Updated 5:30 p.m.: Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers is the winner of this year's Yukon Quest 300 race, according to the Quest website.
Zirkle, who won the 300 mile version of the race in 2014, crossed the finish line about 4:53 p.m. Alaska time on Sunday. This year's race, which was shortened due to lack of snow, was just under 200 miles long. Zirkle of SP Kennel in Two Rivers, is also a 1,000-mile Quest champion, winning that race in 2000.
She was running a mix of young dogs and dogs that were on her husband Allen Moore's 2018 championship Yukon Quest team.
In the meantime, in the 1,000-mile race, four-time champion Hans Gatt was the first musher to reach Pelly Crossing. According to the Yukon Quest Twitter account, Gatt was received by Chief Sharon Nelson of Selkirk First Nation, and was presented with a pair of beaver mitts by artist Freda Alfred. Gatt says he plans on staying in Pelly for a while
WHITEHORSE, Yukon – With seven rookies in this year’s YQ300 field, one name really stands out when you scan the 13 competitors: Aliy Zirkle.
The Two Rivers musher is the only past 1,000-mile Yukon Quest champion in this year’s Quest-organized YQ300, which is normally a 300-mile race but will be 200 miles this year because of poor trail conditions outside Braeburn, the first checkpoint from Whitehorse, Yukon.
Zirkle won a 1,000-mile title in 2000, when she finished in 10 days, 22 hours and 57 minutes. It’s that accomplishment and her five top-five finishes in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race since 2012 that has others in this year’s YQ300 field viewing her as the frontrunner.
“I’m just going to enjoy it,” said Jonathan Lucas, a YQ300 veteran from Grizzly Valley, Yukon. “Aliy Zirkle is going to win it, unless she has a disaster. If you look at all the other names, she’s probably going to win.”
Zirkle said that, more than anything, her biggest objective for entering the race is to test the dogs she and husband Allen Moore – last year’s 1,000-mile champion – raise at SP Kennel in Two Rivers.
“My goal for this whole thing is to run these (dogs) and myself so that we’re challenged,” said the 49-year-old Zirkle. “I expect to go to Braeburn rather quickly. I’m going to rest them a little bit on the way there, but not very long. If it’s really an 80-mile run to the finish line, I’ll probably just run that straight back.
“Then what I’m going to do is give them a six-or-so-hours rest and run another 60-70 miles around here. That’s what I’m hoping to do.”
The YQ300 teams will travel 100 miles to Braeburn, the loop around and finish in Whitehorse.
Before YQ300 field left Whitehorse for Braeburn on Saturday, Zirkle noted that she had quite the eventful day leading up to the 2 p.m. AKST start time.
Because Moore is looking to defend his title in the 1,000-mile race – which began at 10 a.m. Alaska time Saturday – and Zirkle acts as one of his handlers once she finishes the YQ300, most of her morning was spent helping her husband prepare.
“It’s a little hectic. It’s complicated with two teams,” she said. “We do this all the time, it’s just that all your Ps and Qs have to line up. And, in life, how often do all of your Ps and Qs line up? Maybe 10 percent of the time.”
One thing Moore and Zirkle had to decide was which dogs each of them would take. With Moore going for a fourth 1,000-mile title, they decided he should take a much stronger team.
“We always have one that is more important than the other,” said Zirkle, who will run with two of Moore’s champions from a year ago — Chena and Five — in the YQ300. “We have one (team) that’s really, really trying to win. Obviously in the Yukon Quest, that’s Allen.”
Still, even if Zirkle is using the couple’s “B Team,” so to speak, it’s clear the competition views them as the team to beat. For other YQ300 mushers, such as German rookie Nick Helfinger, the race is an opportunity to experience a longer trail.
Helfinger entered this year’s YQ300 so he could get the feel for a longer run. After competing in last year’s Percy Junior — a 100-mile race that leaves Dawson City — he was eager to participate in a Quest-organized race.
“This is my first time doing a Quest race,” Helfinger said. “This is my second race, and it’s quite a bigger one. I’m hoping to have some fun out there.”
The rookie from Germany wasn’t used to the minus-30 temperatures that hit Whitehorse on Saturday morning, though, and that aspect of his race has left family in Germany a little worried.
“My parents can’t believe that I’m 20 degrees colder than a freezer,” he said. “You get used to it, though. I’m spending lots of time outside and you just put some layers on.”
While Helfinger said he wishes the race stayed 300 miles so he could take part in an even longer race, Lucas said he would’ve pulled out from the field had the Quest not made the change to shorten the race and loop back from Braeburn. The race normally follows the 1,000-mile trail for 300 miles, which means this year’s race would’ve gone through Braeburn and toward Carmacks, the second checkpoint for the longer race.
The change worked for Lucas.
“I think it’s really good,” the veteran said. “I know that route between Braeburn and Carmacks is really rough with little snow. I was actually going to retire if they didn’t change it. I couldn’t have taken my dogs through that.”
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.