Lance Mackey was still looking behind him when he crossed the Yukon Quest finish line in Whitehorse at 1:23 a.m. Wednesday.
“My head’s on backwards from looking over my shoulder for the last 100 miles,” he said.
“I heard he was gaining on me.”
Ken Anderson crossed the finish line 15 minutes later.
But at the Takhini River Bridge the Fairbanks’ neighbours were only four minutes apart, according to spotters.
“I thought you were closer,” said Mackey, shaking Anderson’s hand under the glaring lights.
“For a while I was,” said Anderson. “I saw you at one point.”
“I sensed it,” said Mackey who was running without a headlamp so Anderson wouldn’t know where he was.
Although Mackey and Anderson don’t think of one another as friends, the pair spent the last week neck and neck, leaving checkpoints moments apart.
“This is probably the best race I ever had,” said Anderson, chugging some water.
Mackey’s “ a good guy, a good neighbour, and on top of his game.
“Hopefully this won’t go to his head,” he added with a grin.
While he raced across Shipyards Park towards a couple of hundred spectators, Anderson’s headlamp was bobbing with every push as he pedaled beside the sled.
“I worked my butt off,” he said.
“I gave it everything — I’m going to be real crampy in the morning.”
Mackey was out of breath too.
In Braeburn, he’d pulled a ski pole out of his sled to help power his team, but he lost it on the trail.
“And my feet were too cold to pedal,” he said.
There was knee-deep overflow on the trail just past Braeburn and Mackey’s feet had been frozen for 10 hours.
“My feet are so damn cold they would have broken off if I tried pedaling,” he said.
“That was a long-ass run.
“I kept hoping to see the lights — that last four hours felt like an eternity.”
As soon as he crossed the finish line, Mackey jumped off his sled and snacked his dogs. They ate well.
On his way into Whitehorse, when he wasn’t looking over his shoulder, Mackey was trying to decide which two lead dogs would be getting the golden harness award at the banquet.
“Lippy, Larry, and Hobo Jim have all had it,” he said.
“And this year I’m thinking it should be Handsome and Rev — when in doubt on this race I grabbed one of those two.”
Although Anderson didn’t snack his dogs, he walked up the line and rubbed their heads.
He snacked his team six times on that last 160-kilometre run, but they didn’t eat that well, he said. “The race was aggressive.”
The run took less time than Anderson thought.
“I didn’t think I was making great time,” he said.
So, when he passed Takhini River Road and heard Mackey was only 15 minutes ahead, he really started to push.
“But I pushed a little too quick,” he said.
By the time Anderson got to the bridge, he was only four minutes behind, but his team started to fade.
“It was fun while it lasted,” he said.
Anderson’s wife and parents surprised him at the finish line.
His parents had flown in from Minnesota just hours before and were flying out again first thing on Wednesday.
And his wife, Gwen Holdmann, was supposed to be in Anchorage on business.
“I got a call at 3 p.m. today from my boss at Chena Hot Springs (in Fairbanks),” said Holdmann while waiting at the finish line just after midnight.
If she could get back to Fairbanks by 6 p.m., he offered to fly her to Whitehorse in the hot springs’ Piper Navajo.
Holdmann wasn’t able to follow the whole race because she had to keep working.
“Someone’s got to pay for all this,” she said.
Anderson and Holdmann are the first husband-and-wife combo to have finished both the Quest and the Iditarod.
And in all four races they always ended up drawing bib number 20.
“I did the math, and the odds are one in 10 million,” said Holdmann.
“The only bad thing is, in the Quest I finished second to last, so I hope he doesn’t finish second from the other end.”
The whole race went just as Anderson had envisioned it, he said. Until the last few minutes.
“I even dreamed about coming into Braeburn behind (Mackey) and racing under the Takhini Bridge,” said Anderson. “The only difference is I visualized passing him in the final shoot.”
Anderson was ready to hit the hay, after getting himself some water.
And although Mackey mentioned sleep, his first priority was finding something to eat and having a few drinks.
“But not necessarily in that order,” he said with a smile.
Both Mackey and Anderson are going on to run the Iditarod, which starts March 1st.
“I don’t want to think about that right now,” said Anderson.
Running both races was an experiment, he said.
The idea is that the Quest will get his dogs in better shape for the Iditarod.
Anderson arrived in Whitehorse with eight dogs, and that core group will go on to the Iditarod, he said.
Mackey, who cruised in with 11 dogs, said he isn’t sure who will be running what.
“I have 14 more dogs at home, ready to go,” he said.
So some of his Quest dogs will running the Iditarod and some will be in the All Alaska Sweepstakes, a $10,000, winner-takes-all race that covers 653 kilometres to Nome.
“I want to win that,” said Mackey.
Last year, after a record run in the Quest, Mackey went on to win the Iditarod, making him the first musher in history to win both races in the same year.
Mackey’s fourth-consecutive Quest win this year set another precedent.
“Nobody’s ever won four major races in a row,” he said.
“I set my goals high, but they’re realistic.”
However, after getting lost for four hours outside Dawson this year, Mackey thought he was in trouble.
“Anderson’s incredible,” he said.
“He’s got a great dog team and he’s a focused driver.
“With Ken, I had to race strong and hard. He kept me on my toes.”
As soon as Mackey started walking back to his sled to make room for Anderson’s arrival, his team started barking and lunging in their harnesses.
“They want to keep going,” he said.
“That’s what I’m talking about.”
Mackey’s first-place finish earned him US$35,000, while Anderson’s second brought in US$25,000.
Vying for third place, Dave Dalton, Michelle Phillips and Brent Sass are expected sometime after 9 p.m. on Wednesday.