Michelle Phillips knew her dog team had the potential to place in the top five in this year’s Yukon Quest.
But the Tagish musher wasn’t so sure about herself.
“I just didn’t know if I had it,” she said.
“It’s hard to make the right calls.”
Usually Phillips and her partner Ed Hopkins race alternate years, but Philips decided run the Quest twice in a row while last year’s mistakes were still fresh in her mind.
Focusing on when to run and when to rest, Phillips took her time and had 11 dogs to show for it in Central.
“Michelle’s exactly where she should be,” said Hopkins, standing outside Steese Roadhouse waiting for her to arrive.
Many of the mushers were cutting rest to hold their lead, and once they started running on a deficit, she caught up to them, he said.
“She was running shorter and resting longer, and she was always eating into their time.
“She’d let them go, then catch up to them, then let them go.”
But it’s hard to stay put when other mushers take off, said Phillips.
“You feel like you want to follow them.”
Phillips held seventh place for most of the race, and was still in that position when she arrived in Circle on Sunday night.
However, the cold temperatures took a toll on fifth- and sixth-place mushers Sebastian Schnuelle and Hugh Neff, and they rested about 14 hours in Central, giving Phillips a four-hour lead.
Heading toward Circle along the frigid Yukon River, most mushers ran cabin to cabin. But Phillips skipped the first cabin at Trout Creek and camped before Slaven’s in temperatures that plummeted to minus 50.
“It only felt like minus 20,” she said in Central.
“I didn’t know it was that cold.”
Camping, rather than stopping at cabins, helped to even out the runs, making it easier on her team.
And by skipping the Trout Creek cabin, Phillips ran through a particularly rough, icy section of trail when the team was tired, rather than hitting it with a fast, fresh team that is more likely to get injured.
“You have to stay true to the dogs, that’s the key,” she said.
Even with her four-hour lead, Phillips was looking over her shoulder coming into Central.
Leaving Cochrane’s cabin, between Circle and Central, Phillips saw diarrhea on the trail and got worried that Neff had managed to slip by while she was resting.
“I thought he might have been lying about how long he was staying (in Circle),” she said.
“Never trust a musher — we’re all full of bullshit.”
After spreading out straw and feeding her team, Phillips pulled off her gloves and started massaging dogs.
“It’s like when you go exercise and your feet are sore,” she said.
“These guys have been running for hours and I’m just standing there, so they deserve a massage.”
Even at minus 40, Phillips hands don’t get too cold when she’s massaging.
The dogs have warm feet, she said. And this keeps her hands warm.
To avoid the cold, Phillips is usually way overdressed, said Hopkins, referring to the world skijoring races held at their place.
“But this year the cold doesn’t seem to bother her.”
Phillips’ feet are the only parts that have gotten chilly.
“I’ve got some holes in my boots,” she said.
After her rest in Central, Phillips was set to head over Eagle Summit in the dark, and she was a little intimidated.
“I’d rather not have to go at all,” she said.
It was her first time heading over the summit in this direction, and Phillips was beginning to think it might be easier climbing in the dark.
“That way you don’t see it,” she said.
“You just focus on the markers and you don’t get overwhelmed.”
Lance Mackey, getting ready to leave Chena Hot Springs Monday night agreed with her.
Heading over the 1,123-metre summit, he was intimidated by the trail report, stating it was all stakes, rocks and grass.
“So approaching it at night was a blessing — you’re over it before realizing you’re really there,” said Mackey.
With 11 dogs, Phillips will be laughing, said Hopkins.
It also helps that most of Phillips’ dogs are Quest veterans.
“It makes a big difference having the same dogs,” she said.
Some of her dogs have run this race four times, said Hopkins.
“And if you look after them, they’ll look after you.”
Phillips is running this year’s race to raise money for Hospice Yukon.
In December, she lost close friend and fellow dog musher Agata Franczak to cancer. Franczak ran the Quest in ’04 and finished 17th.
During her passing, Phillips became familiar with Hospice Yukon, and the work it does.
“Our society doesn’t deal with death very well,” said Phillips.
“And I was amazed by the amount of time and energy Hospice puts in — and it’s all volunteer.”
Phillips wasn’t sure if she’d run the race again next year.
“It’s not a great thought at 50 below,” she said mixing up dog food at Central.
“You’ll have to ask her again two weeks later, when she gets the chill out of her bones,” said Hopkins.