NOME — What happened to Brent Sass? He seemed poised to take third-place, and even looked like a possible contender to win this year’s Iditarod on more than one occasion.
After being disqualified from the 2015 Iditarod for having an iPod touch — a device capable of two-way communication and illegal under Iditarod rules — there was quite a bit of anticipation for Sass’s 2016 finish, especially as he began to pull ahead of the pack.
Sass’s team looked strong throughout much of the race. The 2015 Yukon Quest winner and 2012 Iditarod Rookie of the Year was first into the Ophir checkpoint, where he took his mandatory 24-hour break.
His team continued to look strong as he pulled into Nulato first, nearly seven hours ahead of Aliy Zirkle and Dallas Seavey.
The Iditarod turned into a race between Sass and the Seaveys as all three reached the Bering Sea coast.
He maintained a team of 13 dogs all the way to White Mountain — winner Dallas Seavey had only nine dogs when he pulled into the same checkpoint.
But that’s where Sass’s team made their own decision to stop, something that might not have happened if Sass’s team had still included his former lead dog, Basin.
Sass was emotional Tuesday evening after pulling into Nome under a blanket of northern lights. He held back tears as he spoke to reporters about the dog.
“There were a lot of times when I was like, ‘If i just had Basin…’ You know,” said Sass. “He was like a dog that rallied the whole team. I feel like my whole season would’ve been different had I not lost him.”
Basin, the 5-year-old dog that led his team to the 2015 Yukon Quest championship, died unexpectedly while on a training run in January, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Sass pulled himself out of the Kuskokwim 300 following the loss.
After finishing the Iditarod, he was quick to give credit to current team, and lead dog, Celia.
“All the other dogs stepped it up, especially Celia,” he said. “She led the entire Yukon Quest and led pretty much every mile of this.”
Strategy on the Trail
Sass was one of the mushers who seemed to favor camping between checkpoints, avoiding media and attempting to get more sleep. It was a strategy also used by the Seaveys and Aliy Zirkle. He stopped at only five of the 21 checkpoints: Ophir, Nulato, Unalakleet, Koyuk and White Mountain.
He admitted to running his dogs a bit too much during the daytime midway through the race. As a result, he changed strategy and began making longer night runs into Unalakleet and Koyuk. The strategy seemed to pay off — he pulled into Unalakleet first, earning $3,500 in gold nuggets.
He also reached Koyuk first, but the long night run across the sea ice in blistering cold wind seemed to affect his team.
“When we got to Koyuk, things started, ya know, to slow down,” he recalled at the finish line in Nome. “We had just did a 108-mile run across the sea ice in really high winds. They came into there looking great, but then we got there and rested. And an hour into it, Dallas and Mitch came blowing through.”
It was at that point Sass was forced to make a decision.
“Am I gonna stay in this race? Am I gonna continue racing or am I gonna concede and basically not do it,” he said. “I had faith and I came to the game to play it. And the dogs at that point were still playing.”
As he waited in Koyuk, Dallas and Mitch Seavey pulled through, electing to camp halfway to the next checkpoint of Elim. Sass rested nearly three hours before making chase.
“We did a real good job of keeping a decent pace,” he said. “I went by Mitch and he got up and took off a little while after. And I went by Dallas and he got up and took off. I knew then that, wow, we’re competing.”
He stopped briefly in Elim to pick up straw before heading to White Mountain.
“I knew that that was too short of a rest in Koyuk,” he recalled.
The Seaveys pulled past Sass on the way into White Mountain. At that point, it looked like Sass was destined to finish third at the very least. But as he tried to leave following his mandatory 8-hour break, his dogs refused.
“They ate like alligators in White Mountain, but I could see there was an edge taken off of them,” he said. “It wasn’t until we got out there and I had 10 of ’em lookin’ at me, saying ‘Nope, we need to rest more.'”
His 8-hour rest turned into a 26-hour rest at White Mountain. He finally left around 1:45 p.m. Tuesday, arriving in Nome at 11:08 p.m.
“I bent the trust as far as you can,” Sass said of his team.
Regardless of his final standing, he had the look of a proud parent as he spoke about his current team in Nome.
“Look at this, there’s nine beautiful dogs here and we just finished in top 20 of the Iditarod,” he said smiling under the Burled Arch.
For his 20th-place finish, Sass will take home $13,575, in addition to his $3,500 prize for arriving first to Unalakleet.