WHITEHORSE, Yukon — For the second time in five years, Hugh Neff won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest on Monday, his nine dogs trotting across the finish line as the unseasonable Yukon temperature neared 30 degrees.
Neff, 48, of Tok, forged what turned out to be an insurmountable two-and-a-half-hour lead on the stretch from the Carmacks to the final checkpoint of Braeburn and was never challenged afterward. He crossed the finish line at 2:31 p.m. local time. Defending champion Brent Sass of Eureka arrived at 3:52 p.m. and two-time winner Allen Moore of Two Rivers made it to Whitehorse at 5:05 p.m. Young Matt Hall, also of Two Rivers, was headed towards a fourth-place finish.
On Sunday, Neff's team of 10 panting sled dogs were trotting when they pulled into the legendary Braeburn Lodge's parking lot, greeted by cheering Quest fans standing outside in the spring-like afternoon warmth and sunshine.
After an eight-hour layover that every musher must take in Braeburn, Neff headed for the finish line. A big cushion was an unusual luxury. Four years ago, he beat fellow two-time Quest champion Allen Moore to the finish line by 26 seconds.
"It's a dream, man. It's just been probably the best run of my life," Neff said Sunday. It hasn't been easy. Neff said he's gotten about two hours of "real" sleep since Dawson City, the mid-point of the ultramarathon from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
"I don't really worry about stuff like sleep. I'm a young buck," said the 48-year-old, who for most of the race talked about being one of the older mushers.
The dogs' ears were perked up as they intently watched Neff unpacking beef snacks and using an ax to hack apart a package of frozen chicken to feed them. The dogs wolfed down the meat and curled up in piles of straw.
"Whenever we stopped, (they) 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."
Neff described his team as a long-term project full of veterans, with 8-year-old lead dog George, the oldest, having run nine 1,000-mile races. Most are 5 or 6 years old, he said.
"A lot of effort went into creating this bond that we have," Neff said.
Another musher who knows the Quest's stretch run can decide victory or defeat is defending champion Brent Sass, who was heading into Braeburn in 2014 when he fell asleep and fell off his sled while crossing a frozen lake. His head hit the ice, and he suffered a concussion.
The injury forced him out of the race, and Moore went on to win. Sass now wears a helmet on the trail and was running second Monday.
Fairbanks News Miner reporter Casey Grove contributed to this report.