FAIRBANKS - When musher Hans Gatt crossed the finish line of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race on Thursday, even he couldn't explain how he was able to lengthen a 90-minute lead in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, to a 12-hour lead for his second straight win.
"I had a really lousy training year with lack of snow and other problems," Gatt told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner after his 7:12 a.m. finish. "I don't know why this happened, why it all came together."
In the race's 20th edition, Gatt, 43, of Atlin, British Columbia, joined Charlie Boulding and John Schandelmeier as the only two-time winners. He is the first to win in consecutive years and the first to win the race, which alternates starts in Fairbanks and Whitehorse, in both directions.
Gatt finished more than 14 1/2 hours ahead of runner-up William Kleedehn, who emerged from a tight pack to cross the finish line at 9:48 p.m. Thursday. Thomas Tetz followed four minutes later, and Schandelmeier claimed fourth place when he finished at 10:40 p.m.
The trio trailing Gatt remained in a close race right up to the end. They were in a dead heat 19 miles out of Fairbanks, and officials had made preparations for a photo finish before Kleedehn pulled ahead by the four-minute margin.
Bill Steyer reached Fairbanks at 4:45 a.m. this morning, followed by early leader Martin Massicotte at 5:54 a.m. Massicotte was assessed a six-hour penalty - for reasons not yet disclosed - allowing Frank Turner to slip into the sixth-place position with a 8:46 a.m. finish this morning.
Paul Geoffrion is running last, and arrived at the Circle City checkpoint at 5:55 a.m. this morning.
For Quest champion Gatt, the racing year has not been smooth.
Bacteria ran through the dog team during the Copper Basin 300 in January, causing Gatt to scratch halfway through. Then he had to leave three dogs home, including a main leader, for the Quest because of injuries. That left him with a bunch of 3-year-olds, including four dogs that had never run a long-distance race.
Also, he recently separated from his wife, creating another distraction.
At the starting banquet two days before the race, Gatt confided that he was not as confident as last year.
How he won, other than by shaving rest time before reaching Dawson City and watching his team get better as the race progressed, he could not explain.
"I'll have to sit down and figure it out," he said.
He gave his friends, Tetz and Kleedehn, plenty of warning that he was going to make a move for the lead before Dawson City. They knew how many problems he had had with his training.
"I knew William had a really, really strong team, I knew Thomas had a good team, I didn't know much about John Schandelmeier's dog team, but he looked pretty good, too," Gatt said. "I know my competition very well. I don't know why they let me get so far away."
Kleedehn said his dogs weren't ready to follow Gatt. Instead he and Tetz, another German expatriate living in Canada, battled for second with Paxson trapper Schandelmeier.
Gatt spent most of the second-half of the race traveling by himself. He stopped seeing his friends at the stops since the checkpoint in Circle on Tuesday. It was enough to make him wish four-time Iditarod winner Doug Swingley had not withdrawn before the start of what would have been Swingley's rookie race.
"Too bad he wasn't here because he would have been the team to beat," Gatt said.
Gatt said he may have jumped ahead early because other mushers were overfeeding their dogs in the unseasonably warmer weather.
Mushers had to be sure their teams did not overheat when the race started in 27-degree weather. By the time they hit Fortymile River, 50 miles past Dawson City, the mercury had dropped to 50 below.
"It was pretty brutal," Gatt said.
Despite the big lead, Gatt continued working hard just to stay warm. He pushed with ski poles in part because he did not carry enough clothing.
Trail conditions changed drastically along with the temperature. Teams got bounced around during the first and third race sections. The lack of snow made race officials decide to have teams trucked between the two, skipping a 73-mile section from Braeburn to Carmacks.
By the time the front-runners got to Eagle Summit just outside the dog drop at Mile 101 of the Steese Highway, snow had drifted over the trail and teams were running into chest-high drifts.
But it was the trip over Rosebud Summit and its "mind-blowing scenery" in the sunny Wednesday afternoon that reminded Gatt why he runs the Quest.
Gatt hesitated when asked if he would return next year.
"I really thought about this winter might be my last," Gatt said. "I'm not focused any more."b