Eye on the Trail: Distance Double

What does the first weekend in February have in common with the first weekend in March? Fans of long distance mushing don’t have to think twice to answer. It’s the start of the longest sled dog races on the North American Continent, the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. On February 4th, twenty-eight days prior to the start of Iditarod, Quest contestants began the rigorous 1,000-mile journey traversing portions of the Yukon Territory in Canada and the great state of Alaska. The races are similar in some ways, different in other ways and there is the continuing discussion as to which is more difficult.

Laura Neese and her leader, Maple

Who is in for the Distance Double in 2017? Yes, there are mushers who run both races with virtually the same dog team. A few years back, it was generally agreed that a musher and dog team couldn’t do well in both races in the same year. Then Lance Mackey blew that theory out of the snow. In 2007 Mackey won the Quest then 4 weeks later, with 13 of the same dogs on his 16 dog Iditarod team, he scored his first Iditarod victory. Was once enough to prove or dis-prove the theory? Mackey went on to accomplish the same feat in 2008. In 2009 he sat out the Quest but won the Iditarod. In 2010 he captured silver in the Quest and gold in the Iditarod. Lance is the only musher to win four back-to-back Quest races (2005 – 2008) and four back-to-back Iditarod races (2007 – 2010). Sled dogs are incredible athletes and that might be a drastic understatement. To say they are the greatest athletes on earth would be closer to the truth.

So getting back to the original question, who is in for the Distance Double? Seven names are common to the rosters for both races. Three are former Quest Champions – Hugh Neff (defending 2016 & 2012), Brent Sass (2015) and Allen Moore (2013 & 2014). Laura Neese, Quest Rookie of the Year for 2016, is back in the Quest as promised at the finish line in 2016. Laura has her eye on the Iditarod Rookie of the Year honor in March. Three Quest Rookies, Ed Stielstra, Jessie Royer and Katherine Keith, all veterans of Iditarod will return to that race in March.

Of the seven common contestants, High Neff and Jessie Royer have accumulated seven top-ten Iditarod finishes. Neff has finished Iditarod 11 out of 12 runs and has placed in the top-ten twice (5th & 9th). Royer has a perfect Iditarod completion record, 14 out of 14, and has placed in the top-ten five times (8th, 8th, 10th, 7th & 4th). As for the other Iditarod Veterans and their Iditarod finishes, Brent Sass has finished 3 of 4, Allen Moore 8 of 9, Ed Stielstra 8 of 9 and Katherine Keith 2 of 3. Do the math and there’s a good number of years of Iditarod experience on the Quest trail right now. In a couple of weeks, all of these mushers will have their two-cents worth to add to the discussion of which race is more difficult. Of particular interest will be the responses of Neese, Stielstra, Royer and Keith who are seeing one of the trails for the first time.

Here’s an additional note on Laura Neese and Ed Stielstra. Ed has been Laura’s mentor for the past few years since she came to Nature’s Kennel in the UP of Michigan with the goal of learning the ins and outs of long distance mushing and becoming the best long distance musher she could be. Laura ran the Quest in 2016, claiming Rookie of the Honors. She was the definition of positive attitude and helping hand on the trail. She embraced the adventure and challenge of the Quest whole-heartedly. All along the trail, guest officials referred to her as the “rookie sensation.”   Well here it is, a year later. Laura is back in the Quest as a veteran and Ed is there as a rookie. Who is mentoring who now? The rolls will change in March as Laura takes to the Iditarod trail as a rookie and Stielstra returns for his 10th Iditarod run. While all of the Distance Double runners are Americans, Stielstra and Neese are the only two from the lower 48.

Frosty Ed Stielstra in Unalakleet

Some call the indomitable sled dog fatigue-proof and apparently so with it’s ability to run not only day after day but it’s ability to be competitive in not one but multiple long distance races in the same season. When it comes to training for Iditarod, there’s a word of advice out there shared by long distance mushers – the best way to train for a 1,000-mile sled dog race is to run a 1,000-mile race. That pearl of advice gained credence ten years back with Lance Mackey.

While both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod are 1,000 miles long, they are very different in nature. The Quest has only ten checkpoints and three additional locations designated as dog drops. All are accessible by road except Eagle. Very different from Iditarod, mushers can accept help from non-racers at the halfway checkpoint of Dawson City. The shortest distance between Quest checkpoints is around 75 miles and the longest distance is 201 miles. Organizers of the Quest envisioned a race with mushers relying on themselves with survival being as important as speed and that’s exactly what they’ve created. Quest veteran, Jodi Bailey, has said that when you’re on the Quest trail, it’s you and your dogs and with the exception of other competitors and your dogs, you’re alone for long periods of time, not so in Iditarod. Mushers really embrace the long periods of solitude experienced in the Quest. In 2011, Bailey was the first rookie to complete both the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year.

Another striking difference between the Quest and Iditarod is revealed when looking at the elevation maps. Because much of the Iditarod trail is along or near the coast, elevations throughout the race rise and fall from sea level. Iditarod’s highest point, 3,200 feet, is in Rainy Pass. There’s another spike as musher’s climb 1,000 feet over Little McKinley when approaching Golovin Bay. The Quest trail starts at 2089 feet in Whitehorse, and climbs higher. There’s King Solomon’s Dome at 4,002 feet, American Summit at 3,420 feet, Eagle Summit at 3,685 feet and Rosebud Summit at 3,640 feet. At Circle City, between American Summit and Eagle Summit, the trail drops to 597 feet.

The International trail was reported to be in good condition. The mushers were told at their pre-race briefing that the trail had been routed around some areas of open water and there were a few areas of below average snow pack. On the whole, a trail-breaker and musher with 23 years of experience says the trail is, “One of the best I’ve seen in the history of the Quest. It’s fast, with a good base and packed but with a nice bit of cushion to the snow.” The 500 miles of trail in Alaska is similar in condition.

Do mushers use the Yukon Quest as an opportunity to hone their skills for Iditarod as Lance Mackey, Hugh Neff, Allen Moore and Brent Sass might suggest? As the Quest contestants make their way to the finish in Fairbanks, we’ll have to wait and see if Moore, Neff or Sass can claim additional Quest gold or will the Quest Champion be new to the winner’s circle? We’ll have to wait until early in March to see how the Distance Double teams fair in Iditarod.