In a topsy-turvy finish to the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, Brent Sass of Eureka gave up a seemingly insurmountable lead and then came from behind in the home stretch to capture his first major sled-dog racing title late Monday night.
Sass passed Allen Moore of Two Rivers about midway through the final 72-mile run to the finish line in Fairbanks and hung on to win in a total time of 9 days, 12 hours, 44 seconds before a big turnout in downtown Fairbanks. He finished just before 10:52 p.m. with 12 dogs in harness. Moore was second.
Moore was seeking his third-consecutive victory, but wound up with his second heartbreaking loss in the last four Quests. In 2012, Hugh Neff of Tok came from more than hour behind at the penultimate checkpoint to nip Moore by 26 seconds and win the closest Quest in history.
"The team looks strong -- all 12 dogs and that animal on the runners! Brent's poling and kicking HARD!" Sass's Facebook page reported Monday evening as the team headed for Fairbanks. "The cheering crowd lining the trail at PV (Pleasant Valley) Store caused the team to ball up and without skipping a beat, Brent ran forward off the runners, grabbed his leaders from inside the crowd, and ran them forward onto the trail. He and the team didn't even come to a complete stop."
"He's smiling, hollering encouragement to the dogs, and his energy is contagious."
But earlier Monday, it looked as though Sass had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when he let a lead that had stretched to 10 hours earlier in the race evaporate.
Tired dogs and a tired musher were a big factor, but Sass' big sleep in the Circle checkpoint was the main culprit.
"The bottom line was the dogs were slowing way down and they needed a good break," Sass told Emily Schwing of KUAC Radio while admitting he'd overslept too. "I actually didn't set an alarm, because I didn't want to get up too early. I didn't think I'd sleep for 10 hours, but I woke up at five hours and decided I should keep letting them sleep and then I thought I'd be kind of in and out and obviously I wasn't, so it got a little long."
By Central, the next checkpoint 75 miles down the trail, Sass' lead over Moore was down to 92 minutes. By Mile 101, another 33 miles closer to Fairbanks, it had been chiseled to 71 minutes.
By Two Rivers, the final checkpoint before the finish, Sass was in second place.
"At least we've got a race now," Sass said. "I don't know if I wanted it, but I got it now."
As disappointing as Sass' reversal of fortunes may have been, there was a silver lining. On the way into Two Rivers, the 35-year-old musher noticed that his team seemed recharged, slicing a 29-minute deficit to two minutes. A mandatory eight-hour stop in Two Rivers provided more rest, and on the final 72-mile stretch Sass' dogs had their speed back.
Moore, 57, is married to fellow musher Aliy Zirkle and even though they are far and away the most successful mushing couple in Alaska, they've also been plagued by excruciatingly close second-place finishes, a tendency this Quest may serve to magnify.
• In 2012, Neff came from more than an hour behind to nip Moore by 26 seconds. (Moore came back to comfortably win the next two, however.)
• Zirkle owns three consecutive runner-up finishes in the Iditarod, including the second-closest in race history (2 minutes, 22 seconds) last year. Her tormentors are the Seavey family, both father Mitch, who won in 2013, and Dallas, who came from behind last year and nipped her by about an hour in 2012.
• This year Zirkle finished second to Michelle Phillips in the Yukon Quest 300, running a team of the couple's younger, less-experienced dogs.
But Sass has had his share of disappointment as well. A year ago, he and Moore were battling for the lead in the final miles, when a weary Sass fell from his sled, smacked his head on the ice and suffered a concussion. An all-but-certain finish in the top two was gone, along with any prize money. The injury forced him to withdraw from the Iditarod, scheduled to begin a few weeks later.
Like the race itself, the weather in this Quest was topsy-turvy, from temperatures lower than minus-40 in the race's early days to near the freezing point a week later – a 70-degree temperature swing.
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com