The 30th Yukon Quest, a 1,600km dog sled race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, in the US state of Alaska, is set to start today. Considered one of the toughest races in the world, the race route usually follows that of the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s, as well as mail delivery routes from that period.
The terrain includes four mountain summits and the crossing of a frozen river, all in the unpredictable February weather. The race distance spans ten checkpoints and calls for immense mental fortitude as some stretches (up to 300km) cross large expanses of wilderness in freezing weather. The weather during the race can sometimes go down to -51C.
This year, the field consists of 26 people, of whom 11 are debutants. The first to reach Fairbanks (the journey normally takes nine days) is the winner. And the top five mushers from last year's competition have entered the race again. The course record belongs Hans Gatt and was set in 2010, when he finished in 9 days and 26 minutes.
Meanwhile, the Yukon Quest is not just about the people. In fact, the humans in the teams are secondary. The Yukon Quest is all about dog sled endurance racing and, specifically, the dogs that pull the sleds. A statement on the competition's Web site describes the "canine athletes":
"Quest sled dogs are elite, marathon athletes. Bred from stock that survived and thrived during the Klondike Gold Rush, no animal on earth can match them for endurance, dedication and ability to perform in the extreme conditions of the North.
The winner of the 2012 event, Hugh Neff, said winning the race was not just about speed but also about "keeping the team together", something the Web site explains: "Mushers [drivers of the dog team] are coaches, cooks, cheerleaders, and companions to their dogs."