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Neff takes lead as Yukon Quest heats up

  • Author: Casey Grove
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 14, 2016

PELLY CROSSING, Yukon -- Melting snow dripped off roofs as the temperature threatened to go above freezing on a bright, sunny day at this checkpoint three-quarters through the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest.

Front-of-the-pack mushers arriving here Saturday said they worried the warm temperatures will slow their sled dogs. Several planned to run as much during the night as possible.

Meanwhile, defending champ Brent Sass was suffering from a stomach bug and sore throat and said he had not eaten for two days.

"I'm not dead yet, so that's good. I feel like I could be," Sass said. "Hopefully it's a one-day bug. It's all good, though. The dogs are feeling better."

Sass's dogs have experienced diarrhea on and off since the start of the race in Fairbanks a week earlier. He was down to 11 dogs after dropping two in Pelly: Bato and Sasha.

Sass said he almost lost the whole team the night before, 100 miles before the checkpoint.

While standing on his sled runners and holding the handlebar near Scroggie Creek, Sass fell off his sled when one side of his handlebar broke. Sass said he made a "Superman" leap to grab the sled before his dogs pulled it away. Then he fixed the handlebar with hose clamps and black electrical tape.

Sass stopped in Pelly for a brief 15 minutes and chased Hugh Neff, the 2012 champion from Tok, who was in the lead Saturday afternoon after staying here for more than an hour.

Neff broke up the 200 miles from Dawson City to Pelly into three runs, including a 90-mile stretch without rest starting early Saturday.

He arrived in Pelly after five hours of rest and a 30-mile run and was his usual wise-cracking self while cutting open drop bags with a large knife.

"Are you jealous?" Neff said when questioned about the long run. "I knew that you can't really make any type of move in the heat, so I figured I'd make a move when it's a little colder. Not much, though."

With Neff and Sass down the trail, Two Rivers mushers Allen Moore and Matt Hall rested inside the Pelly Crossing community center.

Moore's sled dog team was the first to reach Pelly under the glaring sun. He double-poled with ski poles to help push his team up the Pelly River and arrived here at 11:53 a.m. AST Saturday.

Moore split the 200 miles from Dawson City into three runs: 65 miles, 60 miles, then a 75-mile push to Pelly. He took two roughly three-hour breaks along the way.

"Is this the finish line?" the two-time Quest champ joked after setting his snow hook. "Can you fix the weather?"

Locals recalled the temperature being about 50 below at this checkpoint in last year's race.

"It's just the opposite," Moore said while tossing frozen meat snacks to his dogs. "I don't know how you prepare for that. I guess run all night long, sleep in the day."

Moore petted his sled dogs' heads and spread out straw for them.

"Doesn't seem like you need straw, does it? Maybe you'd rather lay in the snow," he told one dog.

Temperature is a key factor in how fast the dogs can run, Moore said.

"When it's cold, they can go, go go, but heat's just the opposite," he said.

Moore said he was happy with his position and his time into Pelly, considering where he was in his run-rest schedule.

"I've done about the same kind of thing the last few years, and it's worked pretty well, so I haven't changed yet," Moore said. "I'm sure Brent and Hugh are going to go through here and go to McCabe or even farther. So, we'll see. Sometimes when you do these very long runs, they catch up to you in the end."