Central or Mile 101
  • 8 hours at Two Rivers

Total: 50 mandatory rest hours

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