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Iditarod

Poised for a 3rd-place Iditarod finish, Brent Sass slipped to 20th. Here's what happened

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 16, 2016

NOME -- Brent Sass tried to keep up with the Seaveys. And for many miles he did.

At some points, Sass led the 1,000-mile 2016 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Nome. At others, he was sandwiched between the record-setting teams of father-and-son duo Mitch and Dallas Seavey.

But then things went wrong.

When Sass reached White Mountain at 11:40 a.m. Monday, 77 miles from the finish line, he was in third place -- just behind the Seaveys. He completed his mandatory eight-hour rest there. And then his team gave up.

Sass' dogs didn't want to get up and go again.

"Just mentally, I wore them out. I pushed it a little bit too far," Sass said. "It's been a gut-wrenching 24 hours."

Instead, Sass and his team rested at the White Mountain checkpoint for more than a full day. That cost Sass third place and a $57,750 prize. Eventually, the 36-year-old Yukon Quest champion from Eureka finished in 20th place, winning $13,575.

Sass pulled into Nome at 11:08 p.m. Tuesday, kicking his foot in the snow as his now fast-moving, nine-dog team ran under the burled arch in the zero-degree cold.

A small crowd gave Sass big cheers on Front Street. "Nice job, Brent," one yelled. "We love you," said another.

Brent moved down his line of dogs, petting each one. He gave his father, Mark Sass, a hug.

In a tearful interview with media, Sass said he was grateful to make it to Nome and proud of his dog team.

"They poured their hearts out for 1,000 miles, and obviously we had our problems 75 miles from the finish line, but this run here just proves to me that our trust is still there," he said. "They still believe in me."

Sass said problems arose for his team around Koyuk, about 800 miles into the race. He arrived at the checkpoint first on Sunday, about 45 minutes ahead of Dallas and Mitch Seavey.

"I got there and we rested and an hour into it Dallas and Mitch came blowing through," he said, "and it was a decision I had to make: Am I going to stay in this race? Am I going to continue racing or am I going to concede and basically not do it?"

He said his team, then 13 dogs strong, had just completed a 108-mile run. But they looked good. He decided to race -- not rest. A game of chase started as the three teams traveled toward the next checkpoint at Elim.

"I started to have to chase some Seaveys," Sass said. "I knew I was on the edge but I came to play the game and we poured it all out on the field and gave it all we could and came up a little short."

Sass arrived at Elim 20 minutes behind Dallas Seavey and three minutes ahead of Mitch. Sass grabbed some straw, put it into his sled and took off, he said.

"We did great across the section of the sea ice there," he said. "We popped up by a safety cabin, we were about to get up into the hills and I could still see Mitch's light and I said, 'We can do this.' I said, 'I want to race.' And they did great and went up over those hills faster than I expected."

When Sass reached White Mountain, he said, he had "all the faith in the world" that his team would get to Nome in third place. His eight-hour rest ended at 7:40 p.m. Monday, and he tried to leave the checkpoint.

But his team didn't want to move.

He tried to pull them, calling on his leader Celia.

"We went 30 yards and I looked back at 10 of my best friends and they're all just saying, 'I don't think we want to go anywhere, Dad. I think we just want to hang out here,'" Sass said. "That's a pretty powerful force."

So they stayed in White Mountain.

Teams came and went as Sass waited. He rested his dogs. He rested himself. He described it as "the most embarrassing moment" of his life.

"I bent their trust as far as you can, I feel like," he said.

Tuesday afternoon, Sass and his team finally left the checkpoint. He said he had to walk in front of the dogs for a while until they started to run. By that time, hours had passed since Dallas Seavey had won the Iditarod in record time and Mitch Seavey had placed second. Sass and his team arrived in Nome seven minutes after Ray Redington Jr. and more than 20 hours after Dallas Seavey.

It was Sass' fourth Iditarod. His best finish was in his rookie year, when he came in 13th. He was disqualified from last year's race for carrying an iPod Touch.

Sass said he learned innumerable lessons this year -- including that he needs to read his dogs, no matter what's happening with the competition.

"I'm extremely proud of my dog team," Sass said. "A little disappointed in myself, but extremely proud of my dog team."

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