NOME — Hours after Brent Sass and his dog team reached Front Street in Nome to become the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion, he spoke about his relationship with his dogs, his passion for his lifestyle, and the harrowing events he overcame on his final run.
Here’s Sass in his own words. This has been edited for clarity.
A harrowing journey between White Mountain and Nome
A few hours into his stay at White Mountain, Sass was told about some serious wind ahead, he said.
At first, he and his dog team were having fun — Sass yelling commands through the wind and his dogs responding. But the wind got progressively worse.
“We were having a blast. It was a fun go until one of these side-hills and the wind gusted up real high and it caught me and I got top heavy and we just tumbled down off the trail into the abyss...
“We weren’t very far, but the problem is I went and then all the dogs got dragged down with me. So, now the dogs and I are just in a big pile not very far off the trail I hope, like you have no bearing on how far you’ve gone because you can’t see anything.
“And so, I finally got everything stopped and the dogs like immediately just bunkered down and the drifts are already coming over the top of them and I’m like, ‘What do I do?’ Like, I look up and the trail is gone. I don’t really have any bearing of where the trail is at all.
“At that point I turned a headlight on on my handlebar so that I could see the sled, because if you walked away 10 feet, the sled was gone. But with the light you could walk away a little bit farther and see. So I turned a headlight on the handlebar and I walked in every direction a little ways. And the gusts would come up and then it’d be a little bit of a lull and you’d hoped that you just get a reflector on a trail marker, and one of those times I did.
“I backtracked up maybe 25, 30 yards and the sled went out of sight but I had been like pounding my foot into the hardpack so that I had some bit of trail that I could follow because if you just walk normally the trail was gone immediately. So I was pounding my feet in the snow so that I had these big, big footprints that I can follow back to the site because I knew that if I get too far away, I wouldn’t be able to see the headlight on the handlebar either.
“So I found where that was, got down there but now I’ve got 11 dogs who are literally bunkered down like their faces are totally entrenched snow. I’m cleaning their muzzles off because the snow and ice are just like just starting to build up everywhere, their eyes are all frozen shut.”
Sass wondered to himself how he could get his team turned around and back up on the trail.
“Through the chaos, I just was talking to the dogs and I got them all stood up and dragged the gangline around and got the sled turned back, so we were pointed towards the trail where had found the trail.”
By then, some people from Iditarod Insider had found him, and he told them not to touch him. He wasn’t in dire straits and said he just needed to get his dog team on the trail before Seavey came by.
“It wasn’t a life or death or a survival thing, it was beating Dallas Seavey. Like that’s all that mattered at that point...So I just went through and talked to (the dogs) and yelled at them all basically because the only way they could hear you is if you’re yelling because the whole time you just have this rumble going, the wind’s blowing out of control.”
He then spent minutes trying to get the dogs going in the right direction, trying to speak with them calmly.
“I was pretty proud of them and in the end, they trusted me. Like, I got really lucky, really lucky.”
Suddenly, it was as if a light had gone off and all the dogs began pulling, he said. He got back up to the trail, regrouped and then all Sass had left was a beautiful run up the coast.
On race pressure and mental power
Sass said he tried to tune out the pressure during the race and turn it instead into positive energy.
“I think I knew that this was the time. I had a really good race season so far. It was just one of those deals in my head, I just believed that if everything came together, that I could win this race.
So, I think I probably did just because this was the first time I felt like I could win the Iditarod, even from the start.”
On Dallas Seavey behind him
Sass and Seavey ended up overlapping at White Mountain, he said.
“Dallas, and I are totally kosher. Dallas and I have a history. We were on a reality T.V. show together a few years back and I mean, Dallas doesn’t like to lose. None of us like to lose. But he congratulated me in White Mountain. He came in two and a half hours after me. I’d done my dog chores. I was in the tent. And I was basically waking up from my very short sleep that I did there. Because then I just fumbled around for four hours waiting to go.
“He congratulated me and said, ‘heck of a dog team’ and it was pretty — it was pretty — it was friendly. It wasn’t a lot of small talk, but there was a little bit. At that point like I think he knew that I had to mess up in order to lose, but I also knew that he wasn’t giving up so.”
“It was great. I mean, everyone’s asked me ‘does it make it sweeter?’
“Of course it makes it sweeter that I beat Dallas Seavey in this race. If he’s really going to go into this little retirement for a couple years, it would have bummed me out to not get to have my first Iditarod win with the best in the business that I got to beat — and that’s a compliment to Dallas, he is the best right now. And and we were able to stay ahead of them and beat him in a pretty exciting race.”
On his dogs
Sass described the unique and special relationship he has with his dogs.
“I live, eat, breathe and sleep these dogs. I don’t do anything else. My entire life is devoted to them. We live together. They sleep in the cabin, most of the time. Like most people don’t do that. They think it’s bad for them or whatever to not be outside and the elements or whatever. But for me, it’s more about the dogs just just wanting to be where they want to be and they always want to be around me.
“The dogs spend most of their time free at home. Whenever we’re going on runs, they get free and they run around for quite a while before we go on the run. We get back from run they run around for quite a while afterwards.
“Everybody likes freedom, right?
“And so it is both the trust between me and them, but it’s also about the trust between all of them. They’re all friends and they all have buddies and there’s like sibling squabbles that happen and there’s all of that normal things that happened in a family dynamic that makes the family stronger.”
On his home in Eureka and loving the struggle
Sass lives roughly 150 miles northwest of Fairbanks on a homestead where other Iditarod champions Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson once trained.
“I don’t want to spend time in town anymore. It’s gotten to the point where I just love the struggle. It’s a struggle. There’s no doubt it’s a struggle. But I enjoy the struggle.
“I enjoy not really knowing what every day is gonna hold knowing that something’s gonna blow up. Something’s gonna break. Something’s not gonna go right. And I think that’s part of the reason that we’re such good racers because my life is kind of like one big dog race. Like you’re kind of constantly tasked with a new challenge and with a different thing that happens every day and a dog race is the same way.”
On how he as a champion can impart knowledge to future generations
“If I’m gonna give any advice, it can’t be focused on only the win. It’s about the journey. It’s about all that it took to get to this point. And then all the stuff that we’re gonna do after this.
“This is just the beginning. It’s always just the beginning. But the training for me and the lifestyle is the most important thing. I thoroughly enjoy what I do. And I’m very fortunate for what I have in life and the dogs make that possible.
“So, the race is just something that we do along the way to prove maybe. It’s a proving ground for all the training and the life that we live. And we’re able to come out here and prove like ‘Yeah, we were living the dream and we’re also at the top of our field.”
Listen to the full interview: