BRAEBURN, Yukon — With the finish line about 100 miles away, Hugh Neff of Tok is poised to take his second Yukon Quest championship after arriving here with a sizable lead on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon.
Neff came into this checkpoint outside the legendary roadside Braeburn Lodge on the Klondike Highway after a solid 77-mile run from Carmacks. Along the way, he captured the lead from defending champion Brent Sass and forged a 21/2-hour advantage on Sass and 2013 and '14 champ Allen Moore.
Like the other competitors, Neff has a mandatory eight-hour layover before beginning the final run to the Whitehorse finish line. He will likely leave having had a good nap and with a rested team of dogs.
The Tok musher has experience with thrilling stretch runs. He beat Moore to the finish line in 2012 by 26 seconds, so he expects to need every ounce of energy he and the dogs have during the final leg of the 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
"Just 'cause I have this huge lead doesn't mean I'm going to lollygag it and take pictures or whatever," Neff said. "A lot of us when we're mushing, myself, Allen's the same way, we have to give it our all, because it's just who we are. And if we're not trying, and we're not focusing on the dogs and poling or kicking or whatever we're doing, then we're faking it as mushers."
Neff, whose best finish in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was fifth in 2011, said he has gotten about two hours of "real" sleep since Dawson City, where all racers pause for 36 hours and catch up on rest.
"It's a dream, man. It's been probably the best run of my life," Neff said.
Led by 8-year-old George, Neff's team was 10 dogs strong coming into Braeburn. He said he would drop one dog with a leg issue but said the rest were performing well.
"Everybody else, whenever we stopped, were howling. I'm not talking one dog, I'm talking every dog on the team was howling," Neff said. "It's just been a joy to be a part of."
The dogs' ears were perked up and they watched Neff intently as he unpacked beef snacks and used an axe to hack apart a package of frozen chicken to feed them. The dogs wolfed down the meat and curled up in piles of straw.
Neff described his team as a "long-term project," with George, the oldest, having run nine 1,000-mile races. Most are 5 or 6, he said.
"A lot of effort went into creating this bond that we have," Neff said.
At the previous checkpoint of Carmacks, defending champion Brent Sass of Eureka blazed through the checkpoint, barely pausing, to retake the lead. He pulled in at 3:50 a.m. Sunday and stayed only 12 minutes to load up on supplies.
Neff arrived in Carmacks first at 1:30 a.m. and opted to rest a couple hours, a move that appears to be paying off.
Neff was awake and putting booties on his dogs as Sass marched past with a pot full of water, about to leave.
"You ready to rock 'n' roll, buddy?" Sass asked Neff.
"Yeah," Neff grumbled.
In Carmacks, Neff described his dogs as "pumped."
As for Neff himself, "I'm just enjoying the moment. Stuff like this doesn't happen every day," he said. "I've been doing this for 16 Quests, and (it's) the first time I've ever been in this situation. I mean, I came from behind to win, but I've never actually been up in front leading with somebody chasing my butt."
And that's intimidating, Neff said.
"I'd rather be the predator than the prey," he said. "To have a guy like Allen behind me, definitely very intimidating."
Moore got to Carmacks at 3:09 a.m. and, like Neff, set to work bedding down his team and feeding them.
"I like coming in this time of night. There's nobody," Moore said. "In the day, there's people, dogs."
Moore stood watching about 30 minutes later as Sass jogged to grab three drop bags that he lugged back to his sled. Then Moore went inside to sleep.
Earlier in the race, Sass's Wild and Free Mushing dogs were sick. The dogs seemed to finally be feeling better by Carmacks, although by then Sass's stomach and throat were not, he said.
"I've just been trying to hang on," he said. "The dogs are in really good spirits, and that's helping me forget about my ailment.
"These guys have been sick the entire time, and they've been frickin' pouring their hearts into it, so it's time for me."
Thirteen minutes after Sass pulled out of Carmacks, so did Neff.
"Allllllright," he said in a low voice, and the dogs stood. "That's what I like to see. You want to go hunt Wild and Free?"