Twenty two years after his rookie run in the Yukon Quest, Tagish resident Ed Hopkins has achieved a new personal best in the race: a third-place finish.
His best previous placing was eighth, in 2005.
Third place is also the highest finish for a Yukoner since Sebastian Schnuelle, then a Yukon resident, placed second in 2011 and Hans Gatt won it in 2010.
Hopkins’ wife, Michelle Phillips, placed fourth in the Quest in 2009 and fifth in 2008. He joked at the finish line that he had to beat her record.
Hopkins required assistance to climb the steps to a podium and address the Fairbanks crowd after his finish. “I tore a muscle in my leg today, it goes from my knee all the way up to my butt,” he said. “I had to sit down for most of the day.”
Asked to compare this latest race to his first, in 1993, Hopkins, 50, said: “Oh, I’m a hurtin’ unit now.”
He described the brutally cold temperatures that marked the first half of the race as working to his advantage. “I’m immune to the cold, I don’t have a problem surviving the cold,” he said. He was able to roll along steadily through those first 500 miles.
Hopkins arrived in Dawson City for the mandatory 24-hour layover in sixth position, with Ray Redington Jr., a 13-time Iditarod finisher but a Quest rookie, just 12 minutes ahead of him. When Redington scratched from the race in Dawson, and fourth-place musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom scratched at the next checkpoint, Eagle, Hopkins found himself in the top five.
He passed former champion Hugh Neff along the Yukon River and came into Circle City with a 22-minute lead for third. By the time Hopkins arrived in Central, the third-to-last checkpoint, he had widened his lead to eight hours.
Between Central and Mile 101, Hopkins struggled over the notorious Eagle Summit. Twice, his team turned around and headed back downhill rather than carry on up the steep slope. He was eventually forced to separate the dogs and the sled, leading the team up the mountain eight feet at a time and anchoring them, then returning on his own to drag the sled up eight feet and anchor it before turning to the dogs again, and so on.
Hopkins cruised to the finish line on Tuesday evening, 20 hours after the second-place finisher, Allen Moore. Moore and champion Brent Sass had enjoyed an insurmountable lead on the rest of the field for the final third of the trail – so Hopkins, effectively, was the winner of a race within the race.
“I knew what was underneath the hood,” he said of his young dog team. Six of his finishers were in their first ever race. Hopkins expects to have a strong team in the years to come.
Coming in fourth place, five and a half hours after Hopkins, was rookie musher Damon Alexander Tedford. Tedford is an anomaly on the Quest: a Vancouver-based emergency room doctor who is brand new to mushing. He moved to Alaska last fall to train with Mitch Seavey, a former Iditarod champion, and was “pleasantly surprised” to find himself finishing in the top five.
Tedford left Mile 101, the second-last checkpoint, less than two hours behind then-fourth place Hugh Neff. He recalled seeing fresh scat on the trail, showing that Neff’s team was nearby. “It was kind of getting fresher and fresher,” he said. “It was like we were out on the hunt.”
He passed Neff en route to Two Rivers, and after a final mandatory eight-hour rest, he left the last checkpoint with just a six-minute lead on the former champ. His fourth-place finish will earn him the Rookie of the Year award at the Quest finish banquet on Saturday.
Neff placed fifth, coming in an hour and a half later, and Yukoner Normand Casavant crossed the line in sixth place on Wednesday morning.
It was another personal best for 51-year-old Casavant, who placed seventh in 2013 and tenth in two earlier Quests.
Dawson City’s Brian Wilmshurst came across the line very early Thursday morning in 12th place.
This was Wilmshurst’s fourth consecutive Quest. He finished 16th in his 2012 rookie run, 17th in 2013, and 10th last year, when only eleven teams completed the race.
Wilmshurst, 32, told onlookers at the finish line that his next priority was to get home and check his hockey pool.
With nine scratched from the race and one musher withdrawn after requesting emergency assistance, only 16 of the 26 teams that started in Whitehorse are on track to complete the 2015 race.
Whitehorse resident Rob Cooke remains on the trail, running in the Red Lantern position. He should finish in Fairbanks today.