FAIRBANKS — There’s almost six months to go until the Yukon Quest, but excitement for the 36th running of the 1,000-mile sled dog race was on display Saturday afternoon, when mushers flocked to the Quest offices in downtown Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon, to sign up for the 2019 race.
Twenty-two mushers — seven of whom are rookies — registered for the 1,000-mile race, and 18 more signed up for the YQ300, the Quest-organized 300-mile race that follows the same trail for the first 300 miles.
Both races will begin Feb. 2, 2019, in Whitehorse and finish in Fairbanks.
Among those registered for the 1,000-mile Quest are three former champions — Allen Moore, Matt Hall and Brent Sass. Moore, a three-time champion who won last year’s race, was the eighth musher to file his paperwork. His wife, Aliy Zirkle, the 2000 Quest winner, will run a team in the YQ300.
“It’s fun to come down and see everybody and start getting excited, even though we still have six months to go,” Moore said after registering at the Fairbanks office.
Sass, the 2015 champion, was the 10th musher to sign up, while Hall, the 2017 winner, was next in line.
Whitehorse resident Rob Cooke was the first to register at the race’s office on the Canada side. Cody Strathe, a veteran from Ester, was the first to sign up in Fairbanks.
The order mushers sign up determines the order they will select a bib number at the opening banquet. Teams leave the start line in the order of their bib numbers, not the order in which they signed up for the race.
Although he will be the second to pick his bib number, Strathe said he and his wife, Paige Drobny, who also is running the race, really just wanted to arrive early Saturday to beat the crowd.
“It’s not really that big of a deal to be one of the first mushers to sign up,” Strathe said. “I still have to draw to see where I’ll start. It’s just good to be here on time and to be excited.”
Strathe wasn’t the only musher who was thrilled to register.
Laura Allaway, a rookie from Fairbanks, was psyched after securing her spot. After running the Iditarod a few years ago and the YQ300 the past two years, Allaway is eager to tackle the Quest’s longer trail.
“It’s time. I’m super-excited,” she said. “I ran the Iditarod in 2015 and that was my first 1,000-mile race. I really like the 1,000-mile races. I really like the slightly slower pace, you’re just traveling instead of just going out and finishing.”
Another rookie with YQ300 experience, Chase Tingle, who works alongside Allaway at Trailbreaker Kennel in Fairbanks, was equally enthusiastic.
“The last couple days, starting to fill out the paperwork and it feels like ‘It’s real, winter’s coming,’” Tingle said. “I’m getting excited and I’m ready to start running and training dogs again.”
One rookie who will likely receive a lot of attention is Olivia Shank-Neff, the granddaughter of LeRoy Shank, a former press operator at the News-Miner and one of the original founders of the Quest.
Shank-Neff is married to Hugh Neff, a former two-time champion who was censured by the Quest after one of his dogs, Boppy, died during last year’s race.
Neff won’t be running a team this year, though that didn’t hinder Shank-Neff’s excitement for her first 1,000-mile race.
“I’m just excited because now I get to show off my puppies, not Hugh’s,” said Shank-Neff, who is listed as Olivia Webster on the sign-up list because her passport displays her maiden name.
Shank-Neff said her grandfather also was energized about her decision to enter the Quest.
“He called me and was like, ‘Are you going to sign up for the Quest this year?’” she said. “He was just making sure that I was. Even with everything happening with Hugh, we’re still going to do it.”
While Neff won’t be a part of this year’s race, it will mark the return of Sass, who sat out last year after scratching in 2017. He earned a second-place finish in ’16, one year after winning his only title.
“I’m definitely really excited,” said Sass, who owns and operates Wild and Free Kennel and Homestead in Eureka, about 150 miles northwest of Fairbanks.
“The year off was good, I had run the race 10 years in a row and it was time for a little break for me and the kennel. It was nice to just focus on the younger guys, but I definitely missed it a lot.”
Sass said he doesn’t stray away from his homestead much, and he felt like he missed out on more than just the race after sitting out last year.
“I still ran dogs all last year, but we didn’t get to go out and travel the Quest trail and see all these people I see year after year,” he said. “The banquets and those things are pretty much my social for the year. I try not to leave my place very much, so last year that was the really big gap.I still ran dogs, but I didn’t have the social aspect that I enjoy every year.”
The veteran was quick to talk about the state of mushing. With controversial stories surrounding both the Quest and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in recent years, Sass said everybody needs to do better.
“The sport of dog mushing is under a microscope right now,” he said. “I think all of us, from mushers and fans, to race officials and organizers, media and everybody really needs to step up their game when it comes to sled dog sports. We’re being watched. We all love our sport and know that we’re doing the best by our dogs, we just have to continue doing that. This is the day that all starts.”
Each of the mushers who signed up Saturday paid a $2,000 registration fee. Although $700 goes toward administration fees and is not refundable, mushers will have a chance to win $1,300 back in the Opening Day Draw.
The Quest will pick the name of one musher who registered Saturday and award him or her $1,300 back. The name will be picked and announced next week, but the winning musher won’t receive the check until the opening banquet.
There also is an August Draw on Sept. 3, with that musher receiving a custom parka from Apocalypse Design valued at over $1,000. A third drawing will take place Dec. 3 for the Early Bird Draw, and that winner will receive 500 booties from Cold Spot Feeds.
All prizes will be awarded at the opening banquet. Mushers who didn’t sign up in person are still entered to win a drawing as long as the postage on their paperwork was marked by Saturday.
Mushers can register for the Quest until Jan. 4, though the registration fee will increase $500 starting Dec. 1.
Zirkle won’t be the only former Quest champion in this year’s YQ300.
Whitehorse resident Hans Gatt was the eighth musher to sign up for the YQ300. He is one of two mushers — Lance Mackey being the other — to have four Quest championships.
Gatt won the 1,000-mile race three consecutive times, from 2002-04, before winning it again in 2010.
Krystyna March was the first to sign up for the YQ300, registering ahead of Marcelle Fressineau and Olaf Thurau.
Louve Tweddell and Lori Tweddell were the fourth and fifth mushers to file their paperwork for the YQ300.
The complete sign up order for both races are posted below.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMQuest and @FDNMSportsGuy.
2018 Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile Sign Up Order
1. Rob Cooke V Whitehorse, YT
2. Cody Strathe V Ester, AK
3. Olivia Webster R Tok, AK
4. Paige Drobny V Ester, AK
5. Misha Wiljes V Willow, AK
6. Laura Allaway R Fairbanks, AK
7. Chase Tingle R Two Rivers, AK
8. Allen Moore V Two Rivers, AK
9. Deke Naaktgeboren R Fairbanks, AK
10. Brent Sass V Eureka, AK
11. Matt Hall V Two Rivers, AK
12. Dave Dalton V Healy, AK
13. Brian Wilmshurst V Dawson City, YT
14. Ryne Olson V Two Rivers, AK
15. Torsten Kohnert V Vaestbotten, Sweden
16. Remy Leduc R Glenwood, NB
17. Denis Tremblay V St-Michel des Saints, QC
18. Laura Neese V McMillan, MI
19. Lisbet Norris R Fairbanks, AK
20. Andrew Pace V Healy, AK
21. Michelle Phillips V Whitehorse, YT
V signals veterans, R signals rookies.
2018 YQ300 Sign Up Order
1. Krystyna March
2. Marcelle Fressineau
3. Olaf Thurau
4. Louve Tweddell
5. Lori Tweddell
6. Melissa Schenk
7. Jean Francois Bisson
8. Hans Gatt
9. Magnus Kaltenborn
10. Cindy Baker-Hawkins
11. Jonathan Lucas
12. JJ Levy
13. Aliy Zirkle
14. Fabian Schmitz
15. Lucy Tyrrell
16. Nick Helfenger
17. Paul Hamlyn
18. Leah Gifford