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QUEEN OF THE NORTH – Michelle Phillips (left) crossed the finish line in the shortened 2024 YQ450 race at 1:08 p.m. Monday. Right: Misha Wiljes claimed the Red Lantern by finishing in last place at midnight Monday. Photos by CRYSTAL SCHICK/YUKON QUEST

Quest planners ‘proud’ as Phillips defends title

Executive director Benjamin Smith of the Yukon Quest says the organization is “extremely proud” of how the race turned out – especially given the numerous challenges it faced.

By Morris Prokop on February 7, 2024

Executive director Benjamin Smith of the Yukon Quest says the organization is “extremely proud” of how the race turned out – especially given the numerous challenges it faced.

Last Saturday’s start had to be moved from the usual Shipyards Park location to the Takhini River Road due to icy conditions caused by unseasonably warm weather and rain.

The YQ450 race had to be shortened to 300 miles due to “deteriorating and uncertain trail conditions,” according to the Quest.

The YQ450 racers went from Pelly Crossing to Stepping Stone, then returned to finish in Pelly.

Michelle Phillips, from Tagish, pulled into Pelly at 1:08 p.m. Monday to defend her title. She pockets $12,000.

Mayla Hill finished less than 2 1/2 hours behind Phillips after arriving at the Carmacks checkpoint in first place Sunday afternoon.

Key to Phillips’ win was her decision to take six hours’ rest at Braeburn, while Hill kept on going to Carmacks. That allowed Phillips to leave sooner to race for the finish line.

Phillips completed the race in two days, two hours and nine minutes.

Hill, now living in Carcross, finished in two days, four hours and 31 minutes.

Kailyn Olnes of Fairbanks finished third in two days, 12 hours and eight minutes.

Meanwhile, Misha Wiljes, an American-Czech living in Willow, Alaska, claimed the Red Lantern at midnight Monday.

She finished fourth in the YQ450. Wiljes took two days, 12 hours and 57 minutes to complete the race.

YQ450 mushers Connor McMahon of Carcross and Normand Casavant of Mayo scratched at Carmacks and Stepping Stone, respectively.

Crystal To, from Vancouver but now living in Carcross, finished first in the YQ250 to Pelly on Monday.

Fairbanks’ Sean de Wolski took first place in the YQ100 to Braeburn last Saturday.

“As an organization, obviously, we would have hoped to complete the race in its entirety,” Smith told the Star this morning.

“That’s what we designed and that’s what we intended. We’re a little disappointed that the weather didn’t co-operate in the ways that we had hoped it would in the lead-up to the race there.”

But overall, Smith said, “I think the organization should be extremely proud of what we did. We had numerous obstacles that came up on short notice, caused us to make really important quick decisions on the fly.

“And I think that the officials and vets that we had, the volunteers, the co-ordinators that we brought in, I think were an amazing team of professionals who were able to assess situations and make really, really smart sound, excellent decisions, that they guided us strongly.”

A lot of things could have gone wrong, Smith added.

“And I think that we, in the end, made a safe race that mushers enjoyed and ended the best with the situation that we had.”

As for what stood out to him, Smith replied, “Just the fact that we were able to make the quick adjustments that we did, I think that’s definitely a highlight given the uncertainty in the year as we approached the start and had to switch things around, that the organization, the community banded together.”

He called the size of the crowd at the race start line “a huge highlight.

“We weren’t sure what to expect and to have, you know, 200, 300 however many people it was, was phenomenal. The mushers love seeing that level of support at the start line there as they came through, and just the engagement of the crowd was amazing.”

The weather was the most forboding challenge organizers faced, Smith said.

“And that’s the unpredictability of having a winter event. You really hinge on the weather co-operating, and seasonal changes occur and a warm front comes in and it kind of throws your entire plans away.

“Who expects a warm spell and rain? In February, right? Like, how in December do you plan for that?” he asked.

Smith said he thinks the mushers were pleased with how the race was handled despite some disappointment about the shortened routes.

“We’re gonna have a musher meeting tonight so I’ll really get their raw, emotional take on it,” he said.

“But the impression I get is that overall, they’re really happy about it. They were on the trail. They saw what we had to deal with, and I think they appreciate most of all, that as an organization, we took a safe approach, that we valued their health and safety, that we listened to their concerns.”

As for advancements for next year, Smith said, “I think one thing that can be improved on is just some of the organization that we have on our side. Now that we have had a year under our belts – we’re a new staff here, and so we were learning on the go – but now that we’ve been through one, we’ll just have a better awareness going into it, of how we approach some things and when we approach some things and and set them up.”

Smith said it “spoke volumes that we as an organization, we were able to anticipate that maybe some things were’t going to turn out how we wanted and we were able to set up a plan B; example, for the start line ahead of time.

“And I think just having that kind of approach and sticking with that kind of path and making sure that we always had that contingency plan, at least in our mind, is definitely something that we can work on for next year.”

Comments (1)

Up 5 Down 2

John with a J on Feb 7, 2024 at 3:42 pm

Great job by Mr.Smith and his professional staff. Well thought through, next year will be even better!

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