From Kyle Hopkins in Nome --
Running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is normally a surefire weight-loss plan. Lose 19 pounds in nine days!
But despite constant pedaling and ski-poling from the runners of his sled, Eureka musher Brent Sass looked in the mirror today and realized he’d actually packed on pounds during the 975-mile marathon from Willow to Nome.
“I’ve learned how to take care of myself on these trips. I probably ate 20 pounds of salmon strips,” said Sass, who has completed six Yukon Quests including a 5th-place finish this year.
Sass finished 13th today in his first Iditarod, winning Rookie of the Year honors and setting the stage for what he hopes will one day be a title run at the premiere sled dog race.
He was one of 15 mushers looking to finish their first Iditarod this year. Most are still on the trail. Three -- Siliva Furtwangler, Pat Moon and Josh Cadzow -- have scratched.
Like fellow Quest competitor Aliy Zirkle, Sass was among the most merry dog racers on the trail. No small feat after a sleepless, showerless week spent at temperatures sinking to 40 below.
“He’s always looking for challenge. He’s a true Quester, but he loves the outdoors, he loves to race," said Sass's father, Mark, who often meets his son at checkpoints. The younger Sass grew up in Minnetonka, Minn., and was a competitive cross country skier for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, his father said.
Sass arrived at 11:25 a.m. today with 13 dogs in harness, collecting a $18,200 paycheck.
It was an exceptionally high finish for a rookie, wrote "Armchair Musher" Sebastian Schnuelle, a Quest winner who is reporting on this year’s Iditarod. “The biggest improvement (for him) is the fact that he finished with a large string of dogs, something he has not managed in the Quest so far.”
As I write this, no musher has appeared in the chute here in Nome since Sonny Lindner at 12:28 p.m. That’s partly because stinging winds along the Norton Sound coast separated Sass from a chase pack that included 2012 Quest winner Hugh Neff, among others.
“They heard what was going on out there and everybody started to just pile up in Shaktoolik,” Sass said of the village checkpoint 45 miles down the coast from Koyuk.
“The wind was blowing bad. I mean, it was blowing hard and in your face, and you had to have the confidence that you wanted to go out and deal with that," he said.
Sass hunkered behind his sled, kneeling low on the runners, and let lead dogs "Chucko" and "Buddy" do the work, he said. “I lent some words of encouragement now and then. But they pretty much pulled me for eight hours across that stuff.”
Sass lives in the Interior Alaska, where his dogs train in tall snow, heavy wind and deep cold, he said. The 32-year-old has no day job other than mushing, but bankrolls his dog-racing career working as a guide and building campsites at remote Alaska locations for universities and mining companies.
All along the trail, well-wishers have asked the musher to compare distance racing’s two toughest events.
The Quest has a reputation as a harder race, he said, but that’s not entirely true. In some ways, the polish of the high-profile Iditarod can complicate things for a musher.
“In the Quest, you can leave and you get two days where it’s you and your dogs and that’s all you're thinking about,” Sass said. “Here, you go 18 miles, and there’s another checkpoint.”
Winning rookie of the year honors was the musher's 2012 Iditarod goal. One day, he’ll be looking to win.
Sass is building a team of 16 shaggy, old-school sled dogs -- 60-pound “Carbon” is a prototype -- he believes could be capable of challenging for the title.
Despite racing roughly 2,000 miles over the past two months, Sass said his spring dog mushing season isn’t quite finished.
“I’ve got 21 Norwegian dog mushing students coming on the 2nd and (I’m) taking them on a trip in the Brooks Range,” Sass said. “So I’m back on the dog sled in a few days.”