It was a dramatic conclusion to a race that Schnuelle approached as a camping trip until three mushers with a seemingly insurmountable lead faltered on Eagle Summit early Monday morning.
"By Central (Sunday night) I had kind of given up. I was like 'They are way too far ahead,'" Schnuelle said as he stood atop a stage constructed of pallets at the finish line on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks.
Once Schnuelle got the lead, however, he held on. The German from Whitehorse, Yukon, left the final checkpoint in Two Rivers with a 35-minute advantage over Neff and gave back all but four minutes.
"Hugh kept me on the edge of my seat," said Schnuelle, who listened to heavy-metal music by AC-DC on the nearly six-hour jaunt to cover the final 45 miles. "I could tell he was getting closer on the (Chena) river, so every corner I looked around and see if he's there."
Neff, of Annie Lake, Yukon, was getting regular feedback about his proximity to Schnuelle.
"People would tell me 15 minutes and 13 minutes and then I heard five minutes, but I never saw him," Neff said. "He was always around the next corner."
Schnuelle's winning time - 9 days, 23 hours and 20 minutes - was 3 hours and 17 minutes faster than Lance Mackey's record run in 2007. A good trail and little extreme weather contributed to a speedier race for most of the 29 mushers who started on Feb. 14 in Whitehorse.
Mackey, the Quest champion from 2005-08, and Hans Gatt, the winner from 2002-04, were among the several hundred spectators to see the pair arrive at 10:44 and 10:48 a.m., respectively.
Schnuelle wins $30,000 in a reduced purse of $151,000. He had never placed higher than sixth place before in five previous Quests.
Schnuelle was led to the finish by huskies Vasser, a 5-year-old male, and Popcorn, a 6-year-old male. His dog Inuk earlier helped lead the way from Two Rivers and will share the Golden Harness Award with Popcorn, he said.
Neff and Schnuelle, who have known each other in the mushing circuit for about a decade, congratulated each other at the finish.
"I'm happy for Sebastian," Neff said, adding that but for one crucial moment the race was easily his best-ever Quest. " ... Hopefully one of these days I can get a chance to win a race as well."
That crucial moment was a two-hour time penalty Neff incurred in Central for mushing on a road instead of the adjacent trail.
"I don't really worry about the time penalty. That's history," said Neff, who won $22,000 and topped his third-place finish from 2005.
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