Hans Gatt was the first Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race musher to reach the mid-way point of Dawson City. Hans arrived at 6:02 pm, Pacific Standard Time, with 13 happy dogs on the gang-line. Lance Mackey dawdled in about 8:49, followed by Hugh Neff at 9:04. Zach Steer probably isn't too far behind.
The teams all have a mandatory 36 hour lay-over in Dawson, and their starting differential is added to their layover time. Since the race starts with mushers leaving at 3 minute intervals, that means the last musher to leave Fairbanks will wait only 36 hours. Abbie West, the first musher to leave, will have an hour and 12 minutes (24 mushers times 3 minutes) added to her mandatory layover. When including the start differential, Hugh Neff is actually in second place in the race. Hans will be free to leave the day after tomorrow at 6:35 am, Hugh at 9:07 and Lance at 9:28.
At Dawson City, the mushers are free to leave their teams in the care of their handlers. Typically, the mushers get their dogs settled, and then find some place to catch some much-needed sleep. Through the course of the lay-over the dogs receive frequent walks on leash, massages, and whatever other care they may need. It is said that the handlers work in Dawson just as hard as their mushers work on the trail. Meanwhile, for race fans the lay-over generally means a pause in the action. Typically some of the 'back of the pack' mushers will just be arriving in Dawson as the front-runners are leaving.
Any musher arriving within 12 hours of the first team has a realistic chance of winning, and long-distance mushers frequently say that in the Quest, the race really begins in Dawson. If we continue the "chess" analogy I started a few days ago, the 'early game' is over, and the 'mid-game' has begun. This is the part of the game where pieces start falling in rapid succession. It's the part of the game where the mushers have to use everything they know to keep their teams healthy and fast, and need to take advantage of every possible opportunity to gain an edge over their competitors.
As in chess, the end game may be a simple continuation of the middle-game, or it may be more clearly defined. I think we will know which will be the case in this race when the leading group of mushers reaches the checkpoint at Carmacks. Last year's Quest was won and lost on the trail between Central and Fairbanks, the last 150 miles.
In an article in this morning's edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Hugh Neff was quoted as saying that even with such a close pack, he doesn’t expect anyone to gain an edge through mind games or trickery. “We’re always teasing each other, but I think those days of mushers trying to mess with each other are out the door because we all know each other so well,” Neff said.
Maybe that's what Jeff King thought before Lance sneaked out of a checkpoint while Jeff slept. If I remember correctly, that bit of "messing" allowed Mackey to take the lead and win the Iditarod the year before last. None of these leading teams is appreciably faster than the others, and all are on pace to do some more record breaking runs. Their strategy may be to "make haste slowly", but they will indeed make haste.