The Yukon Convention Centre smelled like roast beef, perfume and husky pong.
Thursday night, mushers, handlers, vets, officials and Yukon Quest fans filled the banquet hall. They were dressed in everything from boots and dog clothes to gowns and heels.
It’s like a big family, said standing champ Lance Mackey’s wife Tonga.
“These are some of my closest friends, but we only get to see each other once or twice a year.”
Waiting for the bib draw, mushers talked strategy and dogs.
“My team looks three-legged and anorexic,” said Mackey with a laugh.
“Others will say they look great, but I want them 100 per cent, and there’s always room for improvement.”
Wednesday, after setting up at Quest musher Hugh Neff’s Annie Lake dog yard, Lance went for a short run with his team, to limber them up after the trip from Fairbanks.
He missed a turn on the lake, and had to “buttonhole” his string of 14 huskies, to get them back on track.
“I knew it was wrong when I was doing it,” he said.
When Lance got back, one of his dogs was lame.
“I didn’t bring a spare,” he said.
Usually massaging salve into the joint will bring the swelling down, but Molson’s wrist is still huge.
“I think it’s broken,” said Lance.
The two-time Quest champ was prepared to start the race with 13 dogs, but he managed to finagle a ride to Whitehorse from Fairbanks for Molson’s sister St. Polly.
“It’s the beer litter,” said Lance. “And Molson is a particular favourite here in Canada.”
Catherine Pinard, preparing to run her fourth Quest, has also been dealing with last-minute training injuries.
“I have many injuries,” she said.
“And I lost a couple of leaders in the last two weeks.”
But Pinard isn’t giving up until there are no leaders left.
“I’ve still got two,” she said.
Friday, the Carcross-area musher was heading out on a 16-kilometre run, “to get the craziness out of her dogs.”
Beside her, Quest veteran William Kleedehn grinned.
“I plan to go 100 miles tomorrow,” he said.
Last year, Kleedehn, Gerry Willomitzer and Hans Gatt said they weren’t sure they’d run another Quest.
Now, they’re all back.
It’s the purse increase, said Kleedehn.
“We were asking for that, and the government came through and put in $50,000.
“So we have to do our part and run the race.”
The increase also brought back Dawson veteran Peter Ledwidge.
“We’re not greedy,” said Ledwidge.
“It’s just that mushers have a lot of expenses.
“And if you don’t win, you don’t want to go broke trying to pay off (the race).”
Dog racers who place in the middle of the pack will take home more money thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Yukon government.
“It didn’t all go to the guys in the front, which is important,” said Kleedehn.
“We’ve been complaining about the purse for years,” added three-time Quest champ Hans Gatt.
“And someone finally did something, so I almost feel I have to run.”
With a second team training in the Quest 300, Gatt plans to run the Iditarod.
This year, with 38 dogs prepped to race, he fears he might be the weakest link.
Still recovering from a knee injury, Gatt admits he’s been in better shape.
“I might not run up all the hills this year,” he said.
After a bad spill last year early in the race, Willomitzer is also not feeling 100 per cent.
But his team is hot.
“Right now it feels like a big diesel,” he said, referring to last year’s “Japanese beater” team.
“But you’ve got to start before you know what you’ve got.”
The first 400 kilometres will make or break a team, said Willomitzer.
“I’m starting slow,” he said.
“I think, with that hard-packed trail, there’s going to be a lot of dropped dogs at Braeburn.
“And I want to finish with 14.”
Also vying for vet recognition on his 16th Quest is John Schandelmeier, who is running a team of rescued dogs.
Building his team with dogs from shelters and kennels where they were going to be put down, Schandelmeier is more interested in raising awareness than winning.
“There are too many dogs that slip through the cracks,” he said.
“With our fast-food mentality that it’s got to work today, there ends up being dogs discarded for no reason — people need to take more time.”
The bib draw gave Richie Beattie the honor of first out of the chute.
The race starts in front of the White Pass Building at 11 a.m. Saturday.