FAIRBANKS - A quiet revolution in tactics is changing the tempos of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, and some mushers say the fun is going out of the event. The race begins Saturday in Fairbanks.
``I think it's obvious that it's changing, as are all the distance races in Alaska and other places,'' says veteran Paxson musher John Schandelmeier, a two-time Quest champion.
``It's opened a lot of people's eyes,'' said 1998 champion Bruce Lee, ``just to say, `Wait a minute, there are a lot of ways to get from Point A to Point B.'''
It was Lee, in 1998, who altered what had been essentially a 900-mile camping trip with a 100-mile sprint at the finish. Lee skipped a lot of the traditional stopping points, especially on the Yukon River between Eagle and Circle City.
``The Quest kind of got to the point where there was a traditional way to run it,'' said Lee, who lives in Denali Park and will be running the Iditarod this year.
Instead of stopping three times along the Yukon between Eagle and Circle, he stopped twice, splitting the run into three 60-mile segments rather than four 45s.
``That was the point for me to finally drive the nail in the coffin,'' Lee said.
Mushers took notice. The three top finishers last year, Ramy Brooks, Mark May and Peter Butteri, stretched the envelope even further.
Brooks ran through Eagle and into Dawson City. May skipped the Circle checkpoint and was first onto the Yukon. Butteri sizzled up the trail to Angel Creek, making the run in eight hours. It was about an hour before another competitor showed up at the first checkpoint.
Subtle things, but enough to shake up the race.
``If you want to win, you really have to challenge what the status quo is and take a chance,'' Brooks said. ``As more and more teams try to go out and win it, you'll see dog care improve, you'll see people go out with lighter sleds and better booties.''
Brooks' Quest sled, the first he built himself, weighed 55 pounds with his mandatory gear. May's sled, built by Rick Armstrong of Two Rivers, also was a featherweight.
Both used high-quality cloth booties designed to last 100 miles or more, and both carried Charlie Champaine's freeze-dried race diet. Instead of leaving checkpoints for long runs with 300-pound sleds, the teams were pulling sleds in the 125- to 150-pound range.
``Three pounds of freeze-dried soaks up to 15 pounds,'' Lee said. ``That's a huge difference.''
Not everyone sees the changing face of the Quest as attractive. Schandelmeier, for one, misses the old Quest.
``The fun things are disappearing - the camping, just seeing people on the race even. Last year, there were very few times I even saw another dog team.''
But the change is here to stay. As Mackey put it: ``Once one guy does it, everybody follows. It's like the Iditarod. Once somebody did it in nine days, there ain't no going back to 10 days.''
No one's predicting a nine-day Quest anytime soon. The trail is far different from the Iditarod trail, a wintertime highway for the series of villages along the route.
``There is one major thing that has not changed and will not change,'' Lee said. ``It is a dog trail that is broken by volunteer snowmachiners. It is run over all those hills and you still have limited resupply places. ... You may use lighter equipment, you may use different strategy in how you run it, but you still have to run over that trail.
``That is the beauty, I think, of the Quest.''
There are 29 mushers competing for a $125,000 purse this year. The winner takes home a $30,000 paycheck. Brooks, last year's champion, isn't signed up to defend his title. Runner-up May also isn't running the Quest this year.