With a tight pack running together out of Eagle, decisions on resting, running or just stopping the team can be the difference between them and four ounces of placer gold.
Four-time Quest champion Lance Mackey was first into Eagle Tuesday afternoon, with Hugh Neff right on his tail. The two officially entered the checkpoint at 2:08 p.m. and 2:09 p.m., respectively, but Neff was only feet behind the Fairbanks musher.
Mackey quickly caught up with Neff, Brent Sass and Allen Moore near the Trout Creek cabin, 42 miles before Eagle. Neff said Mackey passed him with five miles to go before Eagle.
“I could sort of feel the Mackey presence,” Neff said. “Then a dog barked, and I turned around and there he was.”
Mackey has raced conservatively up to this point, staying toward the front, but just far enough away to be out of the spotlight. By slightly increasing his run speed, it adds up to several hours over the course of 10 days.
“You don’t need much to win — one second,” Mackey said. “I keep that kind of thing in mind.”
A close finish is in Mackey’s blood. His father, Dick, won the 1978 Iditarod with the closest finish ever, one second ahead of Rick Swenson. Mackey left Eagle at 6:35 p.m., followed closely by Neff and Moore behind him.
Mackey wants the gold, but not at the price of a possible victory.
“I love gold, but I would rather have the big chunk of gold at the end for winning this race,” he said. “So we’ll see what happens. I don’t want to sound greedy, but I want ‘em both. Simple as that.”
Mushers reported a smooth, fast trail from Circle to Eagle. A nearly full moon guided mushers on the long 159 miles from Circle to Eagle.
“It’s been so bright out at night. You know how they say don’t look at the sun? Well, you can’t look at the moon too long because it starts to hurt your eyes,” Neff said of the moonlight.
Some mushers came into Eagle with dogs tucked in their sled bags. Sass said he carried his dog, Danish, 40 miles. It wasn’t ideal, but it was worth it in the end.
“It was one of those things where something minor could have turned into something major,” Sass said. “So I just took a chance and (Danish) was perfectly happy. I think it made our run a little slower, but it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
Mushers now head toward Dawson City, the halfway point of the race 147 miles away. The leaders are expected in tonight and some jockeying of positions is expected.
“The guy who wants to win by a lot is the only guy that wants to win by a lot,” Mackey said. “Everyone else wants to see a nice close race. I think at this point, we’re going to give the fans what they want.”
Contact features editor Suzanna Caldwell at 459-7504 or follow on Twitter @FDNMQuest.
Read more: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Yukon Quest leaders running in a tight pack out of Eagle