Tagish musher wins photo finish at Pelly Crossing in Quest 300
Aliy Zirkle finally knows how her husband feels.
PELLY CROSSING – Aliy Zirkle finally knows how her husband feels.
Eight seconds was all that stood between the 43-year-old Alaskan and victory in the Yukon Quest 300 late last night.
Tagish musher Michelle Phillips was the victor in a race that literally came down to the wire.
Last year, Zirkle’s husband Allen Moore finished runner-up to Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff by only 26 seconds – the closest finish in race history.
The scene was a similar one Monday night.
Shouts of “Go! Go! Go!” alerted the checkpoint that the mushers were close, before the light of Phillips’ headlamp came into view. Moments later, Zirkle’s appeared behind her.
The 44-year-old Phillips hit the finish line mere metres ahead of Zirkle – unheard of in a 482-kilometre race.
Zirkle, a former Quest champion, immediately walked to Phillips’ sled and embraced her competitor at the finish line.
Official times were: Phillips, 22:20:02, and Zirkle, 22:20:10.
Both mushers finished the race carrying a dog in the basket.
“I think our teams were pretty well-matched,” Phillips said post-race. “My team seemed a little faster than hers on the river, but in the hills, I thought her team was a little better. It was pretty interesting.
“I have tremendous respect for Aliy. She’s an awesome musher and is very fun to race with. We’ve raced many times over the years. Not like this though.”
The YQ 300 trail follows the Quest route until Pelly Crossing, where it then branches out 56 kilometres to the hospitality stop of Stepping Stone. There, the route turns around and returns to the finish line in Pelly.
Zirkle was ahead at Stepping Stone, but stopped briefly to give her dogs a snack. That was enough time to give Phillips the lead – and she made it count.
“I thought I could pass her in the end,” Zirkle admitted. “I passed her, but I couldn’t stay in front of her without using my ski pole, and you can’t use your ski pole in front of dogs, because you’ll hit them.
“So then she passed me back. I tried like the dickens to pass her, but it just didn’t work out in my favour.”
At one point, Phillips allegedly patted the heads of Zirkle’s lead dogs, who were hot on her heels.
“That was a good race,” Zirkle said, who also paused on the final leg to load her dog Ranger onto her sled. “I couldn’t stay ahead of her without ski poling, and so I couldn’t get up there.
“When Michelle Phillips comes to a race, there’s a good chance you’re going to get second.”
The two mushers had been racing neck-and-neck since Braeburn – the first checkpoint on the Quest trail.
In Carmacks, the two agreed to a gentlewoman’s agreement to rest their dogs for equal amounts of time.
“I think the whole way, we were just a minute apart,” Phillips said. “That was pretty remarkable. It was a great race and we both ran hard. I was really impressed with my team. I got three young dogs through, who I thought did a wonderful job.”
The race served as training for Phillips, who is registered to run the Iditarod next month.
Zirkle ran it to give her kennel’s young athletes a taste of a marathon, and also because she enjoys the competition.
“We have 38 racing dogs at our kennel over the age of two,” she said. “When Allen takes 14, there’s still quite a few left there. So it was kind of like, gosh, if you’re going over to race, I might as well go over too.”
The northern lights flared across the sky in Pelly at 10:15 p.m., before giving way to the exciting photo finish.
With the win, Phillips takes home a $1,350 cheque. Zirkle nabbed $810.
Phillips’ partner, Ed Hopkins, is currently battling Zirkle’s husband Moore in the Yukon Quest.