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The race within the race

DAWSON CITYThe crowds had thinned out.And many of the revelers were still nursing hefty hangovers when Quest competitors Dave Dalton and Gerry…


The crowds had thinned out.

And many of the revelers were still nursing hefty hangovers when Quest competitors Dave Dalton and Gerry Willomitzer rolled into Dawson Wednesday morning roughly an hour apart.

In fourth place for the second year in a row, Dalton was content.

“But I am going to keep coming back every year until I win this damn thing,” he said.

With a frosty beard, he was sorting harnesses and tidying up gear at the dog camp across the river from Dawson.

“I knew I could catch Sebastian (Schnuelle), but I didn’t think I would catch Gerry,” he said.

After leaving the last checkpoint an hour after Willomitzer, Dalton passed him on the trail.

“He was camped and still in his sleeping bag when I went by,” he said.

He thought it would be a closer race, but Willomitzer’s rest gave Dalton an easy lead.

Willomitzer argued this wouldn’t have happened if the race route hadn’t changed, altering the outcome of this year’s Quest.

 “In the normal race from Angel or from Braeburn, it’s a flat run into the finish,” said Willomitzer.

“And I would have run that straight through.

“But I didn’t want to do this from Scroggie to Dawson because of all the elevation we go through.

“It’s not something I have the dogs trained for.”

“We were just slow and steady,” said Dalton.

“Gerry would have beaten me on the river, or on flat stretches, but I think my team had an advantage on all the hills — I do lots of hill training.”

Willomitzer said he could have run straight through, but it would have been hard on his dogs.

And with a lot of younger dogs in his team who have little experience with racing, he was worried a long, hard run would turn them off racing altogether.

“The dogs have to figure out what this is all about too,” he said.

“And you can’t tell them how much further they have to run. The older veterans know, but the new ones don’t and I didn’t want to discourage them.”

Before starting the Quest, Willomitzer worked out his tentative run/rest schedule. But poor weather and rough trail conditions altered his plans.

The first few days of a race set its tone, he said.

And this year, with the bad trail conditions in Alaska, it was tough right away.

“Last year I had a dog who was barking to go at every checkpoint,” he said.

But this year after navigating the rough trail to the Mile 101 dog drop, that dog stopped barking.

“And he didn’t bark to go for the rest of the race,” said Willomitzer.

“The soft trail and the hard trail and the ice sort of took the wind out of him.”

Willomitzer used to like running from Fairbanks home to Whitehorse, but has now changed his mind.

“Leaving from Whitehorse there is nothing major in obstacles, so you can really ease the team into it,” he explained.

This gives the team time to develop its running rhythm.

“My team looked flat this year for the whole race,” he said.

“That’s why I took a break last night, if the team’s not that spiffy, you have to be a bit easier on them.”

Dalton had to keep close tabs on his team as well, after several of his dogs came down with kennel cough.

“It was a little more challenging this year, working with some injuries,” he said.

Wednesday afternoon, Schnuelle arrived with a healthy looking team.

After cutting too much rest earlier in the race in an attempt to stay up with the frontrunners, his team slowed down and he had to take more rests.

“The team is just coming together now,” he said as he crossed the finish line.

He was actually happy about this, because in a week he will be running the Iditarod with several of these same Quest dogs.

“I might even take Tang,” he said.

His nine-year-old leader is ready to retire, but Schnuelle doesn’t want to let her go.

“This was her last race … well, maybe …” he said with a laugh.

“I’ve been saying this for years.”

Leaving Pelly Crossing to return to Dawson most mushers were worried about their dogs having to return on the same trail.

There was concern the teams would think they were going to have to run all the way back to Fairbanks, but Dalton, Willomitzer and Schnuelle didn’t have any problems.

“They knew they were running back to a rest and nice warm straw,” said Schnuelle.

Waiting to be loaded into the waiting dog truck, Willomitzer’s dogs looked relieved.

They knew they were heading home.

Schnuelle went across the river, back to his dog camp.

Sitting in his tent relaxing in the afternoon, his voice trailed out, “Wanda.”

A pair of ears perked up. Wanda rose stiffly from her nest of straw, wandered out from under the dog tarp and walked over to Schnuelle’s tent.

After a few moments he called again, “Jack.”

Soon his whole team was cuddling in the tent.

“They took over the cot and the sleeping bag,” he laughed.

After running together for 1,600 kilometres, it is hard to be separated from your best friends.

Wednesday night, Kelly Griffin ran across the finish line with her dogs.

“Twenty miles out, my leader realized we were coming to back to Dawson and, whoohoo, it was quite the ride,” she said.

She was happy coming in seventh, a position that matches the age of most of her dogs.

“We’re a bunch of old geezers,” she said.

Her race highlight was being alive.

“Those first few days were a nightmare,” she said.

“It wasn’t really a dog race.”

Shortly after Griffin arrived, people ran back down to the river to wait for Michelle Philips.

The finish chute, lit up with floodlights, was suddenly plunged into darkness.

The generator had quit.

So, a sea of bobbing headlamps greeted Philips.

“You all look like a bunch of aliens,” she laughed.

“Maybe I’m really tired.”

It was a long run, and Philips only had seven dogs pulling for the last stretch.

“It felt weird coming back, kinda like déjà vu,” she said.

“And it was very northern, with the mandatory checkpoint being in the middle of nowhere.”

It was a dog race, she said.