FAIRBANKS — Brent Sass crossed the finish line, gaped at a huge crowd lining the chute on the Chena River, then immediately ran to congratulate each of the dozen dogs in front of him.
After a year of challenges, thrills and disappointments, the Eureka musher is a Yukon Quest champion.
"It's pretty amazing," Sass said, his eyes wet with emotion. "I've got an awesome dog team down there."
Sass earned the victory with a burst in the final leg to outrun two-time defending champion Allen Moore. After dominating the race for more than 900 miles with endurance and power, Sass finished it off with a 73-mile run, crossing the Fairbanks finish line at 10:52 p.m. to cheers of "wild and free," the name of his kennel.
Sass transformed a two-minute deficit into an advantage of more than an hour at the end. Moore crossed the finish line at 12:06 a.m.
The victory in the 1,000-mile Whitehorse-to-Fairbanks sled dog race didn't always look assured, however. The final days of the race included almost everything — daring moves, a huge blunder, a frenzied checkpoint scramble and, finally, redemption.
The Eureka musher claimed the emotional victory a year after being denied a chance at a similar finale. While in close pursuit of Moore near the final checkpoint in 2014, Sass dozed off and hit his head on an icy Yukon lake. The resulting concussion ended his race.
Sass ran this year's Quest, which was his ninth overall, with a constant reminder of that injury, wearing a bright yellow ski helmet to better protect his head. He often choked up at the thought of the missed opportunity, at times apologizing to his dogs for halting their outstanding run.
"I kind of let them down last year," he said at the race's start banquet, speaking with a shaking voice. "They're super, super strong dogs."
Determined to overcome that failed race, Sass used a chain of massive 100-mile runs from the start this year, expanding his lead to more than 50 miles as he entered the final third of the race.
Sass' victory looked like it would be easy with a few days left, but a mistake on Sunday erased nearly all of it. He overslept during a rest along Birch Creek outside Central, turning it into an unscheduled nine-hour stop. The long pause was so unexpected that a race official traveled to Sass' campsite to make sure he was OK.
The typically upbeat Sass was noticeably unsettled after the stop, which trimmed his lead to just two hours.
"It is what it is," he said on Sunday. "We all seem to make mistakes over and over and over again."
By that evening, Moore had claimed the lead after skipping a rest while blowing through the Mile 101 checkpoint as Sass recovered from a draining climb up Eagle Summit. After seeing Moore preparing to leave, Sass ran through the dog lot in his long underwear, threw on his gear and started preparing his dogs to take chase.
But Sass later credited his unplanned rest for rejuvenating his weary team. Sass entered the final leg with new momentum after slicing a 29-minute margin to just 2 minutes heading into Two Rivers.
Moore, who lives in Two Rivers, went into the run confident that he'd hold the advantage on his home turf. But Sass said his team's burst on the next leg convinced him that he could outrun Moore and his team.
"I don't think I'd be sitting here right now if that rest hadn't happened," he said.
Sass said he passed Moore near a crossing over Chena Hot Springs Road about 30 miles into the run. The two stayed together for several miles, using ski poles to push them down the trail, before Sass gradually expanded his lead.
"The dogs, it was just unbelievable," he said. "I called them up and we just flew through Two Rivers."
As the Quest winner, Sass receives nearly $25,000, along with 4 ounces of gold — worth about $5,000 — for being the first finisher to reach Dawson City.
Moore and Sass left the rest of the Quest field far behind. The next closest competitor, Tagish, Yukon, musher Ed Hopkins, was 90 miles behind the leaders when Sass crossed the finish line. Sixteen mushers remain in the race.
It appears that Moore, who won the Quest in 2013 and 2014, will bracket his two championships with a pair of exciting runner-up finishes. In 2012, he finished just 26 seconds behind Hugh Neff in Whitehorse.
Sass plans to use the same team to run the Iditarod, which will begin in Fairbanks in about two weeks. He said his team, which is primarily made up of 3-to-5-year-old dogs, is entering it's prime.
"This team is young," he said. "The future's very bright."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing