A long-distance sled dog race is very similar to a chess game, especially in the early stages. To win the game, the musher must make sure he is close enough to lead to be able to catch up while making sure that the dogs get adequate rest and nutrition. S/he must deal with 14 to 16 different canine personalities, trying to keep all of them happy. S/he must be aware of personal limitations and not push the human beyond the breaking point. All of these, and many other factors (not the least of which is "luck" or "fate") make this a most fascinating game to me.
To follow the race, like most long-distance race fans, I rely on information provided by the race giving organization (RGO) and news media on-line, and this year the Yukon Quest is doing an excellent job of keeping us informed. I'm really enjoying the near real-time coverage provided by SPOT messengers carried by most of the teams and tracked at http://trackleaders.com/yukonquest. The official leader-board maintained by the Quest can be found at http://www.yukonquest.com/site/race-updates/. Comparing the two gives a pretty good idea of what the racers are up, and so far it is as exciting a race as we had been predicting.
This morning the leader-board is a bit behind in posting data. That's because the Mile 101 checkpoint is very remote, and I suspect that race officials are dealing with communication issues. It's not like cellular phone towers are common in that back country. On the Fairbanks to Whitehorse route, Eagle Summit is a hell of climb up, and a precipitous drop down. The descent is truly hazardous and I suspect the mushers are using every trick in the book to control their teams, including removing the tug lines (the line from the dog to the mainline) from many of their dogs to reduce the power of the teams and installing roughlocks, which are loops of chain that go around a runner, to increase friction against the trail. I would also suggest there is a lot of prayer and cursing involved - perhaps simultaneously. The front-runners have apparently timed their race so that they could reach Eagle Summit during daylight, or at least during twilight. That's a very smart move when facing such dangerous terrain.
As I write, it appears that Zack Steer has regained his early lead, and is already off of the notorious Eagle Summit. Hans Gatt appears to be only a couple of miles behind him while Hugh Neff and Brent Sass are approaching the summit. Gerry Willowmitzer, who is not carrying a SPOT device, is somewhere among these front running teams. Lance Mackey, Josh Cadzow and Abby West are apparently still at the Mile 101 checkpoint but I imagine they'll be leaving very shortly.
Once off Eagle Summit the trail is mostly downhill to the next checkpoint, at Central. Judging from the scale on the tracking map, I'm thinking that Zach will arrive there within the next two to three hours, with some very competitive teams right behind.
Zach is running a VERY fast race, relying on the speed of his dogs to maintain his lead. My best guess at the moment is that he is combining very fast runs with an equal or nearly equal amount of rest to maintain his team's stamina. Hugh Neff has a reputation for being a "rabbit", making very fast runs early in the race.
8 mph is considered a "good" pace for a competitive long-distance team. In years of following races I have seen track speeds of as much as 14 mph for downhill runs over short distances (20 miles or so). Currently Zach's team is running at about 9 mph. Shown in second place, Hans Gatt is still negotiating tricky terrain at a very sedate 6 mph.
Speaking of sedate, I'm looking at a pretty sedate day myself. I need to catch up on some kennel chores and I'll spend a fair amount of time doing some 1 on 1 behavior training with the dogs. I have a social engagement this evening, but I'll likely check in on the blog before heading to town.
Update: According to the Yukon Quest's Facebook page, Gerry Willowmitzer left Mile 101 only 1 minute behind Hans Gatt, so he is right up there in the mix, either second or third place at this point. Lance Mackey, Sonny Lindner and Abbie West are also back out on the trail.