INTERVIEW: Brent Sass leads Iditarod to the Bering Sea coast

Brent Sass is racing at the front of the 2016 Iditarod. (Photo by Emily Schwing/KNOM.)
Brent Sass is racing at the front of the 2016 Iditarod. (Photo by Emily Schwing/KNOM.)
Brent Sass has been hard to catch in this year’s Iditarod. He has camped outside of checkpoints for the majority of the race, stopping only long enough to grab food and supplies, running his team much like he would in Alaska’s other 1,000 mile sled dog race, the Yukon Quest.

The Eureka-based musher has consistently driven his team between eight and nine miles per hour in this Iditarod, and he is driven to win.

KNOM’s Emily Schwing caught up with Sass at a remote shelter cabin along the trail between Kaltag and Unalakleet as the dogs rested in a midday sun Saturday. The day before he had blown through Galena in the heat of the day, after a long run.

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Interview highlights:

On the effects of his long Yukon River push:

“We’ll find out in the next couple of days. It worked out ok in the end, but we were going slow and it was hot. I was just a little bit slower than everyone else and I had come 100 miles.

On that run, that move gave me a bit of an edge, I’m not going to call it a lead, there’s no leads. It was a big run in the heat, you usually pay for that a couple runs down the trail. They did pretty good today, my run times are what I expected.”

On sleep:

“This race has been one of my more successful races as far as getting sleep. I haven’t stopped in any checkpoints, when I get to a place, I usually can get a couple hour nap, I do an hour or two of dog chores and then get a 90-minute nap which is not something that usually happens in checkpoints, there’s usually too many things going on.

On staying calm as race heats up:

“I stay focused on my dogs, that’s the biggest thing I need to do right now. I can’t start thinking ‘oh Dallas [Seavey] just went by, I need to go.’ If I start doing that it’s going to be a detriment to the dogs. The number one thing is paying attention to my dogs and what they need. There’s still a lot of race left, 300 miles and change is a long way to go, that’s a third of the race or more.”

On preparing for coastal racing as a musher from interior Alaska:

“It’s super windy where I live, that will help, I kind of hope it’s windy, I kind of hope we have a little bit of adverse conditions, I think that will play in my favor a little bit. That being said, I’ve only been on the coast three other times in my entire life. There’s a lot it could throw at us that I’m not necessarily prepared for. I feel I’m prepared for whatever, but there’s a lot of things that can happen out there. Like the storm a couple years ago when it was blowing 60 miles per hour in a total whiteout. In the interior there are trees and landmarks, but out there [the coast] there’s really nothing.

But that stuff doesn’t really scare me at all. I’m not worried about that at all. I enjoy the conditions and the challenges, but that doesn’t mean I get eaten up by it too, there could be bad weather harsh conditions and I could be the one who gets slapped in the face from it. I have been the one who’s gotten slapped in the face from it in the past.

And there’s lots of good competition, people who have a lot more experience than me in the Iditarod and running the last 300 miles. If there’s anything, that’s the most intimidating thing for me. I’ve never in this position. I’ve only run over this section of the trail twice, ever.”

On studying race strategies:

“I’m terrible at that. I rarely look at statistics and past race strategies. I think mainly, I preach this ‘run your own dog team’ thing. It would help if I looked at those things and had an idea about what they’re going to do. I really don’t know what they’re going to do. But there’s not that many options, really. There’s Unalakleet, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain. And don’t stop. That’s what it boils down to is ‘don’t stop.’

On whether he has anything to prove in this Iditarod:

“I don’t know if I have something to prove, I feel like I’m kind of running a [Yukon] Quest race. I don’t know if I have anything to prove. I think mainly I’m just doing my kind of race style, and it happens to be something that’s not used very often in the Iditarod, people like checkpoints in the Iditarod. People like to stop and get warmed up in checkpoints. I’ve enjoyed curling up next to my sled, getting a nap here and there, and just being on the trail with my dogs.”