With four ounces of gold waiting for the first Quest musher into Dawson, the race was on.
Three-time winner Hans Gatt was in the lead leaving Eagle Wednesday afternoon.
But he had a shadow.
Standing champ Lance Mackey was not far behind.
“Gatt has a pile of gold nuggets already, and I don’t have any yet,” said Mackey from Eagle.
“I can’t let Hans out of my sight, a couple hours ahead I can deal with, but more than that and I might not see him again.
“And if he stumbles, I want to be there to pick him up.”
Mackey was there.
But he didn’t pick him up — he passed him.
And he didn’t see him again till Dawson.
“This is what I’m here for, I’m here to win,” said Mackey.
Sipping a drink at Bombay Peggy’s, he was talking about his gold.
“I only thought it was one ounce,” he said.
“I didn’t realize how much of it there is.”
He wants to mount it in a glass trophy case, but his wife Tonya is hoping for earrings.
“We have tattooed wedding rings and I don’t have much jewelry, so earrings would be nice,” she said.
“I might have enough of it for a pair of earrings,” said Mackey grinning.
William Kleedehn, Gatt and Mackey all camped within a few hundred metres of one another Wednesday night, but Mackey arrived in Dawson an hour and a half before Kleedehn.
“We just smoked,” he said.
“Those guys might think I’m cuttin’ on rest, but we stopped for lots of snack breaks and when we got past Sebastian’s cabin (a landmark) I swear the dogs knew where we were.
“They came across the finish line just smilin’ from ear to ear and they were still barkin’ to go.
“I had to stand on the brake comin’ down the river — I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
But Mackey’s tired, and kept falling asleep on his sled, he said.
He was feeling a bit “rummy” in Eagle, even before the big haul into Dawson.
“I didn’t take the chance to rest when I had it earlier on.”
And the sleep he did get was fitful, haunted by dreams of Gatt.
At Slaven’s cabin, before Eagle, they were both sleeping and Mackey dreamt that Gatt had just left.
When he woke up, Gatt was gone.
“They were supposed to wake us both up at once, but I guess they couldn’t wake me,” he said.
“I frantically fed and bootied. The dogs still had stuff fallin’ out of their mouths going down the trail.
“Hans is like a ghost, you know he’s there, but you can’t quite see him.”
Mackey was so tired he fell asleep mushing down the river towards Eagle.
But was jarred awake when his sled hit a gravel bar, log or stump and stopped dead.
“I was still sleepin’ when I was rolling past the wheel dogs,” he said.
“You can’t do anything in that situation but sit and laugh.”
He’s is driving a second-hand Gatt sled, made mostly of aluminum.
“And I have to give him credit for creating such a tough sled,” he said, admitting he put a sticker over Gatt’s name, so he wouldn’t have to look at it all the time.
“If I was driving my old wooden sled, the one I have at home, I would have had an arm full of fire wood,” he said.
He was not sure what he hit, but driving down the river he noticed his handlebar was twisted and the sled kept pulling to one side.
“I kept going off the trail into the snow,” he said.
“Those guys behind me musta’ thought I was drunk.
“One of my wheel dogs had his head on backwards looking at me the whole time, like, ‘What are you doing back there?’”
Eventually, Mackey jerry-rigged it so the dogs were pulling off-centre, making the sled follow in a straighter line.
“My sled is beyond repair,” he said in Dawson.
“One runner is virtually bent right off — I need a new runner.”
But he might be able to fix it.
Repairing gear with duct tape and zip lines is one of Mackey’s areas of expertise
On the way to Fairbanks, his dog trailer broke and part of it was dragging along the highway.
“I don’t know how long it was doin’ that,” said Mackey.
“I had the music up too loud, but, apparently, when we went past Ivory Jack’s Roadhouse, the sparks were just a flyin’.”
He fixed it with two pieces of two-by-four and a racket strap.
“I have no problem lookin’ like the Beverly Hillbillies goin’ down the trail with my cooler hangin’ off the side of my sled,” he said.
“Whatever it takes to get the job done.
“But my poor snow pants,” he added.
“They got three leg holes and I don’t know which one is the real one — they’re beyond repair.”
They weren’t in great shape when he started, and the rough trail has taken its toll.
“I won’t even be able to give them away,” he said.
“I’m this poor hippie boy trying to make ends meet and here I am competing against this world-class athlete.
“I’ve never been in a race where someone like Hans was concerned about me — and I think that’s great,” he said.
Gatt has high-tech gear, is a trained athlete and has a solid racing strategy. But the poor hippie rocker, who races on a shoestring, is giving him a run for his money.
“I’m half dead,” said Gatt arriving at the Dawson checkpoint.
He would much rather have run the 236-kilometre stretch from Eagle to Dawson with two rests, but Mackey didn’t give him the choice.
“I knew he was only going to rest once,” said Gatt.
“So I had to do two 10-hour runs. I didn’t like it, not a bit — it’s too hard on the dogs.”
Gatt arrived in Dawson at 5:23 p.m. yesterday, about an hour after Kleedehn and almost three hours after Mackey.
Traditionally, it is hard to do this stretch this fast, said Kleedehn, sitting in his wall tent at the Dawson dog camp.
“But it was Hans’ idea, he felt confident with his dog team.
Hans told Kleedehn he was going to camp 80 kilometres out of Eagle, which meant he would be camping twice, said Kleedehn.
But when Kleedehn got to the aforementioned camping spot, Gatt was nowhere to be found.
“I knew they were thinking of camping only one time,” said Kleedehn.
“I don’t like camping only once, but you can’t let the race run away form you.”
The trail conditions are what made this run so fast, he added.
“Traditionally, you can’t do it so fast, but it was crusty and hard.”
Kleedehn said he didn’t cut his rest short to catch Mackey; he stuck to his plan and rested his team for a full five hours.
“If I wanted to catch him I would have camped where I could see him and gotten ready when he did,” he said.
“I knew he wanted to get the gold. But I didn’t come here to be first into Dawson.”