Iditarod strategy changes the face of the Yukon Quest

William Kleedehn thinks the Yukon Quest is a “boring race. “On the TV you watch a car race and it’s fast-paced action,” said…

William Kleedehn thinks the Yukon Quest is a “boring race.

“On the TV you watch a car race and it’s fast-paced action,” said the Carcross musher.

“But the Quest is gross slow motion all the time.”

Kleedehn likes fast dogs and fast trails.

“So the Yukon Quest is the most wrong dog race I can do,” he said.

Munching toast at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson during the layover, Kleedehn was holding court.

This race will be disappointing for racing fans, he said.

“I’m not going to try and pull something.

“I couldn’t give a rat’s ass if I’m first or fifth.”

With a team full of young dogs, he’s being careful.

“I don’t want to ruin this kind of potential,” he said.

But Lance Mackey doesn’t buy it.

“He may have a young team, but don’t think for a minute he can’t win this race,” said the reigning champ.

In 2005, Mackey only beat Kleedehn by eight minutes.

“They’re all out to get me now,” said Mackey, standing at his dog camp in Dawson.

“Just like I was out to get Hans (Gatt).

“Any given year we’re determined to beat each other.”

With a four-hour lead leaving Dawson, Mackey is ready to play cat and mouse.

“I can run six hours, then stop, let (Kleedehn) pass and wait for him to stop — I’ll know what he’s doing,” he said.

Mackey is here to race.

And he’s in it for the money.

“I’ve got my poker face on,” he added with a grin.

But Kleedehn isn’t on a camping trip either.

“I will only continue if I have a competitive dog team,” he said.

“If I wanted to go on a picnic I would do it in the summer, not at minus 40 on Scroggie Creek Road.”

Kleedehn’s plan, running young dogs, was to see what kind of team he would have in a couple of years.

“And I now know I will have a dog team,” he said.

“Unless I thrash it.”

Eventually, Mackey will have to get a new team, and Kleedehn wants be ready.

However, this year, Mackey has the best dog team, said Kleedehn.

“With that dog team and that lead, he’d be a fool to give this race away.

“The only good thing is that he’s proved he can get lost.”

Just before winning last year’s race, Mackey took a wrong turn on King Solomon’s Dome and went 40 kilometres out of his way.

But now, running almost all veteran dogs, Mackey has it made.

His dogs know what Dawson means, and where Fairbanks is, said Kleedehn.

“While my little potentials didn’t know Dawson was coming, or that we resume tomorrow.”

Atlin’s Hans Gatt agrees with Kleedehn — Mackey has it in the bag.

“The race for first is pretty much over,” he said.

“It’s not because of his lead; I just don’t have the team.”

But like any good poker game, it’s hard to tell when the mushers are bluffing.

“I have no patience for these games,” said Gatt.

“I don’t do it and don’t get caught up in it — it’s really silly in my opinion.”

Skagway musher Hugh Neff disagrees.

“Hans is professional at mind games,” he said.

“And Lance too.”

These games get Neff pumped up.

“I play mind games with my dogs, just to keep them happy,” he added.

But the head games are only part of it.

Different training and running strategies are reshaping the face of the Quest.

People are starting to run it like the Iditarod, said Neff.

Long 160-kilometre runs are typical in the Iditarod, but many Quest mushers aren’t accustomed to that pace.

This year, Neff started the race with a straight, 160-kilometre run from Whitehorse to Braeburn, and he has kept it up.

“I’ve been training for these eight-hour runs,” he said.

“It’s nothing my dogs haven’t seen.”

To keep up with the leaders, Neff is cutting rest, said Gerry Willomitzer.

“And his speed is down because of that.”

Like Neff, Willomitzer undertook many long training runs in preparation for this year’s race.

The competition keeps getting tougher, he said.

“And as soon as one guy starts tightening up the screws, you’ve got to go with it or you fall behind.”

Willomitzer left Dawson an hour before Gatt on Thursday night, and he doesn’t want him breathing down his neck.

“He’s a tough one to deal with,” he said.

“Every year we’re cranking it up — it has to be a record pace.

“And there’s more competitive spirits out there.”

It doesn’t work to just push the dogs harder, said Willomitzer.

“You have to change your training and technique.”

Of the frontrunners, Willomitzer, Sebastian Schnuelle, Gatt, Mackey, Aaron Burmeister and Neff all plan to run the Iditarod right after the Quest.

“It’s craziness,” said Gatt.

“It was a stupid move to run both races when you think about it.

“But then, that’s what we do — we run races.”

There’s not enough time to “bullshit” on the Iditarod, said Kleedehn.

The Quest is more relaxed.

“Every time you stop on the Iditarod, 10 teams pass you,” he said.

“But part of running races is to get together with guys who are training for the same thing and bullshit and have fun.”

When Mackey passed Kleedehn, camped on King Solomon’s Dome, he stopped and talked for a bit, and for Kleedehn, this is what the Quest is all about.

But for other mushers, it’s also about the solitude.

One of the reasons to run the Quest is to deal with dogs, not people, said John Schandelmeier.

The Alaskan musher, running mostly rescued sled dogs, likes to camp alone with his team.

“It’s not the same on the Iditarod, (where) you’re disturbed by dog teams coming by,” he said.

“But on the Quest, when you stop, you rarely see anybody.”

“Compared to the Iditarod, the Quest is pretty remote,” said Gatt.

“I like the trail and the country out there.”