FAIRBANKS, Alaska - A jubilant resident of Eureka, Alaska, crossed the finish line in the Yukon Quest dog sled race as a church bell tolled and hundreds of fans cheered his arrival.
Brent Sass, 35, became the victor in the 1,600-kilometre annual competition from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, Alaska, just before 11 p.m. Monday.
The championship was nine days, 12 hours and 49 minutes in the making as Sass beat Allen Moore, the winner for the past two years, by more than an hour.
"It's unreal," Sass said, his voice quivering after he hugged his dogs.
"I'm real proud of those 12 dogs down there," he said as tears ran down his cheeks and he thanked his team, family and fans "for believing."
Cries of "wild and free" — the name of Sass's kennel — punctured the air.
Sass won US$24,000, 19 per cent of a $127,000 purse, and four ounces of gold worth about $5,000 for being the first musher to arrive in Dawson City, Yukon.
He claimed first place for the first time after eight previous attempts, earning the fourth-fastest time in the history of the quest, which began in 1984.
Moore retains the title of fastest finisher, tackling the trail in under nine days for the past two years though the race was then re-routed and shortened significantly due to trail conditions.
This year, extremely cold weather slowed down teams and eliminated some mushers. Ten of 26 sled drivers bowed out in the first two-thirds of the trek.
Ice on the Yukon River north of Dawson City and elsewhere also posed problems, taking out a runner on rookie Jason Campeau's sleigh and prompting a six-hour penalty when he replaced it.
Four-time champion Lance Mackey suffered frostbite on his hands in temperatures that dipped to nearly -50 C, before wind chill.
Last-place musher Rob Cooke, who was resting between Eagle and Circle, Alaska, late Monday night, trailed roughly 450 kilometres behind Sass when he crossed the finish line.
Sass blew a 10-hour lead on Moore after he napped for nearly nine hours on a frozen marsh south of Circle through early Sunday morning.
The indulgence cost Sass 40 kilometres of ground, which Moore then built on by blowing by Sass on a desolate stretch of the Deese Highway.
Sass leapt up in his long underwear, prepared his dogs and tore out of the Mile 101 checkpoint in full gear a half hour later.
When they hit the final stopover, a mandatory eight-hour layover in Two Rivers — Moore's home turf — Sass had all but regained the lost ground.
The two exchanged pleasantries in a tense hour before launching on the final leg at about 1:30 p.m. Monday.
Sass's team stuttered at the launch, while Moore's took off with ease surrounded by fans from his neck of the woods.
But Sass flew past the senior musher several hours into the 72-kilometre stretch.
"This is fun, isn't it?" he said as he overtook Moore, 57, who shot him a smile.
Mushers are obliged to make room on the trail and let a faster team pass — except on the race's final mile — reflecting the friendly competition that defines the race.
As for extended napping en route, Sass said: "It works! Fall asleep on the trail for 10 hours and you can come in first."
Ed Hopkins, a musher from the Tagish, Yukon, area, was in a comfortable third place heading into the race's final leg and was expected to reach the finish line Tuesday night. (Whitehorse Star)