Lance Mackey won the Yukon Quest last night for the second year in a row.
But he didn’t know it till he got to Dawson.
“I didn’t know if I was first or third or what,” he said.
Roughly 30 kilometres from the finish line, Mackey took a wrong turn.
“I saw this plowed road and there was this one marker just before it, so I followed it.”
He didn’t see any more markers, but remembered race marshal Mike McCowan saying the stakes were few and far between on the road.
“It wasn’t until I was looping around some guy’s barn and house and there was no more road that I thought, ‘This isn’t right,’” said Mackey.
“Then I just wanted to sit down and cry like a little baby.”
Mackey had just lost three hours.
“I just kept apologizing to the dogs and telling them it wasn’t their fault,” he said.
“It was a self-inflicted wound, I should pay more attention to detail.”
From the top of King Solomon’s Dome, he’d gone all the way down to the bottom of Quartz Creek Valley.
“There’s no land for sale down there, it’s all utilized,” he joked.
“There must have been 4,000 acres down there and I seen it all.”
By the time Mackey returned to the Quest trail, he assumed Hans Gatt and William Kleedehn had already gone by.
“I thought I’d be here third,” he said. “And it took me a good 25 miles to accept that what I’d worked for the whole race was gone.”
Mackey had left the last checkpoint at Scroggie Creek, 160 kilometres from Dawson, with a four-hour lead on Gatt.
But Gatt, who was the first to arrive at Scroggie on Monday night, could have left the checkpoint 45 minutes before Mackey, after the mandatory eight-hour layover.
“Hans told me he was going to wait 14 hours, and I thought it was bull crap,” said Mackey. “But in this case, Hans was telling the truth.”
William Kleedehn, who arrived in Scroggie an hour after Mackey on Monday night, also rested extra time, and eventually left the checkpoint one hour after Gatt.
The trip to Scroggie from Dawson took these top teams a little more than 12 hours, but the return trip yesterday took Mackey 18.
And he mushed over the finish line only an hour before Gatt and Kleedehn. So, had they not rested the extra time, it is quite possible Gatt and Kleedehn could have beaten Mackey.
“But Mackey had the best team,” said Kleedehn. “And if he was lost and we won, this doesn’t count. If I’d have known that on the trail, and was ahead of him, I would have stopped and waited till he went past.”
The first dog race Kleedehn ever won, he got lost too.
“I was so fast going down the trail the volunteers hadn’t marked it yet, and they had to send a snow machine out to catch me,” he said.
By then other mushers had arrived at the finish line, but they still declared Kleedehn the winner. “My idea is the best dog team wins,” he said.
“I knew Lance had a good dog team when went from here to Scroggie in one run and still left with a healthy, happy dog team.”
And when they arrived in the finish chute last night, Mackey’s team was still barking and tugging to go.
Mackey greeted Gatt when he arrived. “I just got here too,” he said. But Gatt didn’t believe him at first. When the race judges confirmed it and told him how Mackey got lost, Gatt was stunned.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “I should have left with you — shit.”
Later Gatt explained why he allowed Mackey a four-hour lead from Scroggie.
“If I had left 45 minutes before Lance, it would have been a mad dash to the finish,” he said.
“And I had done some really long runs before and it wouldn’t have been good for the health and well-being of my dogs.”
Gatt has a number of three-year-olds in his team and he didn’t want to jeopardize their future.
“It was a hard decision,” he said. “But it was a decision based on the dogs.”
Mackey made some unexpected moves in this race, he added. “And in hindsight I would have reacted differently and changed a few things earlier on.”
But, like Kleedehn, he didn’t really regret his long rest at Scroggie.
“It wouldn’t mean much if I won just because someone got lost,” he said.
“Mackey’s a tough competitor and he has a really awesome team. It’s amazing they run the distances they do with very little rest and are still so happy and healthy.”
When Mackey made his wrong turn, his lead dog Larry disagreed with him and tried to take the team down the right trail. “Larry’s the steering wheel and brains of the outfit,” said Mackey.
“I should’ve listened to him, ‘cause he wanted to take me home. “When we’re training, I’m always telling them to pay attention, and they were probably trying to tell me the same thing.”
Yesterday, waiting for Mackey, the tension in the Dawson checkpoint was on the rise.
“I’m not very good at waiting,” said his father Dick Mackey, who had flown up from Arizona to surprise his son at the finish line.
“I’ve gotta do something — I’m going crazy.”
An Iditarod co-founder and race champion Dick has the same wild energy as his son.
“I hope he’s smilin’ out there,” he said.
While he was waiting, Wendy Fellers showed Dick the gold Lance won for being the first team into Dawson.
Then she asked him if he remembered her.
“I drank wine out of your cowboy boot years ago in Nome, Alaska,” she said.
“People are still talking about that party,” said Dick smiling.
“I remember the band was going to leave at midnight and I asked ‘em how much they were making and hour and we kept ‘em there till five in the morning.”
After Lance took care of his dogs, he joined his family at the checkpoint and the stories continued.
“Did you see how dim my headlamp was,” he asked his dad. “I gave all my batteries to (Quest musher) Wayne Hall, because I was sure I’d be in before dark.”
Then he told Dick how he got off the trail again coming into Dawson and ended up crossing the pedestrian sidewalk over the bridge, instead of running down the river.
“I went past this woman who was standing on the bank waiting to take my picture, but I was behind her — it sure surprised the heck out of her,” he laughed.
After Saturday’s banquet in Whitehorse, Lance and his entourage will rush back to Fairbanks to see one of his sons compete in the junior Iditarod.
Then, a week from Wednesday, he will be in Nome preparing for the Iditarod, his second 1,600-kilometre race of the season.
Last year, he placed seventh in the Alaskan race, becoming the only person to win the Quest and then place in the Iditarod’s top 10.
He arrived in Dawson last night at 8:29 p.m., beating Frank Turner’s record winning time in 1995 by eight hours.
This year’s Quest trail was roughly 80 kilometres shorter than the run into Whitehorse.
Dave Dalton arrived in fourth place this morning, pulling into Dawson at 8:50 a.m.