As rumours of his retirement from long-distance races continue to swirl, Whitehorse’s Hans Gatt is certain about one thing – he has not decided his future.
However, if the Austrian-born dog musher decides next month’s Iditarod is his last big race, he won’t have any regrets.
“(Retirement) has been in our minds, but nothing is written in stone,” said Gatt. “We’re going to keep racing, but I don’t know if I’ll do any 1,000-mile races anymore.
“I’m still going to have the dogs.
“If this was my last Quest, then I’ll be happy and will move on to other stuff. But we really don’t know what we’re going to do.”
On Monday in Whitehorse, Gatt, 51, became the second musher in the Yukon Quest’s 27-year history to become a four-time winner of the 1,600-kilometre race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, tying Alaska’s Lance Mackey, who won his fourth straight Quest in 2008.
“It was probably one of the sweetest victories I have ever experienced for sure, for many reasons,” said Gatt. “It was fun beating Lance. He’s been the dominant musher for the last three, four years, so somebody had to stop him in his tracks.
“Setting a record like this is always a great achievement. And having a dog team at the finish line, which is absolutely happy and looks great, that’s always something you want to have.”
Welcomed to the finish line by throngs of fans and media, Gatt completed the Quest in record time, concluding the adventure in nine days, zero hours and 26 minutes, beating last year’s record run by Sebastian Schnuelle by 23 hours, 54 minutes.
Perhaps indicating a new phase in the age-old sport of dog mushing, each of the first five teams to arrive in Whitehorse completed the race ahead of Schnuelle’s record.
“We had absolutely great conditions; the trail conditions were outstanding and the weather was just right,” said Gatt. “The other thing was the competition was there and we were pushing each other to the limit and that creates a very fast race.”
According to Gatt, mushers now possess different notions of how to prepare dogs for the races and of what they are capable of.
In 2003, Norwegian musher Robert Sorlie became the first non-North American resident to win the Iditarod, rewriting the book on the ratio between running and resting dog teams.
“We know a lot more about training dogs than we did in the past,” said Gatt. “We’re just finding out the way we used to train wasn’t necessarily the best for the dogs. We figured an equal run/rest schedule, they say, was the best for the dogs. Now we’re figuring out the longer they run the better they start looking.
“For me, this was the first year I thought, ‘Well, if I want to keep up with these guys, I’ll have to do something different.’ I started training differently this year, focusing on long training runs, and obviously it worked out great.”
Despite the heightened pace, after finishing the race, shaking hands and answering questions from reporters, all of Gatt’s dogs were noticeably chipper – even after eating – which surprised the eight-time Quest competitor.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Gatt. “They were an outstanding dog team, and the way they were acting I think surprised everybody. They didn’t seem tired, they were happy, they just were not affected by the blistering pace.”
Gatt began the Quest with a team of 14 dogs, but dropped five at checkpoints through the race when they were injured or seemed discontent with the race, eliminating small problems before they ballooned.
“In a race like this you only rest three or four hours and go for 10 hours – there’s not a whole lot of time to get dogs with little injuries back into the race,” said Gatt. “I don’t even try fooling around with them – I massage them – and I drop them at the next checkpoint and go on with the ones that are absolutely injury free.
“I just don’t believe in running injured dogs, even if they’re just little injuries because they always seem to get bigger and pretty soon you have a big problem.
“All the five dogs I dropped were bouncing around once they got to the dog truck a few hours later.”
Although he took the lead halfway through the race, with second-place finisher Mackey leaving the final checkpoint in Braeburn just 30 minutes behind, Gatt never had the feeling victory was assured. (Mackey himself was only about a half hour ahead of eventual third-place finisher Hugh Neff.)
“Hugh (Neff) set the pace at the beginning and we all had to react to that and follow him up to Circle City,” said Gatt. “Then I took control of the race a little bit. From then on it was pretty clear it would be a race between Lance, Hugh and me; we kept leapfrogging each other.
“I wasn’t really sure when I reached Takhini River that I would win the race, so it was very close all the way.
“I took the lead around the midway points, but it wasn’t big and it wasn’t something to be comfortable with.”
Coming off the Quest victory with a record time and such an enthusiastic canine crew, Gatt likes his chances in next month’s Iditarod, a race he has never won.
“I feel very good about it,” said Gatt. “I have some other dogs here, which I will fill in with the 10 I take from the Quest team. The other team looks great and I’m really looking forward to the Iditarod.
“Obviously, the dogs that ran the Quest don’t need a lot of training runs anymore.”
Spanning similar distances, the Iditarod, which starts March 6 near Anchorage and ends in Nome, Alaska, imposes comparable demands on mushers and their teams, said Gatt.
“They are not that different,” he said. “The Quest goes through more wooded and forested areas. The Quest does not have as many checkpoints as the Iditarod, so we have to carry bigger loads between checkpoints (on the Quest) – more dog food.
“You get more wind on the Iditarod since you run about 300 miles on the Bering Sea coast.
“In terms of running the race – running schedule and strategy – there’s not much difference.”
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