FAIRBANKS – Two-time defending champion Allen Moore of Two Rivers was making a late charge and slicing into the once-commanding lead of Brent Sass Sunday morning as the Yukon Quest entered its final hours.
Bye bye runaway. Hello tooth-and-nail finish.
The SpotTracker devices on the mushers' sleds showed Moore only a dozen miles behind Sass about 25 miles outside Central on Birch Creek Sunday morning. Less than 24 hours earlier, Moore lagged some seven hours behind, though the back-to-back winner has maintained from the outset of the 1,000-mile race that he adopted a somewhat-conservative run-and-rest schedule so his dogs would enter the homestretch full of energy.
Once in Central, 160 miles from the Fairbanks finish line, only two checkpoints remain – Mile 101 and Two Rivers. Most race observers expect a Monday morning finish.
While most attention focused on the frontrunners, Ed Hopkins, the Canadian musher from Tagish in the Yukon, passed Hugh Neff to take over third place. Hopkins arrived in Circle at 3:55 a.m., with Neff 20 minutes behind.
Sixteen mushers are still on the trail, with rookie Rob Cooke in the Red Lantern position. Cooke is the only musher who has not reached Eagle. Four-time champion Lance Mackey and rookie Kristin Knight Pace were both resting in Eagle this morning, with the rest of the field strung out along the Yukon River.
Meanwhile, Cody Strathe and Joar Leifseth Ulsom
scratched from the race at the Eagle checkpoint. The two mushers hooked up their teams on Saturday night and traveled two miles to the airport, where they loaded their dogs aboard a Cessna Grand Caravan airplane. They were dropped off just miles from the Fairbanks finish line they'd pursued for the past seven days.
It marked a disappointing end to a race that had promising moments for both. Ulsom arrived at Eagle in fourth place, Strathe in seventh.
But they both ended their race outside of Eagle after deciding their teams weren't up for the remaining 400 miles. It became clear that Ulsom's team was struggling soon after he departed the checkpoint at 2 p.m. with eight dogs. He stopped his team just 20 miles from Eagle, then rested for more than nine hours before returning later that morning.
Ulsom, who trains in Willow, said at least two dogs on his team were nursing minor injuries, and he felt he shouldn't push his team on to Circle.
"There wasn't any point in going down the trail," he said. "It was probably the hardest decision I've made, but it was the right decision for my dogs."
Strathe had a similar story. He got 32 miles outside Eagle with 10 dogs but only had one leader, Sable, who was willing to run up front. He said he'd been watching his dogs for tics for a few hundred miles and felt the mental fatigue of a long race was getting to them.
The Ester musher said he wasn't certain his team was going to make it.
"They just weren't happy," he said. "Physically, they're very strong … but they're tired mentally. It was time for them to go home."
Strathe scratched from the Quest last year, when his dogs stopped running toward the final leg of the race. He said the experience left him determined to finish this year, but he said he lost his focus on the details of caring for his team.
"I forgot to keep up with the dogs as well as I should have," he said.
Both Ulsom and Strathe also said they didn't want to wear out their remaining dogs since the teams are both scheduled to make an Iditarod run next month. Ulsom and Strathe's wife, Paige Drobny, are each planning to run their third Iditarod.
Ulsom has an impressive resume in the 1,000-mile race to Nome, finishing fourth last year and seventh in 2013, when he won the race's rookie of the year award. Drobny was 25th last year.
So far, 10 of the 26 mushers who started the Quest have scratched or withdrawn. That's 38 percent.