A century ago, musher Jujiro Wada braved steep hills and frigid temperatures in the long, lonely miles between Fairbanks and Dawson City. By himself, he found his way without trailbreakers, the global positioning system or a handler.These days, the same route is relatively simple. The trail is marked and broken and there are checkpoints every 100 miles or so where mushers load up on dog food, fuel, batteries and fresh socks. There’s also four ounces of gold for the first team to Dawson and respectable prize money for the first dozen or so mushers into Whitehorse.As past champ John Schandelmeier has said, “It’s the best deal in dog racing.” For $1,000, mushers get a thousand miles of marked trail and veterinarians at every checkpoint. Schandelmeier, a true woodsman, goes out of his way to describe this race with such a fearsome reputation as “easy.”This year, the ultra marathon sled dog race that’s lived its life in the long shadow cast by the Iditarod is turning 25. After a couple of decades seeking financial stability, organizers feel they are turning a corner with money, while maintaining a musher’s race that holds to its core values of dog care, equality and “the code of the north.” The Quest is an amazing experience for anyone who loves traveling a long way through the wilderness by dog team. Like most distance races, whether 150-, 300-, 440-, or 1,000 miles, the Quest provides its own set of experiences, whether it is the physical challenges like Eagle Summit or the loose-knit series of checkpoints, hospitality stops, friendly cabins and dog drops along the way. The Quest’s character is what attracts Lance Mackey back every year, although he acknowledged taking home the winner’s stake of the purse the last three years is a big incentive.“Honestly, I like that race a little better than the Iditarod, in the fact that you get to spend more time with your dogs out on the trail,” Mackey said. “When you’re training, you spend endless time with your dogs in the middle of nowhere, and it seems to me a special time. With the Quest, you can do that in the middle of the race.“In Iditarod, there’s a lot of pressure, you can’t make mistakes, and you’ve got to be on your toes. In the Quest, I can be a little more laid back, have some fun and still do well.”The Quest is an exceptional race in its own right, but talking about it invariably draws comparisons to that other great race, the Iditarod.The comparison goes back to day one. Mackey’s take on the difference echoes one of the key reasons a few dreamers launched the Quest in the first place. It has always been seen as an alternative to the Last Great Race. “The whole thing from the beginning was that the Quest was not conceived to be a clone of the Iditarod,” said Frank Turner, who has run in all but one of the Quests. “In fact, it was conceived to be different from the Iditarod in that Iditarod was getting more and more elite teams, and it was difficult for bush teams to come in.”Early on, the Quest established what it isn’t, but on its 25th running, the race seems a little hung up on defining just what it is.Is it now an Iditarod tune up?The Quest’s connection to the Iditarod has never been closer. It’s not that the Quest has changed too much over the years, apart from improved trail breaking. But Mackey’s ability to run both races competitively has shed more light on it, and led some mushers to toy with it as a potential tune-up to the Iditarod. Mackey has proven that the same musher, and many of the same dogs, can run both races back to back, and win, despite a rest break of only about 10 days between the end of the Quest and start of the Iditarod.Mackey won the Quest in record time last year, creating such a massive lead in the first 500 miles that his dogs were able to coast the final half of the race. They way they rebounded, he felt those core dogs gave him the best shot at finishing in the top 10 of the Iditarod. So he took them instead of the dogs he’d trained up specifically to run from Anchorage to Nome. His thinking proved more than sound.Now his next-door neighbor, Ken Anderson, is hoping to see if he can take advantage of the Quest in the same way. Anderson said he isn’t sure he can win the Quest, but if he can get his dogs to finish strong, it could help his Iditarod bid. “I saw Lance’s team at Chena and Circle (in lat year’s Quest), I saw how well they ate; they weren’t pushed; their bodies were just dialed right in to what they have to do to maintain themselves for running under these circumstances,” Anderson said. He theorizes that Mackey’s team was able to start the Iditarod with the same metabolic engine running full tilt, while most of the other Iditarod teams had to run a couple of hundred miles to fire up those engines.If Anderson, or anyone else, is going to stop Mackey from winning four Quests in a row, they’ll have to be able to match his ability to run 100 miles at a pop, which is a shift away from traditional Quest run/rest strategies of four on, four off or six on, six off. But Anderson said he doesn’t plan on being the rabbit. “If I win the race, if things go well, I will be the guy who comes from behind with a nice team,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, then fine. My goal is set the dogs up so they win the Iditarod.” Not every distance musher agrees that a 1,000-mile race is the wisest tune up, but that’s partly because every dog team is a little different, mentally and physically. Also, there are still a lot of unknowns about what it takes to get 16 individual dogs on step to perform as one flawless unit for nine days in early March. Gerry Willomitzer, a four-time Quest veteran who ran his rookie Iditarod in 2007, said back-to-back racing failed for his dogs last year. They ran out of gas, mentally, or possibly physically.“I know I over-trained them,” Willomitzer said. “They got sour on me, and just never came back.” He had a locomotive for a team in December at the Sheep Mountain 150, and never backed off his training. “By time the Knik 200 came around, they were flat. I was lucky to finish the Quest in third,” he said. “This year, I’m going to focus much more on attitude rather than the amount of miles.”Mackey himself said last year was a bit of a fluke, although the trend the last three years is for him to pour more and more of his Quest veterans into his Iditarod team. First it was six dogs, then 10 and, last year, 13. If the situation arises again where his dogs coast to the end of the Quest, no doubt some dogs would carry over to the Iditarod team, Mackey said. “But I’ve got to think reality. Right now, I’ve got plenty of dogs for two separate teams. Every year’s different.”It’s impossible to predict what will happen in this year’s race, but Anderson likely won’t be the only competitor challenging Mackey at the front of the pack. While stalwarts like William Kleedehn, Willomitzer, Hans Gatt and Sebastian Schnuelle seem to have opted for Iditarod or something else this year, there were rumors in late November that some other trail-smart racers were considering signing up for the Quest. There will also be a couple well-seasoned vets who know how to win. Bill Cotter is coming out of retirement, two years after having a stroke. At 62, Cotter, who won the 1987 Yukon Quest, said he’s fully recovered and has a nice team of his trademark trotting huskies. He believes they can compete. Also, Sonny Lindner, winner of the inaugural 1984 Quest, is expected to be back. “I really want to run it again,” Lindner told me more than a year ago, “And it isn’t because of the uptick in the purse.” The successful commercial contractor said he doesn’t race sled dogs for money. He wants to enjoy the 25th Running. But Lindner, 58, is rarely one to take it easy in a distance race. He should be near the front.And, as Mackey noted, there’s usually some relatively unknown driver who shoots up in the standings. You never know who’s going to be the next Andrew Lesh. He said he’s not taking the race for granted in 2008. Still true to its rootsTwenty five years ago, the race was advertised as an event where finally the malamute would come into its own. “That was the headline on a brochure,” Lindner said.To make it different from the Iditarod, organizers spaced the checkpoints far apart and required 50 pounds of dog food in the sled leaving those checkpoints. Trail marking was minimal. “In ’86 we broke trail darn near all the way, with the dogs, just kind of meandering around everywhere,” he said. “Now we’d only have to do that if the trail blew in for a stretch.”While there aren’t many malamutes in the race, you won’t find many short-haired pointer crosses, either, on the other end of the sled dog spectrum. Classic Alaskan huskies do well here. Dogs have to be furry enough to camp out with minimal straw since many drivers stop two or three times to camp between Dawson and Pelly Crossing, a distance of 200 miles. In general, Quest dogs and Iditarod dogs are the same.Too often, fans ask, “Which is tougher, Iditarod or Quest?” The best answer I’ve heard was from Bruce Lee, who rolled his eyes when I asked him a few years ago, and said the two races are like apples and oranges: They are tough in different ways. The Iditarod pits a deep field of unrelenting competition through varying terrain and climates, from coastal Anchorage to Interior to river and back to northern coastal waters. The Quest is run farther north in darker, colder weather, usually, with comparatively vast distances between its checkpoints. Quest mushers will travel 150 to 200 miles before restocking their sleds.The Quest allows mushers to use just one sled, as opposed to three sleds in the Iditarod, so that one sled better be durable. Mushers start with a maximum of 14 dogs, compared to 16 for the Iditarod. (There used to be a bigger difference. Back in the day, the Iditarod allowed 20-dog teams, while the Quest originally limited team size to 12 dogs.)There are some significant and challenging hills in the Quest, a bit steeper than Iditarod’s hills, but there’s little about either trail that would surprise a musher crossing over from one race to the other. (I was most taken back by Rosebud, and could not imagine a steeper descent. I was glad it was a snowy year and very glad I was going down towards Fairbanks instead of up.) Perhaps the biggest difference from a musher’s point of view is the checkpoints – just eight of them over 1,000 miles. The Iditarod has 21 or 22 checkpoints, depending on the restart location. The Quest has added a few dog drop locations – no services for mushers, just a spot to hand off dogs – over the years.About the biggest change in the last couple of years is a boost in what had been a stagnant purse, up from $125,000 to $200,000, partly due to a two-year Yukon government grant. Race organizers expect to maintain the larger purse through sponsorship when the grant ends in 2009. Fine tuning its identityEven with a generous increase in the overall purse and a strong focus on trail improvements in the last couple of years, the Quest in late November was on track to be well short of its maximum cap of 50 entrants. There were 22 teams signed up. Compare those numbers to well over 100 mushers signed up to run the 2008 Iditarod by the same time.At least one of the recent Quest mushers, four-time veteran Willomitzer, said the interest will come. “What I really welcome is the purse increase and distribution for 2008,” he said. “You can place 8th now and still pay for the race. Sixth place is now $13,000. I think that should attract more mushers.”Part of the Quest’s quandary may be wrapped up in its marketing, not to the general public, which appears as captivated as ever by stories from the trail, but to the mushers themselves, said Stephen Reynolds, executive director of the Quest in Canada.“Our organization needs to do a better job of informing and educating the mushing community about the benefits of running this race,” he said. “There may be a lot of misperceptions about what it takes to run this race from a musher’s standpoint.“It’s not impossibly tough, but it feels incredibly long. It’s remote and you don’t see anybody for awhile,” Reynolds said. “I think there has been a tendency to focus on the difficulty of the race in promotions as a way of enticing people to become enthralled with it. But I also think that has not allowed us to portray the historic sense of it, or the community sense of it.”Indeed, the Quest has a kind of old-timey feel to it, since mushers are sent out beyond the realm of modern communication for long chunks of time. When they pull into a roadhouse or checkpoint, it is exciting and the community rallies around it. Just like it was a century ago.In 1903, Japanese musher Jujiro Wada blazed what is today pretty much the Quest route from Fairbanks to Dawson to let miners there know about a gold strike near Fairbanks, which started a mid-winter stampede back the other way. The Whitehorse to Dawson trail is older yet, he said. “Now it’s a ghost trail and I think that’s what is spectacular for lot of the mushers.”“I think that deep history is one of the features of the Quest that we talk about, but I don’t think the mushing community and general public have as deep an appreciation as they need to have.”If the Quest is coming to terms with its personality, perhaps it is looking a little too hard. It already has one, and it isn’t necessarily being the “toughest.” Any winter trail through the Yukon and Alaska in winter is going to have its rough spots. The Yukon Quest International breaks down borders, on more than the literal level, and puts 21st century mushers in a setting in the woods with their dogs that strongly resembles the trials and joys of their 19th century forbearers. Turner, the Quest’s only lifer, said the image that the Quest is the “toughest” race runs up against the Iditarod’s image as the “greatest” race. “If you’re looking at the greatest and the toughest, where are most people going to go? I think you’re going to go to the Iditarod,” he said. “The Quest has always had an identity crisis about really what it wants to be.”Then, he echoed the sentiments of Mackey, declaring, “I think the Quest is really a great race for people who love to be out there with their dogs.”Jon Little is a five-time Iditarod finisher and ran the Yukon Quest in 2005. He maintains a small kennel in Kasilof, Alaska, and enjoys every race he enters.
Lost Sports of the Winter Olympics: The fast and furry world of sled dog racing