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Yukon Quest: Neff and Moore again neck-in-neck into Alaska

Hugh Neff might not admit it, but it's hard to argue the level of deja vu fans of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race are feeling this year.

In an interview with KUAC reporter Emily Schwing, Neff said he's only seen Moore on the trail twice this race -- right before reaching the first checkpoint of Braeburn and at the Fortymile hospitality stop, 50 miles after leaving Dawson, where mushers rested for 40 hours midway though.

In 2012, the two racers dueled all the way to the finish line, with Neff edging Moore by 26 seconds.

Despite the lack of encounters, the duo is sticking close to one another. Neff pulled into the checkpoint of Eagle, the first in the Alaska portion of the race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, at 9:20 p.m. Thursday. Moore of Two Rivers following 35 minutes later. After a five-hour rest, Neff departed the Yukon River community at 2:42 a.m. In close pursuit was Moore, who followed Neff 16 minutes later.

Neither musher had broken away from the other by Friday afternoon. Trackers showed the two mushers within a mile of each other as they headed another 150 miles down the trail toward Circle, the final checkpoint on the Yukon River.

As mushers close in on the Fairbanks finish line, they're in for a bit of a ride. The Alaska half of the Yukon Quest -- which alternates starts between Whitehorse and Fairbanks each year -- is considered the more-challenging half of the race. Jumble ice on the Yukon River, extreme cold, and surprise overflow are among the challenges racers encounter.

Grueling climbs

But the biggest hurdles are expected to come in 200 miles, when racers traverse the daunting Eagle and Rosebud summits.

The steep, windy Eagle Summit is especially known as a game changer. In 2011 it changed the race leader board entirely, when Neff, leading by almost half a day, stalled on the summit. Unable to make it up the notoriously steep pitch, Neff withdrew from the race after his dog, Geronimo, died in the attempt.

Allen Moore told reporters in Eagle this year that he hadn't been running his dogs as long as Neff, something he hopes will give him an advantage.

"He ran a couple hundred milers," Moore said. "I haven't done that yet. Hopefully that will help me in the end."

Moore was referring to the summit, which was challenging other travelers on Friday. State highway officials announced the closure of the Steese Highway at the summit to due to blowing winds and drifting snow.

While mushers aren't expected to reach Mile 101 -- the checkpoint located at the base of Eagle Summit -- for several days, Friday's closure made race officials wonder about logistics.

"No news yet if the rest of the crew made it up to (the checkpoint) 101 from Fairbanks," the checkpoint's Facebook group posted Friday. "Circle expects its first musher early Saturday morning, but the checkpoint is open. Right now no one is sure if the food for the Circle Checkpoint got over Eagle Summit before it got blown shut this afternoon."

Maintenance crews will work to clear the highway Saturday, and hope to have the road opened by 10 a.m., according to the Department of Transportation.

Mackey reassessing

Lance Mackey offered a few insights into what he's thinking for the remainder of his race season. In a video posted to his "Comeback Chronicles" blog, Mackey said he was going home to "reassess the damages." The four-time Yukon Quest and Iditarod champion struggled in this year's Quest. Moving slowly and hampered by warm weather and bad appetites among his dogs, the champion musher was down to seven dogs when he reached the halfway point of Dawson City Thursday. With another 500 miles to go, Mackey, who has never finished lower than third in the race, scratched.

Mackey, who is signed up to run the Iditarod, said he has three options for the rest of the racing season. He said he could continue on with his current group of dogs, go home and regroup with new team or skip it all together and hop on a plane to visit his girlfriend in Nashville.

"That's what I'm really thinking," Mackey said with a laugh.

Mackey isn't the first musher signed up to race in both the Iditarod and Quest to scratch. Fellow doubler Kelley Griffin of Wasilla scratched in Dawson. Both remain registered for the Iditarod.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch

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